Listening Device

Listening Device

When’s the last time someone read you a story?

The next time could be the third Tuesday of the month at the Institute Library, when the New Haven Review and the New Haven Theater Company come together to present Listen Here, a series of read-alouds complete with cookies and tea—basically, bedtime stories for grownups.

Except that Listen Here’s provocative fare won’t put you to sleep. The stories—usually two per evening, selected by series founder Bennett Lovett-Graff—are more Brothers Grimm than Goodnight, Moon. And they’re read not by tired parents but rather by wide-awake actors from NHTC who know how to deliver a line of dialogue or a loaded description. All of the stories are published works by established writers, but often they’re pieces people are unlikely to have read before.

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Hopkins School - Open House on October 20, 2019

September’s event drew about a dozen listeners—though Lovett-Graff says the audience has topped out around 45—to hear “Three Friends in a Hammock” by April Ayers Lawson, read by Suzanne Powers, and “Miracle Polish” by Steven Millhauser, read by J. Kevin Smith. The stories always center on a theme that can serve as a springboard for the talk-back discussion that follows. This night, that theme was “Who’s Who?”, the question on many listeners’ minds as Powers launched into a convoluted set piece of meandering sentences and nameless characters—three women who are sharing a hammock during someone else’s birthday party.

Though some of us may be practiced at listening to podcasts or audio books, we often do so while multitasking: driving, working out, cooking. Listen Here requires only that you sit and listen. It’s a different experience than reading, when you can flip back to find something you missed. It’s different even than listening to a podcast on your smartphone with the ability to rewind. The stories, little performance pieces, are both entertaining and elusive. And with a live reader, Smith points out, “you never know what’s going to happen.”

It’s no small feat to hold the attention of an audience for a full hour, but on this evening Powers and Smith had no trouble at all. In fact, they seemed to be enjoying themselves. “As an actor, you rarely get an opportunity to read a story out loud. It’s a little bit of a different kind of a challenge from an acting standpoint,” Powers says. During that night’s talk-back, she showed the audience her notations on where to pause amid Lawson’s tortuous sentences for the best effect. Powers says she always enjoys the talk-back because sometimes, even though she’s spent time studying the story, the audience takes it in a new and unexpected direction.

Meanwhile, the humor in Millhauser’s “Miracle Polish” as read by Smith landed in a way it simply couldn’t have if read silently. Smith took on the persona of the narrator and recounted what happens when a door-to-door salesman sells a middle-aged man a bottle of mirror polish that makes everything look just a little bit brighter and cheerier. The premise seems innocent enough, but as one talk-back participant later pointed out, you know from the beginning that something will go terribly wrong.

Lovett-Graff came up with the idea of a reading series about 10 years ago, when he was between jobs and looking for something new and meaningful to do. Inspired by National Public Radio’s “Selected Shorts,” he and T. Paul Lowry of NHTC (then called the New Haven Theater Collective) started the project as a weekly event that rotated among four local coffee shops, a gig that went on for about three years. The learning curve included assessing the spaces themselves: “which has good acoustics, which has a really loud espresso machine,” Lovett-Graff says. Because the readings were held in public spaces, “occasionally you’d have people who were, while someone was reading, … just carrying on their conversation. They’d just keep talking right through it… It was an interesting experience.” When the New Haven Review, for which Lovett-Graff was once the publisher, became a program of the Institute Library, the series found its permanent, espresso machine-less home.

Listen Here now runs monthly, with four readings in the fall and five or six in the spring. An anonymous sponsor pays the actors, while Lovett-Graff and NHTC’s Erich Greene, who does the casting, volunteer their services.

As Powers and Smith gave their dramatic readings, Lovett-Graff sat in the audience jotting down fresh notes on what he wanted to bring up in the talk-back—“things philosophical, things social, things political, about how we live, how we ought to live, how we shouldn’t live,” he says.

Because, after you Listen Here, you might want to speak here, too.

Listen Here
Institute Library – 847 Chapel St, 2nd Flr, New Haven (map)
7pm, third Tuesdays
(203) 562-4045

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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