The group of half-a-dozen seniors is seated in a semi-circle, with scripts in hand. One-by-one they pause for a silent moment to get into character.
But before a single word is spoken, the audience it keenly aware by the bandanas and the cowboy boots and hats they’re wearing, that something fun is coming.
It’s a reading of “A Cowboy’s Christmas Eve.”
And the players are the Waterfront Reader’s Theater at the Bainbridge Island Senior Community Center.
Born less than a year ago, the Waterfront Reader’s Theater, is just that, a performance where members read plays from scripts, with no memorizing, no scenery, and very few props.
“It’s all about the spoken word,” said member Joe Claseman, who is co-directing “A Cowboy’s Christmas Eve.” “It’s the inflection in the voice, and change from narrator to reader that tells the audience what’s going on.”
The holiday performance will begin at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 21 at the center, 370 Brien Drive SE, Bainbridge Island. A second play, “Frank’s 75th Christmas” will follow and is described as “a Golden Girl gets grumpy but has an awakening.”
It was Claseman who suggested the cowboy play, which has been published in book form titled “Stubby Pringle’s Christmas.” It was originally published in Boy’s Life magazine in 1963. In the late 1970s, it was made into a television movie that stared Beau Bridges.
Claseman knew the author, Jack Schaefer. Claseman had heard that Schaefer once said he would read and consider any script given to him. So Claseman tested that at a public appearance and handed him the script that he’d been writing.
“I spent time with him in Mexico,” said Claseman. “There was some interest in making it a movie, but the producers wanted to change the ending and he (Schaefer) didn’t want that. So it went nowhere.”
But through that encounter, Claseman learned of “A Cowboy’s Christmas Eve.”
“He told home the story and I really liked it,” Claseman said. “It’s almost written to be read outlaid, just by it’s sentence structure.”
Claseman, who is retired, spends time on Bainbridge Island and joined the reader’s group when it began about a year ago. One reason why he likes the cowboy story is that there are very few Christmas stories that include cowboys.
“And it has a very special message,” he said. “It’s about doing something for someone else. It’s about taking some of yourself and giving it to others.”
It says something else, which still has meaning in modern day.
“Stubby is a cowboy,” Claseman said. “He likes the open range. He dislikes all the homesteaders coming in and taking over. But when he gets to know them, he begins to understand.”
The Waterfront Reader’s Theater is the brainstorm of Bainbridge resident Ann Murphy. Murphy has been involved in theater for more than 50 years in many countries throughout the world. And although she prefers stage theater, with costumes and full scenery, this group gives her the opportunity to stay involved in live performance.
Murphy has directed the three shows that the Waterfront Reader’s Theater has performed this year. For the holiday show, she handed that over to others in the group. But at a recent rehearsal, she sat at the back of Huney Hall and listened, interrupting only to remind reader’s to project their voices.
“It’s just storytelling,” Murphy said of reader’s theater. “It’s about helping the audience use their imagination.”
Performances are by donation and their first show brought in $30.
“We’ve trippled that with our other shows,” she said. “We’re not doing this for money, obviously. But we do have expenses, buying the scripts and licenses.”
The group has purchased stools to sit on when reading and hopes to soon be able to afford “throat mics” to attach to each of their collars during the shows.
“One of the issues we have is that the acoustics are not good in this hall,” she said. “We work with what we have.”
Many of those who are in the troupe have been in theater and have an acting background. But Murphy and Claseman stress that anyone can participate.
“All you have to do is be here and have a voice,” Claseman said. And, he added, because the scripts are not memorized, it makes it less overwhelming to participants.
The group meets at 1 p.m. on Fridays at the community center, more often when they have a performance coming up. It usually takes half a dozen times through a script before they are ready to perform for an audience.
Claseman knows the cowboy story well.
“When my wife was teaching in Seattle, I use to read it to her second grade students,” he said. “The book has great illustrations that the kids enjoy. And I would bring props in a bag, like a wooden horse, and as they came up in the story, I’d pull them out and show them to the kids.”
Because of his friendship with Schaefer, Claseman also knows the story behind the story. As he tells, Schaefer saw a painting by Charles Russell of cowboys in the line camp on Christmas. The title under the painting was “Well Done, Partner.”
“He saw that as what Santa was telling the cowboys,” Claseman said. “He tried to come up with a story to go with that, and it ended up being ‘A Cowboy’s Christmas Eve.”
‘A Cowboy’s Christmas Eve’
Who: The Waterfront Reader’s Theater
What: Two-play performance, A Cowboy’s Christmas Eve and Frank’s 75th Christmas
When: 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 21
Where: Bainbridge Island Senior Community Center, 370 Brien Drive SE, Bainbridge Island
Why: To share the holiday message
For more information about the Waterfront Reader’s Theater, contact the program coordinator, Eileen Magnuson, 206-842-1616.