I recently attended a performance by the Peter Luce Playreaders (PLP) at the Tisbury senior center. The playreaders are a group who come together each Wednesday to read plays. As I made my way into the brightly lit room, the actors and audience members were laughing, chatting, and joking around. The energy was palpable, and I got the sense that this banter was par for the course for the clearly tight-knit group of thespians. Before introducing the play, PLP members took time to celebrate Joyce Stiles-Tucker, who is retiring from her position as director of the Tisbury Council on Aging, by giving her a standing ovation. It was wonderful to watch Stiles-Tucker receive such well-deserved kudos, and witness the bond the PLP members have with her. And with one another.
“I’ve never missed a Wednesday,” PLP matriarch Myra Stark said. “I joined in 2002 when I retired.” PLP was founded by Peter Luce, whose passion was theater. “Peter moved here from L.A. to live in his grandmother’s house — the Luce House — and he pitched the idea of a playreading group to the senior center. When my husband and I first joined, there were only eight people. It was such great fun! Peter did everything — picked the plays, produced them, and cast them. After he passed, management at the senior center asked my husband and I if we’d be the leaders.”
The group has changed and grown over the years. “We have a minimum of 25 people, and attendance swells in the summer to 30 to 40 devoted people who come back every year,” Stark said. “I knew from my years working in advertising that things tend to work best when everyone is involved, so I suggested the three parts.”
The “three parts” are acting, directing, and producing, and members take turns filling these roles. Each month, a member takes the role as producer, and chooses a theme and play that revolves around that theme. Directors and producers get together and talk about the plays, and then the director sends out a group email, asking if anyone would like to read. PLP has more than 500 different plays they choose from, and they’re always seeking new plays to add to their repertoire.
On the day I was there, they were reading “And Then There Were None,” a whodunit by Agatha Christie. Ten strangers are invited to a remote island, and what the guests have in common is that they’ve all done something horrible in their past, and are unwilling to reveal their secrets. Unbeknownst to them, they’re all targets for murder. The reading was directed by Gayle Stiller and produced by Charlena (“Char”) Seymour. The cast included Rogers, played by Cynthia Wolfson, Mrs. Rogers, played by Linda Vadasz, William Blore, played by Binnie Ravitch, Gen. Mackenzie, played by Bari Boyer, Emily, played by Carol Salguero, Phillip Lombard, played by Christine Burke, Vera Claythorn, played by Jacqueline Stallings, Dr. Armstrong, played by Marilyn Wortman, Anthony Marsten, played by Bonnie Levy, and Sir Lawrence Wargrave, played by Myra Stark.
The reading was well-executed, and at times very funny. There was an ease and comradery among the performers. If someone lost their place, no big deal. If someone accidentally jumped ahead, they were brought back to the correct page with kindness. Director Gayle Stiller sat at the head of the table, and kept things moving by reading the stage directions. Her presence at the table also felt supportive somehow. It was as if I were watching a family sitting down for a meal together.
“I chose Agatha Christie for the month of October,” producer Char Seymour said. “I tried to pick plays that wouldn’t all be the same thing. I chose ‘The Mousetrap’ first, because it was so popular, and then this one, which is well-known.”
Seymour has been with PLP for 10 years. “My husband was reading the paper and saw a story about the Peter Luce Playreaders, and thought I might be interested in it. I attended one, and never stopped coming,” Seymour said.
Having an acting background isn’t a PLP requirement. Several members have joined with no previous experience, while others came on board with years of experience under their belts. Seymour was a theater major in college, but decided that it wasn’t practical to pursue a career in theater, so she eventually became a speech pathologist. After retiring, she found her way back to theater via PLP.
PLP member Paul Doherty worked for many years as a professional actor. His TV credits include “Law and Order,” “30 Rock,” “The West Wing,” and stage work. He’s been with PLP for nine years: “I was a working actor, and was diagnosed with a perceived brain tumor. Though a biopsy showed that it wasn’t cancer, it was still growing, so the doctors suggested I get my life in order. Thinking I only had a few months to live, I moved to the Vineyard as hospice. Thirteen years later, I’m still here. Every day is a gift. When I was an actor, I was also wondering what was next, who would hire me, or how I could get the next role. Now my focus is on giving back. Though I miss acting, I get to do this, which is wonderful.”
Binnie Ravitch was in the acting world for 20 years. “I was a professional working actor, and wound up going into the corporate world, where I really had to use my acting skills,” Ravitch laughed. “I retired to the Island, but didn’t know about this group until 2011, when a friend of mine asked why I wasn’t part of the Peter Luce Playreaders. I came once to watch, and I’ve never left.”
The acting bug also bit PLP member Jackie Stallings, who is newer to the group, having joined two years ago. “I did some acting and modeling in my youth, and then I got married, had kids, and left it all behind. When I moved here in 2014 full-time, I began asking myself what I was going to do with my time. Also, I needed to find my tribe,” Stallings said. “What I love so much about this group is that this is a safe space. We can be silly, or have really deep discussions. This is my creative outlet. These are my people.”
Stallings isn’t alone in her sentiments. Each person I spoke with talked about PLP as a fellowship. “While we are generally about theater, when something huge has happened in the world, or when a momentous death of an Islander occurs, we take time to talk about it. And when someone in the group gets ill or is in an accident, we rally around that person,” Ravitch said.
Aside from the close bonds theater people tend to create while working together, one of the best things about acting is being able to play a number of diverse roles — to live a thousand lives. Since PLP does a reading every week, the members get to regularly try on a variety of hats.
“I tend to like comedy,” Stallings said. “We did Woody Allen’s ‘Play It Again, Sam’ once, and I got to play the role Diane Keaton, who is my hero, played.”
“My very favorite role was Sylvia in the play ‘Sylvia.’ I was very happy playing a dog, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me,” Ravitch chuckled.
Doherty has also enjoyed playing a variety of roles, but he’s found directing to be rewarding as well. “One play that I really enjoyed directing was ‘The Actor’s Nightmare,’ by Christopher Durang. It’s about an actor who suddenly walks into a play and doesn’t know any lines. Every actor can relate to that,” Doherty laughed.
Whatever role these actors play, it’s abundantly clear that they are connected to the work, and to one another, in a deeply authentic way. Theater unites, inspires, and educates people. It can be a respite from the real world, but it can also provide opportunities for actors and audience members to build empathy while watching (or embodying) a character whose life may be vastly different from theirs. And as PLP has clearly shown, theater can provide all walks of life an inclusive, welcoming, and supportive community.
“I am a 76-year-old woman who lives alone with her four dogs in the woods. This group is the highlight of my social week,” Ravitch shared. “This is when I know I’ll have a stimulating time and a hug. I need hugs — which tells you how foolish I am living alone in the woods. There is so much creativity on this Island, so many organizations and groups pulling together, and this is one of the most special ones.”
Two more Agatha Christie plays will round out the month of October, “A Murder Is Announced,” and “The Hollow.” In November, the theme will revolve around the work of three-time Pulitzer prizewinning author Thornton Wilder. Play readings are free and open to the public. If you’d like to attend a playreading or learn about PLP, hop over to the Tisbury Senior Center at 9 am on any Wednesday, or contact Myra Stark at firstname.lastname@example.org.