Staged Readings: What Is the Point of Them?

Posted: July 28, 2010 in braak, Scratchpad
Tags: ,

I was a hair’s-breadth from using all of my (completely imaginary, entirely assumed) authority from flat-out issuing a moratorium on staged readings.  They are a pain in the ass, mostly, a lot of times they just feel like a scam, and, in my own, personal experience, they rarely provide any kind of useful feedback.

But, in defiance of the life lessons I learned from Niccolo Machiavelli, rather than simply declaring an enemy and waging war on it, I think an investigation into the subject is in order.

There’s a lot of readings that happen around the Philadelphia area, and there are a number of reasons for that, which I’ll get to in a minute.  First, let’s be clear about what I’m talking about; technically, a “staged reading” is practically identical to a “script in hand reading” — the actors, after minimal rehearsals, read their lines from the script while attempting to act out some primitive blocking.  The difference between a “staged reading” and a “script in hand reading” is usually just presentation; “script in hands” are generally what you refer to when a company does the reading as part of its process of developing the play, and it’s understood to be halfway through that company’s work on it.  A “staged reading” is usually understood to be the outcome that the company is working towards:  i.e., they’ve picked up the play, worked out their staged reading, performed that reading, and are now done with it.  Good luck, playwright, finding someone else to produce!

For the purposes of this piece here, I’m going to refer to any kind of reading, however more or less staged, that is 1) open to the public, and 2) an outcome (rather than a part of the development process that is coincidentally public) as a “staged reading.”

So, Staged readings:  what is the point of them?

As far as I can tell, there are two basic reasons why you’d want to do a staged reading:  the first is to collect useful and constructive feedback on the development of the script (presumably for a future production); the second is for attention.

With regards to the first category, I HATE staged readings.  I find them trivial and useless, for the following reasons:  firstly, actors who are reading their parts are generally not thinking critically about the work as a whole.  This isn’t their fault; if you’re giving an actor three rehearsals before he’s going to perform, he’s going to work out exactly as much as he needs to understand to make sure his inflections are right and he doesn’t sound like crap when it’s time to go.  That’s okay; that’s what you hired him for.  But if you’re going up with minimal rehearsal, with minimal staging, with minimal direction and design, then your actors are only going to catch the most surface-level problems — proofreading problems.  This word is spelled wrong, did you mean “crime” here, or “criminal”?, is Valeria the same character as Bianca?  It’s good to find those, but ultimately not valuable to the play’s development.

You’d expect this, of course, if you’ve done any serious work with full productions.  In the rehearsals for Empress of the Moon, for example, it was until we were five or six rehearsals in that the major questions in the script started to come out:  questions about through-line, about character transitions, &c.  Much of the script is kind of expressionist, also, and deeply drenched in irony, so there’s a great deal that, as an actor, you won’t understand unless you just do it.  (Just using Empress because it’s near to hand, but there are a couple speeches, spoken quite earnestly, that are undermined by events that are occurring behind the speaker; even when you’ve got someone reading the stage directions, an element like that isn’t going to “read,” and your actors are — again, I think, quite rightly — focusing very specifically on their own character while they work.)

Moreover, actors are conditioned to be trusting; it’s their job to understand their character, and to fit that character into a context that is provided before them.  They must presume the script, usually; even in special circumstances — like developmental readings — actors are used to accepting what the script says and adjusting their character to accommodate it, rather than saying to the playwright that the script needs to change to accommodate them.

This is, obviously, where you’d want a dramaturg; I have my own, personal problems with dramaturgs, in general, that I won’t get into right now.  Suffice it to say, I think that, in Philadelphia anyway, the dramaturgical environment isn’t as robust as it could be; but even if it were, there’s little criticism a dramaturg is going to give you for a staged reading that she couldn’t ALSO give you from just having read the play.

Good critics would help, but there’s two more problems with this:  one is that good critics are sometimes harder to find than you might like.  Two is that playwrights, being deeply insecure sissies, can’t accept professional (as opposed to friendly) criticism without crying like a bunch of babies.  I can only assume that this is why critics are rarely invited to readings; it’s a pain, though, because at least with the critics you can be sure that they have a history of responding critically to theater, which you can’t always say for your audience.

Speaking of:  the audience.  I don’t know why you’d do a staged reading to see how the audience will respond to a piece.  I’ve been to readings before, and listened to talkbacks, and god-damn if there isn’t one person who hates [particular element A] for everyone one person who loves it.  Audiences, even more than actors, dramaturgs, and critics, are almost completely incapable of saying what they thought was good or bad about a play.  And, even when they do know!  They’re entirely useless at explaining why.

I suppose you could use an audience as a rough gauge for how funny jokes are, though this can be misleading:  usually an audience that never laughs indicates that your script isn’t very funny, but audiences DO laugh for a wide variety of extremely stupid reasons.  For instance, if one of your actors invited his friends to see the reading?  They’ll laugh at any dumb thing that guy does, whether or not it’s “really” funny.  This is basic familiarity humor:  people laugh at things they recognize in improbable situations.  But your audience recognizing their friend isn’t the same thing as your audience getting the joke — that doesn’t mean they DIDN’T get the joke, only that you can’t be sure that they DID, which would defeat the entire purpose of getting feedback.

In other words:  public readings are rarely going to provide useful feedback, since everyone that *could* provide useful feedback is either a) there during rehearsals, b) not invited, or c) doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

This brings us to the other reason that you might do a staged reading:  attention.

Charles Laughton did, I think some time in the 50s, a series of readings of George Bernard Shaw; Laughton and his fellow actors wore evening dress, stood behind music stands, and just read the play.  These readings were exceptionally well-attended; though, Shaw was also pretty famous at the time.  Radio was still popular, also and, frankly, Shaw doesn’t really improve that much between the “reading out loud” phase and the “acting out” phase.  This kind of reading is in the second category, the “attention” category — because plainly Shaw wasn’t rewriting his plays after these performances — and it suggests that the “attention” category should be broken down even further.

Shaw doesn’t need the attention (by the fifties, he was, like, a hundred years old and well-past caring about the rest of the world); Charles Laughton, really, didn’t need the attention much either.  Maybe he was just doing this so that people would have access to low-cost, good theater, and that’s a noble goal.  But, however you slice it, it’s Laughton and Shaw who are drawing the audience in.

Now, let’s assume that you’re a playwright; you, obviously, can’t do the same thing that Shaw and Laughton do — at least, you can’t do it and expect the same result.  Who are you?  No one’s going to come to see your staged reading.  How do you plan to drum up interest in this, if people aren’t already interested in something else about the production?  And, the fact is, staged readings are crappy versions of the play; it’d be like a film-maker selling tickets to see his storyboards, or his dailies.

You could do this if you were making a movie about something really interesting, I think (and it does lead to a neat idea for an economic model for funding, but let’s hold off on that), but a plan like that is going to rely on you either doing a movie (or play) about something REALLY interesting, or about you being someone really interesting yourself.

This brings us to PlayPenn.  PlayPenn is a program here in Philadelphia that does this yearly summer session of readings (and at least one symposium; this year was about neurology, very good) of new plays.  Playwrights are given a dramaturg, they presumably work with them for some length of time, then the play is read.  These sessions are also very well-attended, and that’s cool — I don’t want people to get the idea that I’m disparaging PlayPenn, I know they all work really hard and care a lot about theater and all that.

But.  I am interested in what the point of them is.  Let’s look at one of their playwrights this year (and last year):  Michael Hollinger.  Now, I know Michael Hollinger.  I know that he is a great guy, he is a great playwright, you should all see his plays, no question.  But the fact of the matter is, he doesn’t need a developmental workshop at PlayPenn.  He’s an adjunct professor at Villanova, where he’s got access to an entire crop of graduate theater students — if we assume that Villanova trains its dramaturgy students worth a damn (which, what the hell, let’s assume that), then we can conclude that there is essentially a platoon of smart, eager people who would be thrilled beyond belief to say that they’d been able to work on the development of one of Hollinger’s plays.

Seriously, I mean, he’s a regular for serious playwright; they do his plays all over the country.  If you were trying to get a job as a dramaturg, being able to say that you helped develop one of those plays would be the crown jewel of your resume.

Not only that!  Villanova University has an entire theater that they don’t use at all during the Summer.  And, Michael Hollinger probably has a number of theaters that would be willing (nay, excited, even!) to host productions of his newest play.  Even if they couldn’t call it a world premiere, I think he could probably get people interested.  Maybe he’d have to offer a discount or something, I don’t know.

The point is:  is PlayPenn helping Michael Hollinger get attention for his new play?  Or is Michael Hollinger helping PlayPenn get attention for their workshop?  Maybe he’s sharing his reputation with other playwrights that are on the billing, too, I don’t know.  This must be how it works — come for the Michael Hollinger and Bruce Graham, stay for the Nick Wardigo.

All of this is pursuant, of course, to the question of: what happens next?  Hollinger and Graham will probably be able to find people to produce their newly-developed scripts, but the odds for other playwrights aren’t so great.  You’d have to garner a LOT of interest at a reading like this for it to lead to a production (and, of course, critics aren’t really invited, so you won’t get attention outside the actual audience that came to see the play), and I can’t say for sure, but I don’t know that that happens very often.

This is a peril of “attention” — leaving PlayPenn out (I don’t know their success rate) and talking instead about a hypothetical theater company that does more than just developmental workshops:  the primary reason to do a playreading series like this is that it’s cheap.  It costs nothing, you usually don’t even have to pay the playwrights, and its something that you can add right into your schedule.  Based on a content model similar to…well, we’ll call it the Blog Model:  that it’s less important that everything you do be good than it is that you be consistent about it.  Based on a content model like that, theater companies can gain value out of a playreading series even if they don’t charge tickets (which they sometimes do, anyway).  Just having it on the schedule helps you build a consistent audience by reminding them that you exist.

(Also:  you can probably get development grants for that; you’re probably not supposed to use those grants for anything but specifically development, but I think that nonprofit budgets get a little fuzzy on stuff like that.)

The problem is, a theater company building its consistent audience doesn’t necessarily have anything to offer the specific playwrights who submit; the company will have to get a whole new crop of plays next year, anyway, and I don’t think it happens that often (again, around here) that a play goes from staged reading to “in the season” — on account of how most theater companies will lean towards the value in “known” plays than towards the value in “new” plays.  Playwrights are left crossing their fingers and hoping that a producer or artistic director, sitting in the audience for the staged reading, will see the new piece and become so excited about it that she’ll immediately shoehorn it into her next season.

Because after that, what do you do with your play?  Having had staged readings or developmental workshops (except, I guess at Steppenwolf, or something) doesn’t get your play any more credit at the many, many theaters you have to submit your script to.  It’s nice to have a staged reading, I suppose, but it’s rarely more than a blip on the radar of getting your work produced.

So, as a playwright, let me answer my own question:  what is the point of staged readings?  Basically, nothing, unless you’ve got a theater that you really like and you want to help them make some money.  With a budget of about a thousand dollars, and something like twelve rehearsals (interesting fact:  only FIVE rehearsals with the entire cast!), we’ve gotten more out of Empress of the Moon than any staged reading.  The fact of the matter is, if you want to see how a play works, you need to DO IT.  There are no two ways about this; everything that isn’t DOING THE PLAY is just folderol.

Therefore, I am declaring a moratorium on staged readings.  If you actually care about your play, if you actually care about the work, and not just the personal satisfaction of praise and a pat on the head from some strangers, then scrape the money together and DO THE PLAY.

    • Tom Juarez says:

      Wow. Readings of new work must really suck in Philly. Reading the script or having actors read it in rehearsal can’t replace having an audience in the room. Haven’t been involved in many readings here, as audience or actor, but I have in SF and a theatre conference in Alaska. I have limited experience using them as a writer, but when I did I found the unstaged and staged readings incredibly valuable. I rewrote based on how I sensed the flow of the play going during the reading as well as comments from the audience. You have to read between the lines of the comments sometimes, and pay attention to what’s not said. But when they make a comment that indicates their attention is being drawn in a direction you didn’t anticipate or want then you need to rewrite. You know what you intended so you won’t find that kind of problem without an audience. Audiences are not stupid. They catch everything, whether or not they can express it. If it’s electric in a reading it’s going to rock in production and you’ll find the weak points in the reading. The worst part of readings is how the feedback is done. Feedback sessions suck 90% of the time. Often the people leading the feedback start by talking too much or by creating a teacher/student (or expert/peon) relationship with the audience, or they lead poorly and let the feedback turn into a bitch session. For an example of good use of feedback, director Kent Nicholson is the best I’ve ever seen. He’s based in NY now, but works on both coasts and I think he’s currently in the Bay Area directing readings for an annual new work reading series at TheatreWorks, which presents scripts in very advanced stages. They do a reading, get feedback, have the audience answer fill out answers to questions the writer & director have about the script, take a few days to do rewrites and re-rehearse the actors, then do another reading and get feedback & written forms again. I saw both sessions of a reading a couple years ago. It works – it’s like script finishing school. I think developmental and staged readings of new work can be very valuable if you have good actors and properly led feedback.

  1. Gabe Valdez says:

    I agree with you that the audience is incidental to a staged reading and that there is very little to be gained critically, but I always thought the benefit was for actors, directors and writers to briefly work with each other without commi…tting to each other for the length of time a full production requires. It also gives you a far greater degree of interaction than a simple audition/callback scheme, not that these aren’t useful in and of themselves.

    If auditions are coyly sizing someone up from across the room and full productions are marriage, staged readings ought to be the dating stage – getting to know what being involved with this set of actors and directors is like. If an actor can’t function in three rehearsals, how will he with 30? If she pulls out at the last minute, that’s a knock on relying on her when you mount the full production. If he goes that extra mile for you but isn’t in that top tier of available actors, you learn he can be a good role player, which might put him over the top for that next supporting role you’re casting. If you’re carefully considering directing one of two productions and the writer for one goes apeshit over a small change and calls all the actors to tell them what you’re doing wrong, boy, aren’t you glad this is only a staged reading and you can learn this before making your decision? If the director’s batshit insane now, maybe later you really should take that other gig with the one with his head on straight that you were going to decline because it’s ten miles farther.

    These are things you cannot learn in the audition process alone and, with as much hair-pulling and drama as can go on in theatre, staged readings can give you valuable educations in the personalities you’ll have to deal with and later get to choose from.

    That said, a lot of directors routinely stage readings with actors with whom they’ve worked extensively before, which is pointless. Staged readings should be exciting dinner dates with intriguing, new people, not one-night stands with those three actors who won’t show you anything new in that setting but make you feel oh-so-safe and warm at night.

    • braak says:

      The thing is, that’s context-specific. In Philadelphia, for instance, I’m no more than one degree removed from every single working actor, director, playwright, and producer in the city. Anything I need to find out about the working habits of ANYONE, I can find out in less than a day.

      Consequently, it’s not worth it to me to spend time that isn’t directly contributing either to the play’s success or to its quality. The information gleaned from working directly with someone just isn’t that hard to come by to justify not spending that time, energy, and money on an actual for real stab at the piece.

  2. Sue says:

    Hey, give me a staged reading. I find them useful. I watch how comfortable the actors with the material and how they interact with one another. I watch whether the audience is attentive. I learn a great deal.

    Critique is a subject in itself. If it wounds and discourages the playwright, it was for the critic’s ego, not for the writer. Don’t blame the playwright for “being babies.” Blame the moderator for not doing the job and the critic without the skill to give insightful notes.

  3. braak says:

    Well, okay, so two things. No, wait, three things:

    1) It’s hard to accurately assess how comfortable actors are with material because a) they lie and b) they don’t read as critically in a staged reading as they do when they’re actually doing the play. The information that you glean in that sense isn’t really useful information.

    2) Especially! because you could glean much more thorough information from actually doing the play. Likewise with your audience: a play is only a third of the way complete when it’s nothing but read. When people are still trying to juggle scripts and props and they’ve got barely any blocking, you’re still not more than halfway there. And how do you measure the audience’s comfort? Blatant discomfort is usually obvious, but the fact of the matter is you ought to be able to peg “blatant discomfort” before you even get to the reading process. The subtler comfort levels are harder to measure (because, after all, what do you measure them with?) not to mention the fact that the audience for a staged reading is self-selecting: the kinds of people that go to staged readings aren’t necessarily the same kinds of people that are going to regular plays, so how do we know that what they’re looking for is the same?

    And, once you know how the audience responds, are you going to adjust the play to accommodate them? Do you anticipate that their reactions will scale up? This gets into a very different question as to just how much the play ought to be accommodating the audience’s sensibilities, but I maintain that even in (what I would call) the worst-case scenario of staged-reading focus groups, to get really thorough feedback you’d need to do ten or twelve or fifteen readings with small numbers of people.

    Of course, if you’re going to do that, you may as well just do the play.

    3) I do not agree that if it wounds and discourages the playwright, then it was for the critic’s ego. Some playwrights are bad, firstly, and discouraging them is good for society in general. But moreover, playwrights are extremely bad at telling the difference between “insightful criticism” and critics being mean. No one has any obligation to protect the playwright’s feelings except the playwright — there are kinds of information gleaned from a review: the first is useful criticism, which the playwright must consider dispassionately. The second is useless criticism (wounding, discouraging, &c.) which the playwright must ignore.

    I think the only responsibility that critics have is to be intelligent and honest in their assertions — but is it possible for us to believe that as long as a critic is intelligent and honest, that a playwright isn’t going to get his feelings hurt? I say again: playwrights are sissies, and I hate their sissy feelings.

  4. Re: the lack of critics at staged readings — Equity rules state that there can’t be reviews of a staged reading, so critics have little impetus to be there. It may have little to do with the fragile little egos you surmise playwrights have.

    • braak says:

      Most staged readings around here aren’t conducted with Equity actors, so I don’t think equity rules apply.

      Moreover, whether or not a review can be published in a newspaper is largely incidental to whether a playwright can receive useful feedback from a professional who is, nominally at least, skilled at reviewing plays.

    • braak says:

      Also, this is a little misleading. Equity rules don’t state that there can’t be reviews of a staged reading — Equity rules state that if there is a review, then it doesn’t count as a staged reading. This is not a rule that applies to critics, it’s a rule that applies to theaters and the contracts that they offer.

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