I know I’m going to bleed – that’s a foregone conclusion. But I’m beginning to think I show up at my own staged readings just to figure out if I am going to bleed a little or bleed a lot. My first real thought when I sit down to witness a reading of a new play of mine is, “is this going to be a Band-Aid kind of evening for me, or should I call in the paramedics and a triage team, and for good measure, book an emergency suite at St. Vincent’s Hospital?” Because the really dramatic action isn’t happening on stage, baby. You want dramatic action? Just look to me to see if I’m going to keep my nervous spittle confined to my lip or am I going to throw up on somebody’s shoe before the ordeal is over. So what’s gotten me so nuts?
I’ve lost sight of what a staged reading is supposed to be, and with the help of other people, I’m beginning to distrust them as any kind of representation of the work I’ve written. Why? Sometimes my director thinks it’s a place for him to be really smart, really hip, really innovative with a form that people must be damned bored with by now. Sometimes my actors think it’s not important, or too important, or less important now that they’ve got the Q-Tip commercial. My producer is convinced that whatever she sees on stage is the real play, the real event with reviewers, potential investors and everything in the audience, so it has to be perfect because it won’t get any better or worse. My non-theatre friends think it’s a cross between a book-signing at a Sears and Roebuck and a backyard puppet show, and my writer friends who know what is wished they didn’t.
And me? Well, as I’m watching my reading, I’m trying to reconcile this fantasy in my mind of how the play would be if it was fully staged, with the reality of it’s just a reading in a black box with an “invited audience” (a.k.a., every friend that owes me a favor) and actors who’ve rehearsed once, maybe twice, with the simple need to hear the flawed, fragile, vulnerable text as it is written at that exact moment in time. So I don’t know where to put my head or what to be thinking about. If I look to my director, I start thinking about the performance. If I look to the producer, I grimace at every mistake in the play. If I sneak a peek at my agent, I look quickly to see if they’re tearing up my agency contract. If I look at someone I don’t know, I worry about what they think, why I don’t know them and are they someone I should know. If I look to my writer friends, I’m trying to figure out if they like it. Would they even say they like it if they liked it? Are they going to lie to me? Don’t I want them to lie to me?
STOP! I’ve let too many people in my head that are not supposed to be there! I’m supposed to be there! I’m supposed to be focused on one thing only: my play. Everyone else is, so why aren’t I? Because readings have become productions, or, at least the next best thing. The Need-To-Succeed-Me knows that 99 per cent of theatres in this country might not produce my play for a hundred different reasons, but I can get at least get a reading (if I’m lucky and I’m talented) in a good number of them. So all that energy I use to throw at potential producing theatres I’m now thrusting into every reading I have. And it’s decimating the creative experience and leaving me dazed and confused about my work.
I’ve got to figure out how to return to readings that work for me and not against me. And I can start by observing one simple truth: the reading is for me as the writer and not for anybody else -- they’ll get their time later if I do my work well right now. It’s okay to be selfish sometimes, and this is absolutely one such time.
Easier said than done, right? Agreed. And yet readings have to remain focused on me as they are my only resource to hear the play I’ve written. I need to witness it with a clear head and open heart in its most embryonic form and dream its potential. I need to be able to watch an audience choose between watching the stage and watching their watches, then use it as the only true tool I have to discern the good, the bad, and the ugly so that a literary manager doesn’t do it for me in the form of a vague rejection letter. Therefor, if I’m going to put my ego where my talent is, I need to concentrate on two things: what do I need to do as the writer to be absolutely prepared as best I can for the eventuality of it all and what should I reasonably expect to experience in a reading of my play?
One simple rule of preparation that I’ve learned the hard way: if you have so much as one rehearsal before the reading, use a director to guide the rehearsal and not yourself. Be the writer. Be the person who’s the expert on the story you’ve written. Be available to answer all those actor-questions that are going to come flying at you. Be the voice of authority on the dramatic intent of a scene, but let someone else tell an actor to speak up louder. You’ll have enough on your mind as it is without worrying about the performance of your material. Find someone who genuinely appreciates and understands your work to bring the text up to a performance level that an audience can comprehend and appreciate. Let go of the performance. It’s one less thing to worry about, and in my case, one less pint of blood.
Once you’ve found your director, sit down eye to eye, knee to knee, cappuccino to cappuccino and talk about the play. But I mean, talk-talk. Big talk. Talk it to death if you have to. You’re going to have a short rehearsal period with actors and there is not going to be a lot of time for “discovery” in the process, so make sure your director thoroughly understands what you understand about your story, the people in your story and what you think, in the most imaginative, emotional terms, the play is about. Then, with your director decide together in an open, frank discussion what the objective of the reading is and plan the presentation based on that understanding. If you don’t, it’s a guaranteed two-pint blood loss problem. Why so?
I had a reading not long ago in which a very good director convinced me that because of the sensational energy of the story that I had created, she thought it was essential that the actors move about on stage to “juice the audience” – a phrase I’m still trying to figure out. In our three-hour rehearsal, actors were walking, rolling, kneeling, flipping, flying and fighting each other off with pencils in mouths and scripts in hands. That was all fine and well, but the text, by virtue of what was going on, became incidental. I mean, c’mon. Actors aren’t machines. They have to read, ingest, translate then interpret those little black marks on the white page. How can they do that when they’re running a friggin’ marathon on stage?
Did I mention this was a comedy? Did I mention we only had one rehearsal?
Do you know what happens when an actor is trying to fight and fly at the same time they’re trying to read a shaking script at the same time they’re trying to be funny? I’m telling you, it was a total three-pint blood loss for me. But it was for the most part my fault because I wasn’t thinking about what form of presentation would best fit my writing in the play. I learned the hard way, then: I have to be clear about where the play is in it development and what form of presentation best suits the writing in the play in direct relation to how many rehearsals I’m going to have with actors and director.
If a play is fresh out of my computer and I want to simply hear the text and nothing more, a rehearsed, sit-down reading is probably my best bet. If I’ve worked on the text for a while through several drafts, and need to hear the text with a sense of its physical, dramatic action, I can ask my director to incorporate minimal blocking with actors holding their scripts. And if I’m fortunate to have the script worked on in a developmental workshop where I can watch every rehearsal and rewrite the script, and I need a stronger sense of the actor’s craft to bring the full life of the play to the surface, I can ask my director to plan a more formalized, completely staged reading with sound and minimal props. As the writer, I can do anything but not say what I think the script needs for its particular stage of development. I know that script better than anyone, and like any good mother, I know what my child needs.
A second rule of good preparation: make the whole experience easy for your actors. They’re the courageous folks on stage, not you, and their jobs are next to impossible because there are so many limitations imposed on them in a very tightly controlled presentation. They can’t freely move about or fully use their bodies to convey any sense of character or build a dramatic moment. They have to spontaneously interpret words on a page and make sense of them, and have no external trappings (sets, props, costumes) to help form a more complete image of any given dramatic moment. They solely create time, mood, place, style, conflict and the other conceits of your play usually only wearing some variation of black-theatre-drag and carrying your bright, white pages. So let’s help them out:
1. Have your director explain to the actors where you are in the development of the play, what you hope to achieve with the reading, and how you both expect the actors to contribute to the process, (actors need to know what’s expected of them to gain and maintain a solid base for their work).
2. Make sure everyone understands how you, as the writer, will function in the rehearsal. Are you there just to answer questions? Are you there to continue the writing process? Are you going to be there at all? Are you going to make changes up until the last moment? Not at all?
3. Do anything you’re capable of as the playwright to help the actors translate your words from the page to the stage. Talk about characters in as much detail as time will allow. Give the actors a jumping-off point to think about who their characters are, why they behave the way they do in the play and what their significance to each of the other characters is in the play. Let them ask me as many questions as they have and try to fill in the gaps in their character understanding.
4. Give them a script that is easy to spot-read (not necessarily double-spaced; perhaps a space and a half). Remember, they have to read your text live, and if they stumble to keep track of where they are physically on the page, you’ll lose any sense of rhythm, cadence and flow of dialogue.
5. Pronounce any odd words, colloquial phrases or cultural indicators your actors have no reference for.
6. Explain any quirky character behavior you see clearly in your head as central to the character but might not be fully developed in the text yet.
7. Make sure your actors actually understand the play you’ve written and not just the one character they’re creating. They need a sense of the whole dramatic arc of the play, and a short rehearsal period doesn’t always allow for that kind of understanding.
8. Don’t act in your own play. Not yet. Not now. Wait for the Broadway production. Be a writer now. Your concentration can’t be in two places at once, so be a writer.
During the process, short though it may be, make sure you’ve presented yourself to the
director and cast as a writer interested in having the best possible text you’re capable of. That means listening with an open ear when a director or actor suggests that something in the text
feels underwritten, overwritten, metaphor heavy, dense or elliptic. It also means working with the director to impose a pace on the reading that will keep the reading alive during performance. Help the effort out by guiding the director through what staged directions are absolutely necessary to be read for the audience’s comprehension of the action (nothing bogs down a reading like endless stage directions read out loud) and make sure the actors understand what you’ve chosen. And can we all finally agree that nothing will kill a reading quicker than some lifeless, uninvolved slacker reading the stage directions?
If you’ve worked well with the director and your actors are solid and secure, all that’s left to think about is you. Start with one truth about any live performance: shit happens. Actors aren’t computers; they’re going to make mistakes. Audiences are fickle, temperamental, easily distracted and by virtue of being where they are, supportive. They are not the enemy. No one is, but maybe you. So shake yourself a couple of times before you sit down and focus on the primary purpose of why you’re there: to hear your play. So do what you have to do to hear your play. Whatever that means to you. It’s different for all of us, but for me in the future, it means forgetting every soul that’s in that audience but me.
Readings are my molding clay and as I sit there, I should be the most eager sculptor. They’re my opportunity to shape, reshape or cut away whole scenes, redefine characters and strengthen the plot line. If I listen well, I can tweak and torque my words to an inch of their syntax, watch my audience’s reaction and figure out all I need to know to move the action forward. I can watch my actors stumble over lines and learn to simplify the dialogue. I can watch a director’s struggle with my long monologues and dense scenes and ultimately lose the battle because of my writing. I can confirm that a dramatic moment works brilliantly, just as I envisioned it, or watch it fall flatter than a pancake, just as I feared. All in all, I can write a better play if I focus on it, and not me.