Directing a Reading of Your Play
Created by Marshall Mason; Edited by Dawson Moore
The following material was written by Marshall W. Mason to give advice to playwrights who would be directing their readings in the Lab. There are great tips in here for anyone directing a reading, regardless of the venue.
At the Last Frontier Theater Conference, you will be participating in the Play Lab, where you will hear actors read your play aloud in front of an audience. After the reading, a panel of respondents will tell you how they were affected by your play, and offer constructive criticism. Then you will have a private one-on-one conversation with one of these panelists which can take whatever form the two of you agree on.
You can contribute to the success of this process by applying the following suggestions on how to make your reading as representative of your script as possible.
Guiding principle: Clarity
Goal: To let the play speak for itself. Do NOT try to direct the performances.
Script preparation (private):
- Decide which stage directions are essential. These would include the time and place of the action, but many other directions can be simplified or omitted for the reading. The key here is that you do not want to stop the action, the interaction, or the dialogue any more than is absolutely necessary.
- Cut ALL stage directions that indicate acting, such as “He nods or “She laughs” and all indications of “Pause” or “Beat.” Your actors will supply these simple actions.
- On the other hand, “They kiss” may be needed. Extreme physical action, such as “She slaps him hard” or “He plunges the dagger into his chest” will need to be read as stage directions.
- Trim the essential stage directions to as few words as possible. There is no need to have both “Blackout” and “End of scene.” But it is often necessary to read the final stage direction: “The lights dim. End of play.”
- Eliminate all poetic descriptions in the stage directions.
- Include character descriptions only if the actors are markedly different from the characters they’re reading, or if the nature of their clothing, hair style, etc. is necessary to understanding what happens. For example, in the first scene:
“She wears a black cocktail dress” and in the second scene: “She is now wearing a sexy swim suit,” will help the audience to understand the circumstances of these respective scenes. Anything less drastic than these examples is probably not needed.
Script Preparation (public): Your scripts will be printed in advance by the Conference staff, but you will be able to make a significant contribution to the success of the reading by making use of the following suggestions, as they apply.
- If possible, pre-mark the stage directions to save time in rehearsal. (not possible in Valdez).
- If possible, highlight the dialogue of the different roles in yellow. (actor’s responsibility)
- If at all possible, make sure you have your script in the hands of the actors at least 24 hours in advance of the reading. (they have them three weeks before the Conference.
Casting: Casting at the Conference will be done before you arrive by the Coordinator. He will attempt to find actors who:
- Are as close to the characters as available, in terms of sex, age, race, general body type, etc.
- Can speak clearly and can project their voices with good diction.
- He’ll also secure someone to read the stage directions for the reading who has a strong, clear voice, and can read without hesitation.
In other reading situations beyond the Conference, you should follow the same guidelines for casting as mentioned above.
- Go over with the cast which stage directions will be read, and which will NOT.
- Describe the world of the play to the cast, emphasizing where and when the play takes place.
- Give the cast an idea of what is MOST important about the tempo of the reading: whether the tempo needs to be, for example, slow and easy or at breakneck speed. Most readers should be encourage to pick up cues as quickly as possible, so the action flows.
- Give the cast a chance to ask specific questions about their characters, relationships, or history.
- If you give the actors ANY notes, be specific and clear about what you want. Do NOT indulge in intellectual analysis about abstract matters such as interpretation, motivation, metaphors, etc.
Stage the reading: At the Conference, chairs, stools, and music stands are available in each room.
- Arrange chairs (or stools) at the center of the stage to represent the onstage presence of the characters.
- Arrange chairs on each side of the area, perpendicular to the central chairs to indicate an off-stage area. Alternatively, the off-stage chairs may be placed behind (or “upstage”) of the stools where the actors will go when there are on stage. Or they may simply stand when they “enter.”
- Stage all the entrances and exits of the characters from the “off-stage” chairs to the “on-stage” stools at the front center. This will prevent the necessity of reading such stage directions as “She enters” or “He exits.”
- Make sure the center chairs (or stools) are arranged with a slight arc, so that the actors can see each other and play together.
- Use the provided music stands so that the actors will be freer with their hands.
Set up the Stage: Usually at the Conference, you will not need to monitor some of the following concerns, but in another situation, you may. Here, it should be enough to check the levels of the sound system, the direction of the microphones, and that the outside doors are shut (both to the hallway and backstage). It is important, though, that the actors do a vocal level check in the room to make sure you can hear them from the back.
- Arrange the chairs as you rehearsed in them. Make sure there is adequate light behind the actors so they can clearly see the pages.
- Make sure there is sufficient front light for the audience to see the actors clearly.
- Make sure the temperature of the room is as comfortable as possible. Be aware of the sound of the air conditioner (or street noises), and give last-minute adjustments to the actors accordingly.
- If possible, arrange for the actors to have a “backstage” gathering place so they can be quiet and focused before beginning.
- If music stands are available, and you have rehearsed with them, make sure the actors can be seen over them.
- Put one chair with a music stand (and maybe a reading light) to one side of the stage for the reader of stage directions.
Music: If your play requires or would be significantly enhanced by using music at the reading, record the cues on a CD if possible. Be sure to check the CD player before the reading to ascertain whether it has power and pre-set the desired volume.
1. If the reader of the stage directions is to operate the CD player, make sure he or she knows exactly which button to push to start, stop and/or pause the machine. A piece of tape on the play/pause button is useful.
2. DO NOT plan to operate the machine yourself: your concentration needs to be free to listen to the play and the audience response.
Introducing the reading: At the Conference, the actors will mostly already be in place as the audience is coming in. Your reading will be assigned a panel of respondents who will take charge of starting the reading. In other situations you may find the following advice useful:
1. If possible, have the actors enter as a group, with the reader of stage directions entering last. He or she should introduce himself (or herself) and then ask each actor to introduce himself (or herself) and the characters they are reading.
2. The Reader should then announce the title of the play, the time and setting and read the opening stage direction.
At the end, the Reader should read the final stage direction, and then, following the applause, your panel of respondents will tell the audience that there will be a forum for them to respond with their experience of the play. The writer should then join the panel at the front, but the respondents will manage the “talk back,” recognizing people, and interrupting if the discussion becomes un-helpful.
Do NOT be defensive. Do NOT blame the actors. Listen carefully to the comments of the audience to see whether ANYTHING they say is helpful for you to improve your play.