In mid-July, I traveled to Pennsylvania to see a show. It was straight-up MAGIC. I can’t stop thinking about it.
This is Reading is a transmedia production about the people and times of Reading, Pennsylvania.
Reading has been through the boom and the bust. It’s the city that gave the name to Reading Railroad—of Monopoly fame, yes. The Reading Company was the biggest corporation in the world in 1871.
But you can’t get there by train now. Passenger travel to Reading’s Franklin Street Train Station ceased in 1981. My trip included a plane, a train, and then a car ride from Lancaster with my friend Kathryn.
Back in 2011, the local arts council invited me to do a workshop in Reading about how to build broad support for the arts. So I knew a little about the city before this trip. It helps to have a sense of the place to understand what’s happening there this July.
On my earlier trip, I met Mayor Tom McMahon who shared that he was crushed by the news that Reading had the largest percentage of residents with income below the federal definition of poverty, $18,530 for a family of 3. The 2010 census info had been highlighted by a story in the New York Times not long before.
Playwright Lynn Nottage read that article in the Times. And she started spending time in Reading—talking with residents about the city, their memories, what’s changing, and so on.
Reading, Pennsylvania grew as coal was transported by the Reading Railroad to Philadelphia and beyond, and with manufacturing. Beginning in the 1940s, population declined as manufacturing did too. Plants closed, unemployment went up, and jobs paid less.
But more recently, population has increased, primarily because there are a lot of new Hispanic residents. Between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of residents of Hispanic origin increased from 37 percent to 58 percent. Reading is showing the rest of us our future as a country, when we will be a majority minority nation.
Lynn’s interviews capture these demographic shifts and Reading’s evolution from a thriving place with a busy downtown of shops and restaurants and offices to a place without passenger railroad service and vacant lots where historic buildings used to stand. She wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning play, Sweat, about these changes.
— The Civilians (@Civilians) July 18, 2017
She didn’t want to take the stories without giving something back, it seems. Lynn has said she doesn’t want to be ‘a carpetbagger’, so with partners, she’s created this magical multi-media, multi-platform gift to Reading.
This is Reading presents the stories—Lynn and her many collaborators share and lift up their words in this installation in and around Reading’s Franklin Street Train Station.
- The show begins when the train arrives with steam billowing up at our feet under the real station benches where we sit and we hear the announcement: THIS. IS. READING.
- There are words of the past, and of the future, spoken by actors from Labyrinth Theater during the live show.
- Images of people interviewed are projected on the outside of the station, filling the bricks with residents.
Posted by Margy Waller on Sunday, July 23, 2017
- The old lunchroom of the station has multiple small screens showing photos of the people who contributed stories and more.
- Another side room has sketchbooks made by Reading residents, some on the theme “Reading Is/Reading Was”, and empty sketchbooks for audience members to contribute their own art and words.
- Video is projected on the interior walls of the station and the ceiling while actors speak and dancers dance.
- The video team uncovered and shares parts of a 1974 documentary of Reading street scenes and people—just before the worst of urban renewal and other economic changes.
- There’s also video—shown to a pounding bass—of historic buildings being torn down.
- Dancers’ movements portray the striving of residents as it got harder to find jobs in Reading.
- The music and dancers underscore the words of the residents, both the wistful and the optimistic.
- There is a video booth where audience members are invited to offer a story about Reading and each night some of that new video is added to other contemporary interviews using an ‘algorithm’.
- The contemporary video created for this show by Market Road Films is stunning and revealing, especially the section “Behind Closed Doors” with shots inside a black church service, a quinceañera party, a meeting of Masonic leaders, workers inside a sweet factory, and more.
- Another video is shot with a drone and at one point the dancers are in front of the audience dancing directly below the video of themselves showing on the ceiling. (Just….wow.)
- Across the street from the station, artists created a mural on the side of a short-stay hotel (reportedly by the hour or night) with the help of residents—in a hieroglyphic stencil style apparently referencing Keith Haring, who was born in Reading.
- The Civilians are taking the show way beyond the stage with writing, images, videos, interviews, and more.
- Outside, local entertainers perform before and after each show and there are food trucks and special lighting which turns the space purple as it gets darker between the two shows each night.
— The Civilians (@Civilians) July 15, 2017
What makes the magic? The artist collaborators went deep into the city. The people of Reading told their own stories. The artists turned those stories into this authentic and hopeful experience. They did what only artists can do. THIS is creative placemaking. THIS THIS THIS is the real deal.
The words of the people of the city are beautifully and authentically shared in so many media. Every single aspect is jaw-droppingly beautifully rendered. The dancing brought me to tears. The audience of mostly Reading residents is so proud to be there, smiling, pointing, talking. The producers made sure that residents got tickets, delivering them in person to people they were afraid might not learn of the show through traditional marketing. All of the tickets were free. When the first two weekends of six shows sold out quickly, they extended the show for a third weekend. The whole audience dances together with the artists at the end of the show.
The facts about Reading are hard. These stories of Reading are magically uplifting and joyous.
This video from the end of the show was shot and shared by the playwright. It’s a perfect capture of SPIRITS BEING RAISED.
Note: This writing can’t begin to do justice to the authenticity and energy and creativity of this experience.
From the website:
THIS IS READING, a dynamic site-specific multimedia installation blending live performance and visual media, will occupy the historic Franklin Street Railroad Station in Downtown Reading, re-animating the long vacant building. Using as its foundation the challenges, and triumphs of people living in and around Reading, Pa., This is Reading will weave their individual stories into one cohesive and celebratory compelling tale of the city.
Created by an award-winning team of artists, including Pulitzer Prize-winning and Tony nominated playwright, 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, ReadingFilm/Pennsylvania’s Americana Region, Goggleworks, 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.