Last night, I attended the reading of a new play and, while I have no intention of writing about this work in progress, I do want to write about the progress of the work.
Or, at least, how a reading can help that process.
First, it should be noted that this was not a reading organized by an institution. We have far too few of those in these parts. This was a reading put together by the playwright, one whose work I had not heard before.
Among the elements handled well at the reading:
- It was presented on a stage. I know that’s not always possible. But having the actors on a stage is a reminder that there is an end game for the work. A target. In a rehearsal room or classroom or living room, it’s easier to think of the reading as an end game. A very good radio play isn’t necessarily a good staged play and having the actors on stage put the audience in a position of trying to visualize what would be happiness.
- Stage direction were kept to a minimum. Obviously, a reading shouldn’t include every “she sighs” and “he chortles.” For reading purposes, stage directions should be kept to those things that are essential to understanding what is happening and that cannot be conveyed by the actors.
- The post-reading Q&A wasn’t run by the playwright. Having someone else moderate with a set of questions the playwright really wants feedback on helps diminish defensiveness and keep the session from turning into an impromptu script doctoring session.
- The playwright, however, responded to questions and asked for clarifications. I made the mistake once of thinking that, for such a session on a play of mine, that I should keep completely quiet and just listen. The session devolved into random comments that were less than helpful. I vowed then that, for future readings, I’d seek that middle ground.
- The playwright wasn’t looking for empowerment or praise. Who among us does like to be liked or to be praised for our work? But nothing comes from a reading that’s all about “Isn’t my work wonderful?” A playwright truly interested in evolving the work has to be aware that an audience that is largely friends is going to be largely positive about the reading. Initial comments are going to be very positive. Getting the audience comfortable giving honest feedback is a huge challenge but is essential. One possibility, which wasn’t used here, is to ask bluntly: “Okay, you are potential producers. What would you like to see different that would lead you to want to invest your time or treasure in bringing this work to a full production?” The response is likely to be a combination of aesthetic and marketing comments, both of which can be helpful.
- The playwright was listening during the reading and paying attention to the audience. In my experience, most of the lessons learned and the signposts planted at a play reading come from the reading itself, not from the post-show conversation. The playwright should resist the urge to be the stage direction reader.
- The audience was made comfortable. Beer, wine, and a nice spread of veggies, fruit, cheese and crackers–and time to mingle and chat beforehand–not only makes for a receptive audience, it also helps build a stronger theater community.
- It was rehearsed. I’m all for blind readings of existing plays. Or for new plays read primarily for the pleasure of the actors and audience. But the ideal is for at least one rehearsal read with the actors so that key elements aren’t missing–elements that can throw off an entire reading. I remember one reading of one of my plays where the lead actor’s misreading of a relationship got so in the way that the evening proved more than a waste of time but also an embarrassment for having wasted the time of the talent and those who attended.
- Comment sheets were provided. I’m not sure how many of the audience members used them, but the playwright provided comment sheets that could be submitted anonymously. Not everyone wants to state their concerns publicly and it was another sign that the playwright was genuinely interested in feedback.
And among those things that could have been handled differently:
- It featured a vibrant stage direction reader. I’m torn on this one. I’ve had readings of my own work where a drab reader of stage directions drained energy from the reading. I’ve also had ones where this person became as fun or interesting a character as the named ones on stage. The problem is that, while this can enliven a reading, it’s not truly part of the work for the eventual viewer. Thus, it’s an element that muddies the work itself, no matter how earned the laughs are.
- The playwright gave too much of an intro. I believe its more constructive–and avoids “leading the witness”–if the playwright doesn’t provide much or any info from the top. Yes, make the audience feel welcome. But avoid giving background on the play. Let the play speak. If you want to tell the backstory or talk about the show’s evolution after the feedback session, great.
- The audience consisted of friends and family. I’ve talked often about the Amway-tization of small theater companies. That is, the tendency of shows being sold primarily to acquaintances. (I judge marketing success on how many strangers there are in the audience.) Like most readings, everyone in the room seem to have some connection to the talent on stage. As such, the feedback and reaction is going to be more like that of an opening night rather than a performance six weeks into a run. Movies can be sneak previewed for strangers, but it’s very difficult to get that to happen in theater. That’s not the fault of this reading but a concern about such regional readings across the board.