Play With Your Food is a smart lunch-time twist on dinner theater
Carole Schweid still loves to dance. She remembers dancing with her mother in their home in New Jersey when she was a tyke of 5. She reminisces about the grind of studying dance at Boston University and at Juilliard where she earned a BFA in dance. She talks about how all that hard work finally paid off as she high-kicked in more than a dozen musicals on Broadway and its like. The highlight of those days for her will always be her role in the cast of the fabled “A Chorus Line.”
While the rhythmic crescendo of the heart-thumping opening act of that musical’s “turn, turn, touch down, back step, pivot, step, walk” may still pirouette into her dreams now and then, lines from Mark Twain’s works are more apt to flit into her mind. That’s because drama, not musicals, is her primary focus today.
The play is where it’s at with Schweid. She is the co-founder, with Nancy Diamond, of Play With Your Food, a series of staged readings that since 2003 have captured the devotion of hundreds of fans.
The readings are presented on two days back-to-back from January to April and usually consist of three one-act plays read by professional actors sans costumes or sets, but with printed scripts in hand. The readings are preceded by a catered lunch from a local restaurant (hence the clever spin on the name) and they are followed by an audience discussion.
“We started out small,” Schweid says of the early days of her company. She had moved to Westport in 1993 partly because of the strong interest within the community in the performing arts. Here were award-winning actors and playwrights living within a phone call away whom she could tap to work with her. To get started, she asked her friends to write postcards to everyone they knew, telling them of future programs. “Let’s see if anyone comes,” she remembers saying at the time. They were overwhelmed with the response. People were clamoring for tickets for the next performance weeks in advance and the company was soon off and running.
Schweid is the director of all the readings. She always wanted to be a director, she says, and then admits, “it’s the hardest job in theater.”
She searches for plays that delve into subjects that would cause her audience to think beyond entertainment. She takes time to explore such issues as “what is this play about, what does my character want, what’s in the way of getting what I want, what’s the relationship between the characters.
“My whole thing is to use these plays to bring awareness about issues ... get people in heart-to-heart conversations so that maybe they will understand something they did not understand before they walked in the room,” Schweid explains. “We get to the heart of the play, that’s what our actors do so well. They’re very skilled.” When asked if she “lets them fly with it,” she replies, “That’s the only you can do it.”
“I find the material,” Schweid says of her modus operandi. “I read reviews, I look for the line that says ‘the best play of the night was’ then I look for the playwright.” Once she gets a copy of the play that interests her, she and her staff discuss it and come to some sort of an agreement about it. “It’s a group effort,” she emphasizes and adds, “I love a mix of warmth, a certain amount of love and a certain amount of energy.”
Schweid expanded her repertoire to produce one-off events such as a holiday show at the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion in Norwalk, and serious and “fall-down funny” readings at 10 different libraries in the area. Add country clubs, synagogues and churches. She’s done benefits, even a show at a pool party. She did a program for divorce lawyers, and one for Staples High School about same-sex relationships.
“Powerful stuff,” she says of the Staples presentation. “You can really have an ice-breaker for a conversation.”
Somehow she squeezed in time to write a book, “Staged Reading: Magic” as a guide for other people to do what she does so successfully. Although Schweid hung up her dancing shoes years ago, the lure of the “greasepaint” still tugs at her, so much so that she choreographed routines for high school students in a production at Bucks County Playhouse, originated dance sequences for a staging of “Romeo and Juliet” and devised spirited musical steps for productions at Greens Farms Academy in Westport. And all the while, directing the full scripts.
“What I do is a lot of fun,” Schweid says. “I’m making a living in the arts and that is no small thing.”
Visit jibproductions.org or call 203-293-8729 for April’s schedules, locales and tickets.
Rosemarie T. Anner is a frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.