There’s nothing like hearing your words read before an audience.
I’ve had the good fortune to have two readings in two months of my newest play THE LUCKIEST GIRL. (It’s the play that not one, but two artistic directors told me no one will ever produce for political correctness reasons. So, I’m grateful that it’s even getting a reading!)
As much as we playwrights disparage the whole development hell process, it’s so important to have a safe place to help a play grow. And one part of that growth is exposing it to an audience.
Thought I’d share a few notes about what I’m listening for during a reading of one of my plays.
What I’m listening for:
It’s the ultimate immediate audience feedback. Did they get my jokes? Even my dramas have little laughs sprinkled in. I admit if my chicken jokes in the Bosnian war crimes drama don’t get laughs, I feel like a failure. So the first thing I listen for is laughs from the audience – what jokes are popular? Which ones fall flat? Is there some unintentional laughter about something that seemed perfectly reasonable to me when I wrote it? Could it get a bigger laugh with different phrasing or a different punch line?
My bad playwriting motto is “if it’s good once, write it again elsewhere in the script. Several times.”
The reading is where I FINALLY hear the repetition that somehow doesn’t jump off the page. And it’s an opportunity to look for the places that plot points or character clues NEED to be repeated.
LISTEN TO THE AUDIENCE
My new standard for bad plays is when the audience starts texting. I’ve seen it happen at exactly the point in the script (not mine, of course…) where the action lags, the piece feels like it’s not going anywhere, the audience is bored. The worst example of this was a mediocre production of Jon Jory’s adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” last year in Florida. Not one, not two, but THREE people in the audience all pulled out cellphones at exactly the same moment – late in the script just as Mr. Darcy was about to propose! Jane Austen was turning over in her grave! Dramatically, that should be the HIGH point of the script. It was not.
No one texted during my readings, but sitting in the back row, I did notice several folks fidgeting. I made note of where they came in the script and will now look to see why interest is lagging at that point.
Do the events of the play follow in a logical order? I discovered that I had inserted a short scene in a place that made no sense whatsoever.
There’s nothing like an actor trying to make sense of a line missing a word to catch your attention. A cast is like a room full of proof readers.
STUFF THAT STILL DOESN’T WORK
I have a series of short “interview” scenes where my two young actors do a man on the street interview of actors who play a revolving cast of characters. It was clunky in rehearsal. It was still clunky the first reading. And it never improved in the second reading. I could say “three strikes and you’re out,” but I think I have an idea of how to fix it.
STUFF THAT DOES WORK (or “get your finger off the delete button)
There’s a line that just felt wrong to me. And I’d made a note to myself to change it. And then the audience laughed loudly at the original line. Will I keep it? See rule one.
LISTEN TO YOUR DIRECTOR
Directors are amazing people. They see things in your script you had no idea were there.
My both my DC and LA directors found things in my script I had not fully thought out. Which has helped me flesh out characters and motivations and a style quirk that needs ironing out. I think I took more notes than my actors.
LISTEN TO YOUR ACTORS
Actors bring heart and soul to your words. They generously spill their insides for the sake of your current draft. Pay attention to their instincts. They may see more in your characters than you do. Be aware of the lines that get stuck in their mouth. Usually it means the sentence construction needs a tweak.