Between Page and Stage

is is an excerpt. For the full story, look in the Member's Area or in the Nov. 30--Dec. 6 issue of Back Stage West.Question: If it doesn't look like a play (really), but it sounds like a play (almost), then what (probably) is it? Answer: A play reading. Play readings are a strange beast. Neither here nor there, they occupy the odd middle ground between the page and the stage. Oh sure, play readings have fierce defenders, who see them as an integral tool for the playwright, but some dismiss them entirely as a playwright's consolation prize. Still others see readings as a necessary evil-a playwright's calling card, which too often becomes an end in itself. But no matter how we feel about them, we've probably all seen play readings that surprised us and worked wonderfully, as well as those that didn't. In either case, was it because of the play or because of the reading? More and more questions start to pop up when we figure the audience into the equation. If a playwright knows that it's not a finished work, then-Why? How? Who? When? What for? An exploration of these questions with some theatre makers in L.A. begins, appropriately enough, with a playwright. "I actually really love readings," said Alison Carey, co-founder of Cornerstone Theater Company. She's written more than 25 of Cornerstone's plays, as well as community-based works and adaptations at theatres across the country. "My take now is, give me 100 readings. The play gets so much better! But the way I work is so specific that, for me, readings are part of a larger process." Carey begins with workshops and interviews when creating plays such as Cornerstone's For Here or To Go? a Los Angeles citywide "bridge show" opening at the Mark Taper Forum on Dec. 15. So by the time an audience-which invariably will include many of the people she has been working with-attends the reading, "There's already a tradition of input; we're all already on the same page in terms of what the goals are." One of Carey's most obvious goals in a reading-one which she shares with any playwright-is to hear the text off the page. After all, unlike fiction or poetry, plays don't live until they're spoken. Carey said she understands what many playwrights go through the first time they hear their plays out loud. "It's important for the writer not to go from the cocoon to the reading," Carey advised. "I think sometimes readings are scary for writers because it's a one-time deal. It's hard for writers to understand what the audience's investment is. I think you have to go into a reading assuming that the play will change afterward. Because if you don't, then why are you doing the reading?" So Carey welcomes an audience. "You have to have another perspective, or you will never know how an audience will perceive what you're doing. You can't judge that yourself, and ultimately I think it's really important-the reason you write plays is to communicate with people, and if you're not doing that effectively...." AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION "A play reading is its own entity," said director Denise Gillman. "If people look at readings as being less than that, then they miss the opportunity that readings offer." Gillman has a history of working in new play development and dramaturgy, and she called upon those skills when she unearthed and staged the world premiere Brecht-Auden adaptation of Duchess of Malfi at Theatre of NOTE. "I think there is a danger if a play reading is done without any purpose," Gillman said. "You're there to help the playwright experience the play in front of an audience. If the purpose of the reading is to present a clear, strong reading and engage the audience in feedback, then even the audience has a specific job, and the director and the playwright have to take that into consideration." Which means preparing for the reading. If a reading for an audience is presented haphazardly, she said, it's unlikely the process is going to serve the playwright. One of Gillman's biggest pet peeves is badly read stage directions. "If the person doesn't visualize the stage directions, the audience misses out on a major section of the play. The actor [reading the stage directions] is a character who is making clear the physical life of the play and is just as vital as the other actors." "Our readings can be presented for a number of purposes," said Jerry Patch, dramaturg at South Coast Repertory. The theatre offers a number of readings, but it's SCR's popular NewSCRipts that generally stages SCR commissions, and gave life to plays such as Wit and Collected Stories. Patch is quick to point out, "Our readings are not auditions for our [repertory] season. Our approach to the play development is more playwright centered than focused on a specific project." NewSCRipts has plenty of loyal subscribers-a built-in audience of people who'll pay to go to play readings. Go figure. "Over the years, the audience has evolved," explained Patch. The theatre hosts a discussion after each reading, led by the SCR dramaturg assigned to the project. "The audience members know what their role is," he said. "Not to rewrite the play or ask the writer why he or she did things, but to report back on what they heard and felt and did or didn't understand. They're very good at that. Playwrights are knocked out how good the audience is at doing its job!" Luis Alfaro, associate producer of the Mark Taper Forum's 13th Annual New Work Festival, said, "We're focusing almost entirely on readings this year-being heard, rather than investing a lot into production values." The festival continues through Dec. 16 at the Actors' Gang. What? The big-money Taper going grassroots? "We're taking each piece on its own terms," noted Alfaro, adding that this festival's format is changed: Instead of half workshops, half readings, there are 11 readings, and also three works that have two performances each. Alfaro described these last "open public rehearsals" as "more invested readings." "What audiences are going to hear is plays very much in progress, in the purest form," Alfaro continued. "Some of the plays are really first drafts, and we're not going to dress them the way we normally do. We're skipping the tricks. It's really great. Nothing in this festival is ready, and that makes me excited because that's the true essence of what this festival is about. "Of course," he added, laughing, "some of the playwrights might disagree!"This is an excerpt. For the full story, look in the Member's Area or in the Nov. 30--Dec. 6 issue of Back Stage Wes