A group of about 20 women packed into Beth Howes living room, listening intently to a reading of “Under the Yum Yum Tree” by Lawrence Roman. Gasps of surprise broke out from among them in reaction to the unusually bold antics of landlord Hogan, and there were chuckles all around following the quips from all four characters.
Four months a year, the Greenfield Drama Club meets for an informal play reading, discussion and simple socializing — something that has been a tradition for 100 years this year.
“It’s a group of strong-willed women who enjoy plays,” said Howes, Greenfield Drama Club’s secretary. “They enjoy the plays, camraderie, getting together for lunch (before the reading). It’s a nice little social club.” 100 years of history
The first meeting of the Greenfield Drama Club was held April 24, 1917 at the home of the club’s founder, who in club documents is identified as Mrs. Homer S. Taylor. There were 17 original members, compared to today’s 32.
“The men were off at war and the women needed a diversion,” Howes explained.
Meetings were held twice a month, with members reading 27 plays in the first year, as well as poetry during an Aug. 21, 1917 meeting. It is hard to tell, Howes said, whether the club was intended to be temporary, and end when the men came home from World War I.
“The people who started this in 1917 probably never thought that 100 years later, people would still be in this club reading plays,” said Howes, 55, who joined the club in 1998.
There have been some changes over the years. Starting in 1923, the club began charging membership dues, the cost of which is decided at every May meeting. In 1923, the dues were 25 cents.
A set of bylaws was adopted in 1928, governing how the club functions. The purpose of the club, the bylaws read, is “to keep members aware of plays which are current and to provide entertainment for the members.”
The bylaws outline that there should be a president, treasurer and secretary who are elected at May meetings and serve in two-year terms. There should also be no more than 40 members, the bylaws state.
Another key rule is that only ice water — and nothing more — should be served, though an exception was made during its April 12 gathering this year to allow cake and cider in celebration of the club’s 100th anniversary.
“It was very important to have ice,” emphasized Hattie Ball, former club president and one of the club’s longest active members. Ball, 93, of Northampton, believes she joined the club sometime in the 1950s.
When she first joined, Ball, who in earlier club documents is identified as “Mrs. Philip Ball Jr.,” said the club was very proper, and all the women would dress in formal clothing to attend. Today, dress is much more informal.
Today, too, but especially in its earlier days, the club served an important, simple function, Ball said: it gave women something to do.
“I think for a lot of women who didn’t work, it gave them something to talk about,” Ball said. “There weren’t nearly as many volunteer opportunities as there are now.”
Plus, Ball added, it can be expensive to take a trip to Boston or New York City to spend a day at the theater, and is not something everyone has the opportunity to do.
In addition to reading plays for their own enjoyment, the women also donate to local play groups, such as the Shea Theater and Arena Civic Theatre. During meetings, they share information about upcoming plays and chances to get out to the theater.Showtime
In advance of meetings, one club member signs up to host the group. With members from across Franklin County — and some from Hampshire County — the gatherings move around frequently.
The hostess, in addition to providing everyone with ice water, picks the play and acts as narrator for any action parts.
Howes, as hostess of the April meeting, picked “Under the Yum Yum Tree,” a play that was scheduled to be read in 1962, but was canceled deemed “unsuitable” due to a focus on sexuality.
“I thought it was time to read a banned play,” Howes said. “In 1962, their hearts would have fluttered on this one.”
The play follows the story of 19-year-old Robin Austin, who decides she and her boyfriend Dave Manning should live together platonically to see if they are compatible. They move in to her Aunt Irene Wilson’s old apartment, only to meet Hogan, the lecherous landlord who does everything in his power to ensure his female tenants become sexual conquests, setting his sights next on Robin.
Other recently read plays include “After the Quake,” “Dancing at Lughnasa,” “London Suite” and “The Dixie Swim Club.”
“A lot of the time more current plays are encouraged,” Howes said.
Though play readings used to be held twice a month, they are now held only four times a year — in April, May, October and November. With the exception of April, due to school vacations, the meetings are typically held the third Wednesday of each month.
Whatever the day, the members gather in a predetermined living room, sometimes bringing along family members, and listen, while just a handful of members read parts.
“I typically look for plays that have smaller amounts of people so we have to buy fewer scripts,” Howes explained. In the case of “Under the Yum Yum Tree,” there were only four roles, plus Howes as narrator.Coming alive
Becca King, 76, of Greenfield, who read the role of Irene in “Under the Yum Yum Tree,” said that because there are no rehearsals, the play is very much a surprise for everyone involved. This makes for a few stumbles in reading along the way.
“It’s just fun to make it come alive,” said King, who joined the club two years ago. “We’re trying to revivify plays that are conducted on stage with costumes and props.”
Howes added that members often exchange advice on how to read, or how to nail certain accents.
Marilyn Christian, 75, of Greenfield, the difference between the readers and professionals is barely recognizable.
“For the readers, they become almost professionals,” Christian said. “Sometimes I think the performance is almost as good as what I’d see on TV.”
Stepping “on stage” in front of 31 friends, Judy Harlow of Buckland explained that it allowed her to act, but in a laid-back environment and with the words readily available.
“I always wanted to be in plays, but I was afraid,” said Harlow, 71, who read the role of Robin in “Under the Yum Yum Tree.” “I was afraid I’d forget the lines.”
Perhaps, first and foremost, the club provides a much-needed intimate social environment.
“It’s nice to get together with the women we don’t see very often,” Harlow said.
When King first heard about the club, it struck her curiosity and did not disappoint.
“To think there’s this group of women doing this old-fashioned play reading, like a salon,” she said. “It’s a fun way to connect with each other and the long history of theater, which many of us don’t have anything to do with.”
Even once club members are physically unable to attend meetings, the rest of the group brings the play to them.
“We’ve had people who will bring the play to the people who are now in the nursing home,” Howes explained.
Once a member of the Greenfield Drama Club, always a member of the Greenfield Drama Club.
Interested in getting involved with the Greenfield Drama Club? Contact Secretary Beth Howes by phone at 413-625-2443.