Several months ago, Lynn Nottage and Extended Play began a conversation about how The Civilians could support This is Reading, a performance, video, and art installation. Lynn planned to return to Reading, Pennsylvania and give back to the community after years of research for her Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Sweat.”
Lynn and her husband Tony Gerber and partner in Market Road Films eyed the now defunct and recently refurbished Franklin Street Railroad Station for the project. Once they secured the station, the team set out to transform the station. The exterior would serve as a giant projection screen, along with a second stage and food trucks.
For our part, The Civilians sought to “extend the play” (as this publication’s name asserts) and create digital offerings that included published transcriptions of interviews conducted by Lynn and her associate Ed Wasserman, videos distributed over social media, and on-site interviews over Facebook Live.
It’s always fascinating to be a small piece of an enormous work, such as This is Reading. For months, you hear bits and bobs about the grand scheme but focus only on your tiny piece. This past weekend, we saw it all come together at Franklin Street Station. The following is a photo and video essay documenting the opening night and our work online. Before the event began, Lynn took us on a tour of the entire installation sans audience.
This is Reading has many rooms in which the audience may immerse themselves.
Sketchbooks marked yellow are by local Reading artists.
Lynn walks through the space and digs deeper into the books.
The media and styles vary. From colorful and inked...
...to meticulous and black and white, the Reading Room offers a tactile, analog portal into Reading life.
Every evening there are two performances of this seven part theater, dance, and film installation. This is Reading lives in the inspirations “Reading Was” and “Reading Is.” The theater portion was written by Lynn and directed by Kate Whoriskey, who also directed “Sweat” on Broadway. Dance duties fell under the eye of veteran Philadelphia-based, hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris, who integrated his own troupe with local dancers from Reading. Tony Gerber helmed all of the video sections, which covered the inside and outside of the station.
Production Photo Credit: Max Acra Inc
Actor Russell G. Jones relays the story of a kindly porter who once worked at the now defunct railroad station.
Samantha Shepherd from Rennie Harris' company performs in locomotive steam.
Video projections played behind dancers Jaymes Williams (L) and Joshua Culbreath (R) on walls at the end of the great hall...
...and on the ceiling as Samantha Shepherd mirrored the action down below.
The station’s exterior, which is gorgeous unto itself, grew magical with projections, lighting, murals and music.
Outside, projected portraits covered the station's facade.
Artist Katie Merz and her partner Ty Inwood pulled their black and white hieroglyph motif onto the exterior of an adjacent a by-the-hour hotel across from Franklin Street Station.
Comedian Jesse Blanco performed on the second stage behind the station. Music, comedy, and dance filled the stage before and between shows.
Throughout the evening, The Civilians roamed around a la man-on-the-street nouveau. We set out to broadcast interviews over Facebook Live, but instead of streaming them over The Civilians’ page, we asked attendees to interview other attendees and push them out with the tag #thisisreadingpa. Below is one of our favorites, not because of the interview (though it is sweet), but because Marilyn and Sherrie continued talking to each other after we left.
Sherrie and Marilyn post-Facebook Live interview
We also pushed out clips of a longer video by Market Road Films about the creation of This is Reading.
And in a virtual dialogue with “Reading Speaks,” in which attendees enter a sound-proof booth on site and answer questions about Reading, The Civilians asked people from other towns around the country to share the best and worst memories of their town. Here are a few:
If “Sweat” felt like a character study of Reading, This is Reading feels like a celebration of the town. Current and former residents seemed overwhelmed by the investment Lynn, Tony, Kate, Rennie, and their sundry partners. In the end, everyone just wanted to get up and dance.
This Is Reading was created by an award-winning team of artists, including Lynn Nottage, filmmaker Tony Gerber, director Kate Whoriskey, choreographer Rennie Harris, projection designer Jeff Sugg, set designer Deb O, DJ Eli Evnen, Sound Designer Nick Kourtides, Lighting Designer Amith Chandrashaker, producers Jane Saks, Blake Ashman-Kipervaser, Santo D. Marabella and Allison Bressi.
Partners Labyrinth Theater Company, Project &, Market Road Films, Goggleworks, ReadingFilm/Pennsylvania’s Americana Region, The Sketchbook Project, The Offices of the Mayor and Managing Director, City of Reading, South Central Transit Authority, Commissioners Office, County of Berks, Reading Company Technical & Historical Society, The Civilians.