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Telling Tales Out of School at Celebrity Readings

The South Orange Maplewood Adult School had a sell-out crowd for stories and talk.

"What do we have here?" asked Emily Zacharias, director and host of the South Orange-Maplewood Adult School's Celebrity Readings on Monday. "Something new?" Zacharias introduced the sell-out audience at the Woman's Club of Maplewood to a technology known as the "phone book," which allows users to schedule face-to-face meetings with friends, "like Skype, but in 3D." 

As the audience laughed, Zacharias introduced the evening as "an annual tribute to the written word," and recognized the staff and teachers who have nurtured the Adult School into this, its 77th spring. "What's old is new at the Adult School," said Zacharias, "We revel in community and create it constantly." Celebrity Readings, she explained, is the Adult School's major fund-raising event, supporting summer programs for children, English as a Second Language and GED instruction, and fresh year-round programming, including speakers and courses.

Zacharias further described the evening as a "tribute to the power of storytelling," as she introduced three celebrity readers. Two-time Tony Award winner, experienced singer and actress Christine Ebersole read Eudora Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O." Ebersole enriched the story of the China Grove, MS postmistress—"the second smallest post office in the state"—with a deep Southern drawl. The audience followed the narrator's family tribulations with laughter, as Ebersole described the character's mother as, "200 pounds and two tiny feet."

First-time reader Zach Grenier dedicated his reading of Sam Shepard's "Saving Fats" to his goddaughter Samantha, who is in New Orleans's ninth ward, where the story takes place, rebuilding homes. Grenier, who was nominated last spring for a Tony Award, is currently in rehearsal for "Gabriel" by Moira Buffini at the Atlantic Theatre Company. "Gabriel" previews this month. 

As Grenier read the story, which takes place just after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, there was silence during his dramatic pauses, as the audience waited for the story's outcome. "I'm not leaving without my piano, man," Grenier read, his character's intentions clear even among the rising waters that became "a cafeteria for alligators."

Zacharias introduced Isaiah Sheffer as "the patron saint of reading aloud." As the co-founder and artistic director of Symphony Space in New York and director and host of Selected Shorts: A Celebration of the Short Story, Sheffer's work provides the model for the Celebrity Readings event. 

Sheffer read "At the Anarchists' Convention," the story of aging anarchists gathered in a hotel ballroom. The narrator is both exasperated—"Place cards? At the Anarchists' Convention"—and resigned, as he considers an evening of speeches punctuated by fruit cup and dinner, until circumstances offer one last uprising against authority.

The annual short story contest prize was awarded to Abe Bunis, who won in 2009, as well. An excerpt from his story, "The Group," will appear in  the April 14 Matters Magazine and the whole text is on the site. 

Zacharias invited the audience to Saturday, April 17''s "College for a Day" at Columbia High School. "I've attended many times," she said, noting the instructors' "passion" for their disciplines makes for a "stimulating day." 

Saturday, April 24, will see the Barnes & Noble Book Fair. Purchases made at the Livingston Mall store will support the Adult School. 

She also noted that the Eva Samo Lecture Series begins on Monday, April 26. This spring's series explores the complexities of the Middle East.

The Annual Meeting of the Adult School, open to the public, takes place on May 19. Chef Jesse Jones will cook and dish for SOMAtv. 

Zacharias reminded the audience that new course catalogs will appear in mailboxes soon, and registration for children and teen summer programs is ongoing.

The evening concluded with home-baked desserts and a wine reception. The audience lingered, talking and laughing into the parking lot and along Maplewood's avenues. After listening to stories well-told, members of the community shared some of their own.

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