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.