Staged Readings: A Primer

So you've decided to do a staged reading. Congratulations! Several quite successful projects began in just such a manner. Depending on your particular goals, there's often more to these events than simply running off scripts and inviting actors to read aloud, and the details can make all the difference.

What follows is a list of tips -- including common pitfalls to avoid -- that will help you put together a successful evening.

Choosing a Venue

Whether your piece is performed in a theatre, private home, rehearsal studio, community room, or parking lot, there are several important considerations:

- Accessibility. If the place is too far away or hard to find, people will be less likely to come. Try for a relatively central, easily accessible venue.

- Parking. You don't want guests circling the block as the presentation starts. Find a venue with adequate parking, or provide a valet service at no cost to your audience.

- Seating. People will be sitting for a while. Are the seats plush or plastic?

- Space. Make sure folks aren't squeezed together -- involuntarily, at least.

- Temperature. It's said that "cold is good for comedy." But freezing is good for no one. Even worse, a room that's sweltering can kill your event. Temperature is an underrecognized element in the success or failure of these things. Audience members will resent any presentation that forces them to sit in discomfort.

- Adequate lighting. Fluorescents aren't very theatrical. Stage lighting is ideal; but pleasant, adequate illumination, bright enough for the actors to easily read their scripts, will more than suffice.

- Can you hear me now? Above all, it's crucial that there are decent acoustics and no aural distractions. Your audience must effortlessly hear the words.

Casting

Some actors are unwilling to audition for staged readings, so casting is often done from among friends and by recommendation, which usually seems to work out fine. If auditions are needed, be as respectful as possible of the actors who come in, recognizing that they're offering their time and talents to your project. Actors like to know that a project is legitimate, so don't start casting until you've secured a venue and a date. You should also have a rehearsal schedule in place, so they'll know what the commitment is. Remember that you're not casting the final product, so if you're unable to find the perfect type, just go with a good actor who can perform the role well. Audience members will use their imaginations.

With smaller roles, it's a great idea to have actors "double" -- play several roles in the same script. This has to be done judiciously, so as not to confuse the audience. If someone is playing Drug Dealer 1 on Page 38, you don't want him as Drug Dealer 2 on Page 39. Viewers will think it's the same character. But when done right, doubling has several advantages: It gives the actor more to do, so he or she isn't sitting around all night waiting to say, "Yeah, what's it to you, anyway?" It gives the audience the bonus of watching one actor morph into several different parts. And it reduces the number of people on stage, which is a big advantage in a smaller space.

Doubling should be worked out before rehearsals begin. Create a chart, tracking the script from beginning to end, that shows which characters appear when. This will enable you to assign multiple roles without the risk of having an actor "meet himself" in a scene. Working out these tracks in advance avoids potential chaos and wasted rehearsal time.

If your show is a musical and you're not from the world of musical theatre, always solicit casting help from someone who is. Many of us know one another, and we're happy to make recommendations. There are considerations of which you may not be aware: vocal range, level of training, a singer's facility with the particular style of music, etc. If you're not used to speaking that language, you may find yourself with an opera singer for your rap musical, or your untrained, karaoke-singing neighbor for advanced, complex harmonies.

But the most important bit of casting is the one that is also the most neglected, frequently addressed only as an afterthought: casting someone to read the stage directions. The importance of this job is often grossly underestimated. Your narrator must be able to paint a picture with words, transport the listener to other locations, hold an audience's interest while reciting dry details. It's hard to find someone with these skills who is willing to read stage directions, so start looking early.

It's a good idea to position this person, instead of the writer or director, as the host of the evening. Much better to have your narrator welcome the audience and map out the events, thus: "Good evening and welcome. I'm Mary Jones, and I'll be your host for this reading of My Fascinating Life, by Jack Smith. I'll be reading stage directions to help you better envision the action of the play. Tonight's presentation will be about 90 minutes long, and we'll be taking a brief intermission between acts. There will be a Q&A afterward. Please feel free to stay and share your comments. And now please welcome our cast‌."

This accomplishes several things: It tells the audience what to expect. It establishes the narrator as the guide for the evening, a role that continues as he or she leads the audience through the script or screenplay. And opening the evening with the writer or director makes us aware of their need to have us like their work; using the impartial narrator allows us to relax and listen, without obligation or concern.

Costumes

A common mistake is to do too much in the way of design. Remember, it's a reading. When it comes to attire, most readings are done in regular street clothes or in all black. And that's probably for the best, as costuming can be its own quagmire. Once you get into the conversation that begins with "Who here has a poodle skirt?" you've opened up a Pandora's box that will lead to many wasted hours of what is usually a very short rehearsal schedule. This is not to say you can't get creative. If your story takes place on a farm, it's perfectly appropriate to have the cast wear jeans. If it's about 1940s mobsters, suits for the men, dresses for the women. But a suggestion of wardrobe is enough for these purposes. Above all, be sure the look is unified. If you have a guy in a toga and wreath sitting beside a lady wearing her favorite rock 'n' roll T-shirt, people will be confused.

Prepping the Script

Avoid the most common error of all: Before you run off copies of your script, do yourself -- and your cast -- a huge favor: Gather the writer and director; go through, page by page, and decide which stage directions are going to be read and which ones are to be eliminated.

Here's what to eliminate: anything that describes what characters look like or what they're feeling (your cast takes care of those things); details that aren't necessary to the telling of the story; descriptions of shots and camera angles for screenplays, and anything that interrupts highly emotional dialogue. Thin out long sections that describe action, paring them down to their bare minimum. As exciting as car chases can be on the screen is exactly how unexciting it can be to hear them described in endless, detailed paragraphs. Once you've made these cuts, create a special script for the reading, using a marker to black out anything that is not to be read. Only then are you ready to make copies for your cast. This will avoid confusion and save untold amounts of valuable rehearsal time.

If you want to go one step better, reformat the script so that the remaining stage directions are formatted the same as lines of dialogue, with "narrator" where the character name would be. This will discourage the other actors from blowing past these sections -- something that tends to happen in performance as cast members get swept up in the story.

Rehearsal

There's a common misconception that actors prefer to keep rehearsals to a minimum. Not necessarily true. Most actors I know would prefer to get things right, so they can feel confident in performance. On the other hand, don't abuse their time. If you're able to schedule so that actors aren't sitting around waiting, they'll love you for it. Also, you must be flexible with any auditions and jobs that come up for your cast members; if you've cast well, you should plan on losing someone to a paying job.

Start and end rehearsals as scheduled. No matter how well things are going, it's unfair to keep actors past the allotted time, putting them in the uncomfortable position of having to say something. If you're the type of person who gets carried away -- as we artists do -- feel free to appoint someone as timekeeper, and ask him or her to alert you when it's time to take a break or end. If you're fortunate enough to have a stage manager, he or she will assume that duty.

Cast Seating

Work out your seating chart in advance, placing actors in a configuration that's conducive to their characters' relationships.

Staging Options

Is yours is a sit-down reading, with the actors in chairs in a semicircle? Will you use music stands and stools? Will there be blocking? Microphones? You'll want to map out any traffic patterns, especially those that involve music stands and microphones, where the possibility of collision looms at every scene change. Again, don't do too much. The best staged readings are like radio plays, with the story presented in such a way that audience members can see it in their minds.

Whom to Invite

If your goal is just to hear the piece out loud, a random gathering will do. At this phase, don't invite the influential people you'll be calling on later, when the piece is ready to be produced. They won't come twice. Also avoid having a showbiz-only crowd, as that's going to elicit a certain kind of response. Invite a fair number of civilians as well, to see how your piece plays with the masses.

If you feel you're production-ready, your guest list will include those who can take your piece to the next level. But remember to also invite friends who'll liven up the atmosphere, laugh at the jokes, and applaud supportively.

Holding

In the quaint old days, an 8 p.m. reading began at 8 p.m. Today, people are a lot flakier. If they show up at all, it's often late. It's not smart to hold more than 10 minutes or so for latecomers, or you'll risk resentment from those who arrived on time, and the energy in the room will start to flag, getting things off to a rocky start. [Grouchy editor's note: Of course, the same can be said for even the most elaborate fully staged productions.]

The Chair Trick

If you're expecting 40 people, set up 20 chairs. As people arrive, set up more chairs for them. This creates an atmosphere of success and anticipation, as it appears that you have more guests than expected. Rows and rows of empty seats are a sad sight.

Preshow

Tradition dictates that once you pass the half-hour mark, the actors' time is their own. Coming at them with last-minute notes, reminders, or, God forbid, rewrites will only make them anxious, diminishing their performances. Leave them alone and respect their pre-show rituals.

"Tops and Bottoms"

Often neglected, and crucial to success, your beginning and ending must be planned. You want the audience to get the sense of a coherent, well-organized event, suggesting a coherent, well-organized piece.

Plan whether the cast is going to be introduced -- and if so, when. Plan whether there will be a bow -- if so, how many, and who will lead. Plan entrances and exits. After the presentation, will there be time allotted for a Q&A or feedback from the audience? Will there be a reception? Will there be food and drink? If so, can I come?

Asking for Feedback

Many writers find it helpful to get comments from the audience following the presentation. In this case, you may need to start the ball rolling, as people tend to be shy in groups.

Having the actors offer input can also be valuable. But, as with any comments, be prepared to filter. Reliably, some actors' suggestions will amount to the further development of their particular roles. It's not that we're egotistical, necessarily, but we tend to get curious about the people we're playing.

For many writers, the purpose of the reading is simply to hear the words out loud, or if the piece is a comedy, to see which laugh lines land and which ones don't. In such cases, feedback may not even be needed. And if you don't need it, don't feel obligated to ask for it.

Learn the Rules

If any of your actors are union members, you'll need to consult the Actors' Equity Association's "Stage Reading Guidelines," available on the union website, www.actorsequity.org. There you'll find rules pertaining to rehearsal hours, payment, and so forth.

Payment

Even if your actors aren't union members, always pay them something. Even the smallest stipend serves as an acknowledgement of their time and talent.

Finally...

Keep your expectations realistic. Instances of projects getting swept away to Broadway -- or DreamWorks -- based on a reading are very few. Think of it as a steppingstone in the journey of your piece. And speaking of swept away, be sure you clean up afterward. You want to be welcomed back to that venue next time.

While these guidelines won't make a bad script good, they will give it its best shot of being well-received and make for a fun evening of theatre. And if you get stuck, remember to ask your actors. Chances are they've done a reading or two -- or 50 -- in their time, and they may be able to spare you a few hassles. All the best, and break a page.

Contact Michael Kostroff at bsweditorial@backstage.com.