January 6. A chilly evening in Chilliwack. I stood at the front door of the Chilliwack Players Guild’s headquarters — The Guildhall — an hour early for my most dangerous mission yet: infiltrate the Guild’s reading of The Romeo Initiative by Trina Davies. I was just a hired man looking for answers: What exactly goes on at a play reading? What’s this production all about, anyway? Who’s behind it? And, most pressingly, should I knock now, or awkwardly wait the hour out?

But knocking wasn’t necessary. I tried the door and it opened with little effort into the spacious hall, with its high ceiling and its hundreds of old production posters that decorated the wall like tiling. I was totally, utterly alone.

Or so I thought, until I was greeted by two Guild members, who slipped suddenly and silently out of a side room with prying questions of their own.

“Hello! Who are you?”

I said I was a writer with Raspberry magazine, that I intended on writing an article about their reading tonight. They bought the story like it was a snow shovel in winter.

“Do you want anything to drink?”

I declined. I was still hallucinating on the seven cups of coffee I’d had that afternoon.

“How about a tour while we wait?”

After showing me their organized collections of props and costumes with a suspiciously pleasant air of grace and hospitality, my target — and the show’s director — Ally Schuurman appeared. We returned to the side room my hosts had come from and waited for more members of the cast and crew to show up. I sat on a couch against a wall, which gave me a perfect view of the table where it would all go down. I pulled out my notebook and prepared to record all the dirt the proceedings would surely dig up.

Schuurman introduced her team, all of whom I recognized from one UFV theatre production or another. I wondered if this was the same group behind the university’s previous production of The Romeo Initiative. I didn’t see that show, but Schuurman assured me that this production is all new, from cast to crew. I took her word for it and settled in as the actors began reading their lines and the crew watched and scribbled down notes.

A play reading is a curious thing. For one thing, it’s nothing like the play it will become. It’s unpracticed, rough. It’s designed to get a feel for the big picture of the show before rehearsing smaller chunks of it at a time, sort of like surveying a maze from above before exploring it on foot. It’s also way less formal, and there is far less pressure on everybody to impress anybody else, at least as far as an observer can tell. There are a lot of mistakes and improvisations, and a lot of laughter.

But certainly, there are unspoken pressures nagging in the back of everyone’s minds. There is the natural nervousness that comes with attempting something for the first time with everyone (including a stranger with a notepad) listening intently. But besides wanting to put on a good show for the show’s sake, this gang of dramatists plans to take their show to Theatre BC’s 2017 “Zone Festival,” where they will have the opportunity to win acclaim, recognition, and further chances to perform.

Schuurman’s foot tapped rapidly as she nodded along to her actors’ speeches. Matthew Pitton, the set and light designer, was meanwhile eating pretzels from a plastic bowl on the table, popping them into his mouth one after the other until the whole shebang was over. And sometimes, when the moment was right, there was unprovoked singing from other cast and crew on the periphery. These ticks were a show in and of themselves, a window into the nervous energy the group was holding back; hopefully that energy will free itself and make its way into the production itself.

I cannot (I should not) reveal too much about the play. The Romeo Initiative is comedic spy-thriller of many layers and twists, of politics, duty, and misunderstanding. Suffice to say, it’s a play about love. It is also a Canadian play (although it takes place in Germany), which fittingly leads the theatre season into Canada’s 150th anniversary.

When the reading was over, the group started talking more practical logistics: how often to meet, what fees were due, etc. But I had all the information I needed, so I left, returning to the frigid night air with enough intel to destroy the Chilliwack Players Guild once and for all.

But the play was right up my alley, so instead I’m going to see their show. May 19-20. 7:30 p.m. at UFV’s North Campus in Chilliwack. Should be swell.

Image by: Abigail G/ flickr