It’s that time again. The morning of the first reading of a new play.
I’m not talking about the first reading after a theater has agreed to produce a play. I’m talking about the first time I’ve gathered actors to give this creature a voice–my first opportunity to hear what I’ve gotten myself into.
As the architect of a play rather than its builder, a playwright has to eventually put the play into the hands of others, knowing that, barring a publishing deal, that’s the form by which its audience will see it.
I like to do that early in the process (early, of course, is a relative term–I’ve been working on today’s play for years. It began life as a novel, in collaboration with Eric Pfeffinger that never found a publishing home).
This first-read can be a deeply awkward time. The first time I gathered actors in my living room to read what became “Midwestern Hemisphere,” it proved an empowering–if way, way too long–evening packed with guideposts for developing the play. On the other hand, the first time I did the same with what became “Popular Monsters,” it was a cringe-packed afternoon that made me avoid for weeks the trio of talented actors who forged through the mess I had gall to call a play. (At the time, it was narrated by a werewolf and was only about an hour long.)
Note: I always find the best actors I can for these readings. That way, I can only blame myself.
There are some who believe that it’s shirking a writer’s responsibility to show a work to anyone until the writer has taken a work as far as he or she can. I’ve never been that kind of writer. One of the blessings of my time editing Indy Men’s Magazine was that I had a reciprocal relationship with Todd Tobias where we were each comfortable tossing a draft to the other and discussing a piece while in process. Rather than agonize over that last 10% of polish, we trusted that the other could pinpoint some places that would take the piece close enough to the finish line for publication. It worked.
A first reading of a play is similar, for me, except I am handing off the play not to another writer but to a set of people with very different talents. I’m not looking to them to give a post-read analysis of the piece and tell me where to go (although sometimes that happens and sometimes it’s very helpful).
More important is hearing the play as it happens, getting my first sense of the overall rhythm of the piece, finding the places where my voice gets in the way of its voice, and hearing if I’ve left room for the actor.
Sometimes, as with today, I’m trying to find if there’s a play in there somewhere. And I’m blessed to have actors in my universe willing–for a pizza lunch–to dive in for a few hours and show me what’s really inside this world I’ve tried to create.