An air of familiarity and ease floats through the room, as students in assistant professor Rose Gruber's drama course at Rowan College at Gloucester County (RCGC) confidently talk about their newest project. But despite the relative assurance, "Joe King Private Eye" is a newer venture for many of these students.
Written by Voorhees resident and retired professor Arnie Kahn, 'Joe King Private Eye' gave Gruber's students one of their first opportunities to indulge in reader's theatre; a minimalist departure from the more traditional theatre production sense, where actors read directly from the script without hard-lined memorization in front of a largely barren set-piece. "It's a lot of stress off of us," said Rocco Barbera, who plays brooding, muscled ex-con Fabio Rocco in the play.
Days before the group's March 28 performance in Centennial Mill in Voorhees – the student's second live show of the play since December – that ease comes off as almost surprising.
"It gives you more freedom to improv a little bit with what you're saying because it's in front of you. You can act more freely," explained Joseph Renard, who plays the titular King. Gruber gave her student's a chance to play around with the piece, which Kahn had originally given her just to critique.
"They liked, they had fun with it," Gruber noted. "So then I said, 'Why don't we do it as reader's theatre?' where you don't memorize and there's no scenery. And they really liked it." The student's first performance, according to Gruber, "moved Kahn to tears" and prompted the late March follow-up performance; this all despite the relative newness to the reader's approach.
"I was just a little nervous," explained Monroe Township native Beatrice Hemmings, who earned personal praise from Kahn with her role of self-centered, snobbish housemother Minnie Stone Worthington. "I'm not used to reading something directly off the book, so I felt like it was kind of a handicap but it seemed to work out pretty good."
Gruber's seemingly quixotic method meshed into curiosity, and eventually the impromptu style felt significantly more natural to the cast. And as the spring semester comes to a slow close, Gruber's class will eventually return to the more traditional theatre method, bouncing scene work and direction projects off one another in that already bridged chemistry. But for many, 'Joe King' will be an impossibly memorable first foray into theatre.
For more information on RCGC and the Theater/Drama program, visit rcgc.edu/liberalarts.