Play readings (and screenplay readings) are very important for writers, directors, actors, and producers.
It’s an opportunity to hear the material so it can be evaluated, timed, and as a way to attract potential investors. I’ve attended several readings lately and would like to discuss the difference between a reading and a staged reading. Some people are confused between the two and if you google the subject you might find different interpretations. This month I’ll talk about a play reading and how we do them at the Actors Workout Studio. Next month I’ll address staged readings.
A Play Reading (or Screenplay reading)
A reading is just that. Actors sit at a table (or in our case in a semicircle on the stage with their scripts) They remain seated the entire time and the performances are done through their voices. They may or may not even look at the other actors while reading. All stage directions are read by someone (a stage manager or script supervisor in the case of a screenplay). There is no physical action. Any physical actions are read by the person reading the stage directions. Think of it as a radio play, or something that you are listening to with your eyes closed. (sometimes people attending readings do just that, listen with their eyes closed) Think radio play. If you’ve had the opportunity to watch a radio play being recorded, you’ll see the actors each standing at a mike, and the performances are performed through their voices and emotions, and then sound effects are used.
This is the best way to “hear” the writers words. It’s how you listen to every word, and find what works with the material and what doesn’t. It’s all audio, not visual.
In a play reading there are no entrances and exits. If a character enters and sits down, the actor is sitting in his seat and the stage manager will read that action with a stage direction.
Here’s an example of how a reading might go:
Stage manager (reading from stage directions in the script) A living room, a couch is in the center, left of the couch is a table with 4 chairs. There are dirty dishes on the table as well as 5 empty bottles of beer. Jim enters the front door, walks into the room. He is a young handsome man around 30, wearing a baseball cap, heavy coat and scarf. He takes off his coat and scarf, looks at the table with disgust, then looks around for his dog. He doesn’t see him. He walks into the bedroom, then walks back to the living room, he looks scared.
Jim: Max! Here boy, Max where are you?
Stage manager: from the couch we see an older woman Marta sit up. Marta is Jim’s mother, approximately 60 years old. She had a blanket over her so we couldn’t see her. She is in a bathrobe and looks upset.
Marta: Will you please stop yelling!
Stage manager: Marta throws a set of keys to Jim.
Marta: Max is next door. I couldn’t sleep, he was making so much noise running around the room.
Stage Manager: Jim looks at Marta with an angry look and walks out the door.
Marta: I tell you I get no respect.
Stage manager: Marta goes back down on the couch and throws the blanket over her.
By just hearing this you can get a feel of the energy, the writing, and characters. You could listen to this with your eyes closed. The performances come from the emotion, energy and voice of the actors. I like to think even the stage manager is a character as that person can and should set the tone with their pace and emotion.
Actors need to be good at readings. They need to be able to act their role from their voice, emotion and passion by just sitting at a table with the script in their hand. I remember many times I worked on TV sitcoms. The first day would be a table read. Just like above we would do a reading for the executive producer, producers, director, and writer. They would all be in the room. We would all read the script (in character! They need to hear the characters voice!). We would be dismissed for the day so they could all meet and evaluate the material and do any necessary rewrites. I would show up on Tuesday and there would be a different actor in one of the roles. What happened is at the reading on Monday they didn’t feel that actor was right any more, not strong enough. That actor just read the part, didn’t read and perform it in character. I’ve seen that happen many times.
I like to have readings done at my studio for two reasons: 1) we are constantly evaluating and working with writers on their material. The writers need to hear their words and get feedback and, 2) it is a great opportunity for our actors to train their skills at readings.
Read the above scene to a friend. Read all the parts. Tell the story and act the parts, all from sitting in your chair. It’s a form of our work that actors need to be masters at. With good actors, a reading can be done with just one rehearsal, usually with the writer. I’ve seen great readings by great actors with no rehearsals, just meeting each other for the first time on that day. If you think about it, that’s what a table reading is on a television show or film, you meet the cast on the first day and do a reading. Be great at it, know how to do readings well, and don’t lose the job.
Next month I’ll talk about staged readings and how we use them at the Actors Workout Studio.
Till next time.