Rules for Staged Readings

11Apr13

These are very official.

In my years as a writer, I’ve been part of a number of writing groups, classes and productions where staged readings are a normal, productive part of the process. Most recently I’ve been part of Deadline Junkies, and one of the benefits of that group is the stable of talented, working actors who lend their skills to the writers in exchange for I don’t know what… a chance to exercise their acting muscles. Mostly I think they’re just nice people.

But how do you, the writer, go about casting a script for a room full of writers? Glad you asked, me. I have some rules I tend to follow:

1.) Cold Reads are Honest Reads. I know some writers  hand out the pages a few days in advance. I don’t do this… mostly because I’m usually working right up to the deadline. But the benefit of my procrastination is that I get a more honest read from actors who just picked it up for the first time. Just like a potential reader for the finished screenplay. The hope is that the actors will find more errors in the moment if they don’t have time to prepare themselves. This is helpful to YOU, the writer, because the point of staged readings is not to have a great performance. It’s to put your script up raw in front of critical eyes in order to receive constructive feedback.

2.) Don’t Direct. An extension of the above. As a writing major at Knox College, my playwriting classes offered stage readings after our plays were finished. Your play got a director who could cast it and perform it on a stage with the caveat that the writer could have ZERO input in the production. This was to replicate the real-life situation where, if you sold the play, you weren’t going to accompany every copy to every theater to tell them, “No, say it THIS way.” This way the writer lived and died by the words he or she had written. For screenplays, I try to just hand out the scripts with no more than a short character description, and that is often already in the script already. Maybe it’s the improviser in me, but I am a believer in the let-‘er-rip philosophy of performance. Take time in the writing, and then throw it out in the wild and see how it does. 

3.) Seated Blocking Counts. Got a romantic comedy? Sit the romantic leads near to each other. Got a basketball team? Put those actors in a cluster. Even in a staged reading, the stage picture counts for something, and placing actors in a good stage location can alleviate confusion for the audience.

4.) Take a Risk on Untested Actors. This could also be titled “Nurture Your Stable.” As I said earlier, these people are really nice. They’re giving their evening to your work, and new ones pop up all the time. Give them a shot. Yeah, I’ve made what some might call some “bad” casting decisions because the actor had a weird accent or just couldn’t handle the lines. But never has a bad read ruined a perfect script. On the other hand, I’ve seen many so-so scripts (my own very much included) elevated by a surprising actor choice. Furthermore, if you just use the same actors every time, you’re just inviting the same actors every time, setting yourself up for a tough week when your 5 favorite actors are all sick or out of town, and you have no alternates.

5.) Let the Actors Play A Little. This is a bit contrary to #2, but since the workshop realm is one where the script is not finalized, and the point is to get input, do not discount the in-the-moment turns the actors provide. They are there to make choices, so take note of those choices that work. You might back into a great character without doing any work, and isn’t that the dream of writing? Besides, the vibe of most writing groups is “I Can Do This Better,” so don’t fight that. A couple times they might actually be right!

6.) Don’t Forget About the Narrator. DJ’s has the great Richard Eastman, who has become our kind of “go-to” reader for stage directions. I think he reads the most primarily because he’s good at it, followed closely by the assumption of “that’s just who reads the stage directions.” I’m making assumptions here, but I’m conscious of it with my own stuff. Each screenplay can feel different in each person’s hands (and mouth), so I like to switch up my narrators. Sometimes I go with a Big Voice actor, sometimes I go with a motormouth, sometimes with a woman (I know, right?!). The point is that the person providing the narration will probably represent the closest thing to your script’s “voice” as you’re going to get. Don’t just go with the flow. Consider it another actor.

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