The ground floor or “The Gallery” area of Neuehouse was spotted with people seated at desks or lounging on couches, hovered over laptops and sipping drinks from the café-cum-bar. Members seemed hard at work despite it being past seven on a Thursday night. But downstairs in the facilities’ library voices could be heard engaging in bright, thoughtful conversation, for a small slice of New York was gathered to hear the works of Joyce Carol Oates and Amy Hempel brought to life by actors reading aloud a story by each.
Guests sat on overstuffed leather couches and chairs, clinking glasses of wine that when paired with the fireplace helped fight the bitter cold outside. The moment the actors began their readings the room went silent, rapt in attention. Reminiscent of the primal joys of being read to as a child, there was a palpable admiration for the power of language that filled the room with an electric energy. Carla Guigino’s rendition of “Mastiff” by Joyce Carol Oates and Samantha Mathis’s performance of “A Full-Service Shelter” held the room enthralled for over an hour. Readings aside, the only audible noises from the audience were an occasional sigh, gasp or laugh in accordance with the tale.
After the short story readings took place the authors were invited to come on stage and participate in a discussion moderated by Bill Henderson, the founder of The Pushcart Prize. The theme for the night was the dog — both stories involved a character’s relationship, one positive and one negative, with a canine. Though the conversation began with talk of the actual furry animals it quickly veered toward a much deeper discussion of the symbolism imbued upon the dogs in each of the stories.
Cedering Fox, the founder of WordTheatre NY, which presented the event, prodded the authors to discuss their use of language to create intimacy or the lack there of, citing that similarity between the stories as the reason she chose the two to be read together. Joyce Carol Oates’ painfully honest analysis of her protagonist brought to light her extraordinary grasp on the human condition. Both of the authors’ insights bolstered the experience of the previous readings.
The night ended with an exuberant Ms. Fox thanking the group for their support and directing them in the way of books for sale, all proceeds helping to keep WordTheatre and The Pushcart Prize alive. The audience, still captivated by the communal experience of sharing stories, lingered in groups around Oates and Hempel. They too had something to share.