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& & by Andrea Palpant & & & &

Imagine drama without the set, without costumes, complicated lights or makeup. Forget about the blocking, and leave only a few chairs on the stage. What remains? Voice -- expressive, acute, dramatic -- the voice of the people, on stage, in life.

The Civic Theatre's second "Readers' Theatre" series, entitled Vox Populi, which translates as "voice of the people" in Latin, features a season of plays dedicated to the political process. The concept of the readers' theater is similar to that of radio drama in its strict dependence on voice. Stripped down to a circle of people reading scripts on stage, the readers' theater allows low-budget productions of a high number of high-quality, literary works. The simple setting demands imaginative participation from the audience.

"It's wonderful," says Marilyn Langbehn, marketing director of the Civic and producer of the series. "You come in, take your seat and you listen to it like an old radio play -- no costumes -- and you're allowed to let your imagination run. It's wonderful how the drama comes through in those circumstances, with no distractions."

This year's series, a response to the popularity of last year's season, will feature everything from Lysistrata, a Greek comedy of old by Aristophanes, to An American Daughter, a modern play by Wendy Wasserstein.

"It's a terrific idea," says Rick Horner, professor of drama at Whitworth College. Horner is directing An American Daughter, the first of five plays in the series. "It's basically no burden on the theater technically -- you get one rehearsal in the studio theater, some lights and some chairs and that's it. It's also a great way to get people into the space, as it makes people aware of the theater and what it does."

Set in Washington, D.C., An American Daughter follows the story of a 40-something health care expert and daughter of a senator whose nomination to the president's cabinet is questioned by a ruthless media bent on blowing up an indiscretion from her past. Wasserstein wrote the play in response to a variety of political issues in the early '90s relative to the Clinton administration.

"Wasserstein is a huge name as a contemporary female American playwright," says Horner. "She's prolific along with playwrights like Beth Henley. This play is her response to the question of who really has the power in American government -- politicians or the media."

For the last six years, Horner has been teaching a course called "Festival of Christian Drama," which focuses half its time on performing staged readings of new dramas by various Christian playwrights. Last fall, the Whitworth drama department put on eight staged readings focusing on women playwrights.

"Philosophically, I feel strongly about the importance of training our actors in how to do stage readings," says Horner. "For many actors, it's easier and more likely that they will get into a performance staged reading before a full staged performance production. It's also become a popular technique for playwrights to get their plays out into the public without the high cost that has prohibited unknown playwrights from getting their stuff done on stage. It allows for new voices."

A volunteer effort on the part of those involved, the reader's theater at the Civic features the voices of a variety of local, seasoned actors as well as first-timers interested in learning the art of drama.

"We hold auditions for one night to involve the community so that it fulfills the mission of community theater," says Langbehn. "It gives a lot of people the chance to be involved."

For reading, a narrative voice gives structure to the performance by reading important stage directions and, if necessary, describing the context and setting for the scene. The rest of the drama depends on characterization through voice.

"The audience hears the text and the different voices," says Horner, "and they get suggestion of character, movement and scene. It's exposing people to the dramatic texts in a more palatable way, as drama and poetry are hard for a lot of folks to read."

"You'd be amazed at the level of excitement that these plays generate," says Langbehn. "This season's Vox Populi is appropriate especially after Florida, as anybody who thought that people don't have a voice weren't paying attention. We live in a democracy, and we rely heavily on the voice of the people to instruct and inform us and to make our laws. We want to give people their voice in the theater as well."

& & & lt;i & The Readers' Theatre presents An American Daughter on Sunday, Jan. 14, at 7 pm. Southern Cross is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 11. Lysistrata runs Sunday, March 11, and Advise and Consent on Sunday, April 8. Finally, Are You Now or Have You Ever Been, is on Sunday, May 13. All shows are at the Civic Theatre's Firth Chew Studio Theatre, 1020 N. Howard. All shows are at 7 pm. Tickets: $5. Call: 325-2507. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &

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