Top Hat Senior Readers Theatre ...

For several years Coronado has been home to a Readers Theatre at the Spreckels Center. Coronado local Gwen Hovland has been leading these workshops that include this past year’s most recent iteration, a Top Hat Senior Readers Theatre for community members 55 and older.

For several years Coronado has been home to a Readers Theatre at the Spreckels Center. Coronado local Gwen Hovland, who is no stranger to the theatre scene, has been leading these workshops that include this past year’s most recent iteration, a Top Hat Senior Readers Theatre for community members 55 and older.

Readers Theatre is a popular form of performance that allows anyone to participate at any level. For Hovland, this was the perfect outlet to return to acting after a stint in the Peace Corps. “I joined the Peace Corps at age 68,” she began. “For two years I was living in the village of Nonphayom,Thailand, as a volunteer assigned to teach English to grades five to nine. We were in middle-of-nowhere Thailand; with no internet, no cellular and no written language,” Hovland described.

“I had time to dream,” she continued. “I vowed to audition for a Readers Theatre in San Diego County [when I got back to Coronado]. It would be a return to acting that would not require memorization or long rehearsals. What’s important here,” Hovland stated of the Top Hat Readers Theatre Workshop, “is that there are none [of those barriers]. So I walked into Spreckels Center and submitted a resume and class outline for a 90 minute class. That was 3 years ago.”

Hovland, who has a background in speech, education, and theatre arts, has performed in a wide variety of roles in shows around San Diego and led various professional theatre workshops over the years. She feels at home performing and these days uses that love to foster a community celebrating the arts, helping others to discover a joy they may never had a chance to explore before or, like her, have been looking for a way to return to.

“My Danish grandfather used to say, ‘There is a time to weep and a time to laugh. Given a choice, go with laughter. But most importantly, as a teacher of any material or age, ignite forgotten fires of emotional and creative intelligence, imagination, and intuition,’” Hovland recalled, mentioning how his wisdom was a big inspiration for her to start the Top Hat Readers Theatre program in Coronado.

The Readers Theatre workshops at the Spreckels Center typically run for eight weeks with 90 minute sessions once a week. As Hovland describes, they are, “filled with infectious laughter! We use handheld scripts that focus on imagery, pace, and characterization where individuals and ensembles strengthen novice and professional skills. There’s no memorization required, we simply read skits, plays, lyrics, and prose. It’s a safe place to connect and explore Senior Readers Theatre regardless of experience.”

Marylee Goyan and Mary Isobel were two of the most recent Readers Theatre workshop participants. “I thought it would be everyone sitting in a chair reading out loud, and I was surprised and delighted that it was so much more than that,” Isobel mentioned, talking of how the group would move around the stage, gesture, essentially act as they read. “I was in a walker but did as well as I could,” she continued. “I had never performed on stage before and I was surprised at how easy it was. I wasn’t self-conscious, I didn’t get stage fright, and Gwen was always right there to give direction.”

“What you need to know is, Gwen is the magic behind the success of Senior Readers Theater (or SRT as we all like to call it),” Goyan agreed. “Gwen is the most positive, encouraging and outstanding teacher I have ever had for any subject. She is a taskmaster in gorgeous clothing and with the sweetest smile you have ever seen but you know you need to follow her directions – or else. However, she patiently listens to all our ideas (some seem like thoughts from outer space) and still makes you feel like you have just discovered the golden egg and anything is possible. She finds the strengths in each person, knowing just how delicately to tread with a group of seniors.”

Goyan described how this past session she was astounded at how Hovland was able to bring out the theatrical best of their inexperienced group. “She uses her magical thread to weave us all together into a memorable tapestry. The SRT players derive as much pleasure from SRT as the audience enjoys while watching,” she added.

Like Isobel, she found the experience easily accessible given the nature of Readers Theatre. “As we become seniors, our memory tends to age a bit with us. With SRT, you can read your lines while experiencing the same thrill as a live theater production,” she explained.

“And the love of the theatre, plus the love of good songs, literature and comedy, brought together a diverse group of people all living bits and pieces of that tapestry Gwen manages to weave. If I had one word to describe the fun, love and laughter of this year’s group it would be, ‘SKOL’,” Goyan said, referencing the Viking turn of phrase to toast to good company.

Isobel felt similarly, mentioning how the Top Hat Readers Theatre at the Spreckels Center was the first class that really appealed to her that she could participant in and the impact it’s had on her. “It was truly a wonderful thing, after everyone being sequestered [from the pandemic] and I was even surprised we had an audience,” Isobel mentioned of their final showcase. “I was sorry to see it come to an end; I enjoyed meeting people, made two new friends, and would do it again,” she said.

The most recent Top Hat Readers Theatre workshop ended just before Christmas with a “Sleigh Ride to Nostalgia” showcase performance open to the public that delighted all involved. “We had an age range in that workshop group that was from 70 to 94,” Hovland told me. “What I have learned from each of them has changed my life. The novice and veteran actors and readers built an invaluable vocabulary to deliver good and great performances and I credit each of them with success in executing their characters, exploration of scenes, and utilizing past and present resources for their individual work in the showcase,” she added proudly.

Hovland looks forward to the next iteration of the Top Hat Readers Theatre with a session this summer at Spreckels Center. Anyone looking to get involved is encouraged to keep an out for more information about the upcoming Summer Session as it becomes available at Spreckels Center and on their website at Spreckels Center is open Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and can be contacted via phone at 619-522-7343.

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