From pandemic placeholder to ‘radical’ theater, the Rocktown Readers say they’re here to stay

Nine people sitting on a stage
The Rocktown Readers pause for a moment at their March 11 reading of “The Walls.” (Photo by Makayla Baker Paxton)

It started during the pandemic lockdown as a way to keep doing theater remotely. MaKayla Baker Paxton organized Zoom nights in 2020, where she and her friends would gather on a video call to read plays.

It died down for several years, but when someone from Eastern Mennonite University approached her and asked her to organize a staged reading at the campus theater, she assembled a crew. They read “Nathan the Wise” by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, a story about friendship and religious tolerance.

The Rocktown Readers group was back. After that first performance in October 2023, Baker Paxton kept organizing new ones. 

She tries to select plays that are “radical” — plays with controversial subject matter or plays that had an impact on theater history.

EMU has hosted several times, as has the Massanutten Regional Library, where Baker Paxton works as a youth services specialist. Some readings are staged, she said, with a set cast and a rehearsal beforehand. Others are more walk-in style, where people can just show up and participate. 

Most Rocktown Readers performances have a small audience of five to 20 people, Baker Paxton said, and she doesn’t have a formal membership structure. It’s more casual. People can sign up to participate, and the next time she plans a reading, Baker Paxton will call them up.

One EMU student on Baker Paxton’s call list, Alexis Lewis, played a part in the reading of “The Walls” by Lisa Dillman, which was the group’s March performance. Lewis is no stranger to the theater. She’s been involved with every EMU production in her three years there. She met Baker Paxton in 2022 while working on EMU’s “The Crucible.”

The staged reading was a “different kind of theater” than she’s used to, Lewis said. It was smaller and more low-key than the big shows that involve intricate costumes, sets and extensive rehearsals. Rocktown Readers’ play readings mostly involve music stands, black binders for the script and minimal stage directions.

“It was a little jarring to just be able to get the script and do one short rehearsal and just kind of get in our brains and in our bodies and then get up and do it,” Lewis said. “It was honestly a lot of fun.”

After taking a break in May, Baker Paxton said Rocktown Readers will have a summer series, either hosted at her own house or her in-laws’ farm. She’s considering doing readings around the bonfire, something Lewis said she plans to attend.

Whether it’s on stage or around a bonfire, Baker Paxton’s main goal with Rocktown Readers is to simply build community. Whether it’s a play specific for Black History Month, local issues in Harrisonburg or at the request of the host space, she just wants to bring people together.

“The general thing is communion,” she said. “Communion with the community and communion with the text, communion with the characters.”

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