The play's their thing

While any given Friday morning finds English students lumbering off to early lectures at the University of Washington, another group of literature "students" prepares for its weekly Shakespeare reading just a few miles off campus.

A cluster of about 25 retirees gathers amidst the wide circle of chairs that forms nearly every Friday at 10 a.m. near the dining room at the University House at Wallingford retirement residence.

Individual participants read aloud assigned parts from "King Lear," "Twelfth Night," "As You Like It," "Richard II" and several other plays by the William Shakespeare, while other members follow along, act by act.

"I think we've read as many plays as most [English literature] grad students," said University House resident Ken Connelly, who estimates that the group has read and discussed nearly all of Shakespeare's plays during the six years since its formation.

A former English literature professor at Yale University and Smith College, Connelly started the Shakespeare group at University House in 1997. His passion for language and admiration for the man were major forces in leading Connelly to choose Shakespeare's plays as the focus of the entire group.

"The original purpose was to gather residents together to read plays and to appreciate the language," he explained. "From there, the group's popularity sort of took off by itself."

As a community formed in part by the University of Washington Retirement Association, University House has always attracted a large number of intellectuals. Former University professors, retired teachers, artists and professionals from a variety of other backgrounds make for an interesting mix of readers.

"We're a very diverse group. Since the start, we've had people who are familiar with Shakespeare, as well as folks who have never read a Shakespeare play and get a lot out of it," participant Mary Slotnick said.

"We've discovered a great deal of knowledge and talent in the group," said fellow participant Marilyn Paulson, who notes that just about everyone's reading has improved since joining the group, which is open to all University House residents.

Both Slotnick and Paulson are former educators, having taught English literature at the University of Alaska and Adelphi University, respectively. When Connelly decided to shift the responsibility of organizing the group two years ago, he appointed them as its new leaders.

"Mary and Marilyn have done a fine job in taking over the responsibility of organizing the group," Connelly said. "They have expanded it in some interesting directions."

The group's new leaders each spend approximately four to five hours per month researching the best selections among the myriad Shakespeare readings and videos available at local libraries and bookstores.

They have even managed to get a 20-percent discount for the group at Second Story Books, so that each participant can purchase his or her own copy of the plays.

Every meeting concludes with a hearty applause - a clear indication of an appreciation for the works of William Shakespeare and a dedication to lifelong learning.

Colleen Kiser works for ERA Care retirement communities. E-mail her at

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