FELS group turns Margate library into performance space

FELS Play Readers meet once per month at the Margate Public Library as a part of Friends of Encore Learning of Stockton (FELS). In the front row from left were Rosemary Molloy, of Little Egg Harbor, Bobbi Crawford, of Ventnor, Denise Borisch and Louise Seitman, both of Egg Harbor Township, and Mary-Jo Rolleri of Ventnor; and back row, Bernice Izes, of Margate, Doris Grabel, of Ventnor, Lynne Walters and Sondra Mandel, both of Atlantic City, and Rachel Kaplan, originally from Margate and now of Egg Harbor Township.

A portion of the shelves of literature lining the walls of the Margate library consist of great plays and dramas. One day each month, a group of women from the Friends of Encore Learning of Stockton (FELS) Play Readers act to make the lines of these plays come alive.

"The desire to read good literature out loud is infectious and enjoyable," said the Play Readers' current leader, Rachel Kaplan, of Egg Harbor Township.

Without scenery and without costume, the intimate group of 10, including Kaplan, put on a play - using only their acting skills to put on a convincing drama. The experience of those in the room varied from master to novice, yet the atmosphere remained comfortable.

"We are a reader's theater, and that takes pressure off. Some people, if they don't dress in a costume and they don't have scenery, they feel it's not a play," said Kaplan, who studied acting, oral interpretation, voice and diction and directing at Richard Stockton College.

"The truth is, I find reader's theater exciting because if you are reading the character properly, and if it's a well-written character, you don't need costumes, scenery and the whole deal, you can see it in your own lines. It takes a little experience sometimes."

The Play Readers is one of the smallest groups associated with FELS - an organization that raises money for Stockton College scholarships by providing courses to adults - with only nine registered for the class.

"It was always a small group, and we are still a small group," Kaplan, a former resident of Margate, said.

FELS' 16 courses, including the reader theater, range from opera to criminal justice, and are offered October through March.

But Dec. 21 marked only the second time that the new Play Readers group has met, not being able to meet in November due to Hurricane Sandy.

The women were ready, however, most having read the play ahead of time at Kaplan's suggestion.

In unison, the actresses flipped the pages of their 24 Favorite One-Act Plays playbook, reading from the English play, "The Browning Version," by Terrence Rattigan, the longest selection the group would read.

Each person received a speaking part, sometimes having to split the roles of a single character into two to ensure enough parts. Kaplan said she typically has casting in mind, but likes to assign roles according to people's preferences.

Before the group began reading the play's 54-pages, Kaplan offered some of her knowledge, including tips on method acting, the usefulness of imagination and even recommendations of Meryl Streep.

"Keep going is always the motto!" she said to her group.

And the beauty of the group - which tends to attract women but does not exclude men - is that they don't have to memorize.

That fact attracted Ventnor resident Bobbi Crawford to join the three-year-old group this year after a long absence from theater. After giving birth to her son and realizing that she could not find it in her to memorize lines, she gave up on theater after studying it for years.

"This is just up my alley," said Crawford, who played Millie, the antagonist of the play. "It just intrigued me. It's one thing that I loved to do."

Fellow actress Mary-Jo Rolleri moved to Ventnor three years ago and joined FELS after a neighbor introduced her to the group. Working as an analytical chemist in her younger days, she found joy in simply reading dramas in college.

"I have nothing to do with the theater," she laughed. "It sounds funny, but I love it. I've always loved it. … This group is great, and it doesn't matter whether you've ever had theater or anything."

One member, however, is an experienced actress, Kaplan said. Bernice Izes, of Margate, led the group herself for three years. Now, she reads and even aids Kaplan in choosing the plays for the group.

The FELS Play Readers have not performed for the public, aside from two readings for the local Jewish group Organization for Rehabilitation and Training.

"We've just been a private little group that loves to perform together," Kaplan said.

And the leader, who offers free coaching lessons for anyone wanting to strengthen his or her skill, said the group is always for new members.

To learn about becoming a member of FELS, visit felstock

ton.com. The membership fee is $35 and each course costs $25.

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