by Sam Graber
Wouldn’t it have been nice if the all-mighty Lord, right after handing down the five Books of Moses, issued a short addendum listing all the protocols for staged reading do’s and don’ts?
Like you, I’ve been to a ton of script readings. Many have been superb. Some have made me question humanity. Of those in the latter category I’ve come to notice how the dreadful readings rarely deal with quality of script. Instead, reading disasters all share one thing in common – they abandon the standard conventions.
After attending the most recent disaster, I figured I would I ask around and see if anyone knew of a one-stop resource detailing how best to run script readings. No answer. I took to online and searched around but still failed to find a go-to list of do’s and don’ts. There’s probably a thousand blog postings on the subject and I couldn’t find one. Given the absence of an easily accessible list, I decided to create my own.
But before we get to the list, let’s define some key terms, especially since staged reading is a loaded term with lots of interpretation. Some staged readings are fully costumed, semi-blocked productions with script in hand. Yet, the good news is that today’s theatrical industry seems to have defined the standard staged reading as a rehearsed presentation of a new script, to a seated audience, in a theater setting, with theater lighting, under stage and audience management.
Staged readings are different from table reads. A table read is a private, non-rehearsed reading to give the playwright early insight to a nascent script’s attributes. A table read is around a table and considered a working reading. A table read usually comes before a staged read. At the staged read a script is burgeoning into fuller form and ready for first audience impressions.
The primary purpose of a staged reading is for an audience to inform the playwright of script positives and negatives. A secondary purpose is to help the director and/or theater company determine if the script merits either further development or full production.
I offer my friendly list of staged reading dos (PLEASE YES) and don’ts (NEVER EVER). Order of presentation is not meant to indicate ranking of importance.
- Meet the cast. A playwright should meet the cast and crew before the reading. Go backstage, get a tour, shake hands with the Board of Directors. Acquaint with the folks investing in your work. And NEVER EVER disregard the nice old lady working the concessions booth as she’s likely the most important person in the place (file under Things That Have Happened To Me).
- Print a program. PLEASE YES have a single sheet of paper announcing the play, playwright, actors and ongoing play development program. It educates the audience that readings are not throwaway projects nor off-night fillers but a special part of theater-making which demands attention. It’s also a touch of class.
- Kickoff message. Something needs to be said to the audience before the reading begins. Recently, I was at a reading of one of my plays where no kickoff message to the audience was given from the artistic director; simply a curt rolling off of names from the cast. If readings are not a typical part of what the theater company does, then the audience needs some direction as to why they are there and how they can best help develop a new work.
- NEVER EVER use a table. I walked into a staged reading for one of my plays and saw all the actors on stage crowded around a single table. Folks, it’s not a table read, it’s a presented read. And then, to make matters worse, because of the small surface dimension of the table, one of the actresses was placed on the side of the table, so that she read across the table towards offstage, not looking at the audience. With her hair in the way, I couldn’t see her face throughout the entire read. I essentially watched Cousin It play a part.
- Use music stands. PLEASE YES put scripts in binders and put the binders on the music stands.
- Print legible scripts. I endured a reading where an artistic director (to save money) shrunk two pages of normal sized script down to a single sheet of paper. The miniaturized font forced the actors to squint downward into paper. I was looking at heads for the entire read as actors harnessed their full mental focus for deciphering miniscule font. And I wrote ‘print’ not ‘furnish’ legible scripts. A reading of a serious drama turned into comedy when one actor couldn’t figure out how to follow the script on the iPad. Yes, you are so totally hip showing up at a reading with the script on your iPad. Unfortunately, each time you have to speak we all wait for you to find your line on the screen.
- Dedicate stage directions. Assign someone not in the cast to read stage directions. NEVER EVER have one of the actor characters also read stage directions as double duty. Never do this.
- Slash stage directions. Dear theater, we don’t need to hear every single stage direction in the script get read aloud. Sincerely, the audience.
- Cast smart. The director can only do so much at staged readings. However, one of the things the director can do is cast smart. I as the playwright will totally understand small misses on demographic when the talent cast by the director is strong. In fact, I recently benefitted from a reading when a strong older actress was cast for a young character role. The older actresses was such a talent that she helped me see the weak spots in my script. Of course, there is a limit to leeway. If the script calls for an Asian-American man, and the Asian-American is an important leading role with important cultural implications for the play, then maybe not so much with the casting of a white man.
- Honor the playwright. This might be the most important thing on my list. Recently, one actress wouldn’t act out the part the way it was intended in the script. She felt the part didn’t work for her so she didn’t want to play along at the reading. I had another experience in which a director wanted to move around the order of scenes before the reading even occurred. People, let’s save post-mortems for post-reading. I may not disagree with the ideas presented but save it for talkback. Honor the process for the playwright. The process is designed to help make the new script the best it can be.
- Use lighting. Get a basic wash on stage and turn down the house. If available, a simple light design can help indicate mood, time passing, etc.
- Follow intermissions. If there is an intermission, or act break designated in the script, use that intermission at the reading. Don’t plow through or alter the placement of the intermission.
- Avoid surprises. The people or theater company producing a reading should learn the script before casting and before presenting. Do not wait for the reading to find out the play is four hours long. I watched a mutiny of actors who voted to stop performance halfway through because they weren’t aware of the time obligation. If you aren’t aware of the nature of the script because the playwright just finished it two hours before the audience showed up, then why are you presenting the script?
- Remove noise interference. Dear theater, PLEASE YES turn off your rattling HVAC. Warmest regards, the audience.
- Rehearse. Every theatre company which creates, seeks and develops new works should be very clear as to why they do so. Having a quick rehearsal just to orchestrate logistics is not serving the playwright. You might as well do a table read. New scripts going into a reading deserve a modicum of time and effort. Otherwise, a non-rehearsed staged reading as a cheap way to fill schedule results in everyone seeing what uselessness and bad decision-making comes of it.
- Keep It Real. I realize that everyone involved on the performance side of a staged reading wants to make it the best it can be. Sometimes this natural tendency to outperform places within the performance team the idea to do weird stuff. Folks, there is no Tony Award for Best Staged Reading. Actors leaving their music stands and trying to interact with other characters who aren’t there is weird. Actors trying to creatively involve parts of a set on stage for another play is weird. I like weird, just not why-are-you-trying-too-hard weird.
- Moderate the talkback. I once was imbued with everlasting joy when a talkback session for a play of mine was deftly moderated by a savvy artistic director. Unfortunately, those tingles of mirth are cancelled out when recalling a recent instance when a reading for another play of mine finished and the artistic director opened up talkback by asking me directly, “so whaddya think?”, before letting everyone ramble and argue for the next hour. Have a set of questions prepared to guide discussion. And NEVER EVER ask the playwright publicly what he/she thought.
- Start with positives. PLEASE YES begin with discussing the positive qualities of the play. NEVER EVER begin talkback with questions that are basically, ‘what sucked?’. Yes, there are things that sucked. Let’s just not start there.
- Maximize audience feedback. Again, the primary purpose here involves putting a script to an audience. Get as much as you can from the audience. Squeeze and yank from the audience their thoughts. It’s surprising how often audience members possess subject matter expertise related to the script. As part of this endeavor, attempt to cap the amount of actor logorrhea. Actors are brave, incredible people who chariot scripts to the heavens. But this right now happens to be audience time.
- Shut Up and Smile. From the great Allison Moore I learned my most valuable playwrighting lesson, which has nothing to do with technique but everything to do with personal conduct. A playwright during feedback should demonstrate gratitude. How does one do this? During feedback one might get a comment of profound genius. When this happens, shut up and smile. During feedback one might get a comment of staggering inanity. When this happens, shut up and smile. PLEASE YES shut up and smile. A playwright refrains from debate and defense of work. Defensiveness and argumentation are clear indicators of an amateur. A playwright’s futile attempts at eliciting agreement from the audience will only anger them.