I was asked to opine about staged readings from my point of view as a playwright; which can be dangerous as they are sacrosanct to many people and theatres. I want to say up front that I have been extremely pleased and gratified with the staged readings for THE QUICKENING – in particular, those we’ve had during our production process due to the people involved. Our workshops have been diagnostic and not prescriptive and have provided me with information instead of dictates.
Staged readings have become de rigueur if you hope to see your play produced. The romantic in me longs for the days of out-of-town tryouts when your play was performed in front of audiences in different towns to see what worked and what didn’t before you officially opened. I imagine myself working at a fevered pitch staying up all night in a hotel room fueled by smoke and bourbon as I struggle to address whatever issues an audience’s reaction presented – like in Moss Hart’s play LIGHT UP THE SKY. Those days are gone; too expensive. Now, there are staged readings.
I think there are different kinds of staged readings – each type determined by its goal. There are theatres for whom a staged reading is a hoop you must jump through if you hope to get to a production – sort of an out-of-town-tryout-lite. I also think there are theaters for whom staged readings are only “political acts” to justify the mention of “new work” in that theatre’s mission statement. Many theatres only present staged readings of new work and never produce any new work – only work that’s been proven elsewhere.
A lot of theatres try to place as sure a bet as they can when they pick what they produce. They don’t want to risk scarce money on a play that has not been proven elsewhere. They ask questions like: Who’s ever heard of this play? Who’s ever heard of this playwright? Who will come to see a play they’ve never heard of?
Well, I think you’d be surprised.
Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m in the majority in believing that. So, I know how lucky I am to get this production; the stars aligned on this show. And some of those stars that aligned were staged readings.
Regardless, of how, when, where or how they occur, staged readings can be a double-edged sword for the playwright; the same medicine can help or kill you depending on how it’s handled and administered.
Some plays read great on the page but sound terrible when read aloud. And some plays sound great read aloud but are terrible on their feet; you have to envision what the audience sees and hears and nothing else. So, I think that taking the pages out for a test ride is a good thing as long as you hold onto what you want.
What I want is to hear and observe what's there (not what I think is there) so I can make better informed decisions to create the best script I can. Some of the best information I get from any staged reading comes from observing the people involved and watching. Did they lean forward or sit back in their seats? When were they doing this? Did they roll their programs into telescopes or sneak looks at their phones?
The danger of a staged reading is the possibility that the response can become an open season session during which others attempt to rewrite your play. There are three basic human drives: food, sex, and to rewrite someone else’s play. It seems like the first words out of many when they hear the words, “new play” are “let’s fix it.”
So, in the end, an important skill is the ability to ignore bad advice, which can come from anyone. So, how do you know when the advice is bad?
All I can tell you is that you know it when you hear it. Bad advice violates your gut instinct of what you want your play to be.
Remember, a change can be made for the worse. Change itself does not mean improvement. What I want from feedback are impressions of the work – not fixes.
I would encourage a notion of play evolution versus play development. I say, let a play find itself and to let a writer find themselves within a play. Ultimately, you have to decide at what point you're willing to please people in order to get your play on and at what point you don't care if they do it or not.
We all get opinions from others about our work in the theatre – but as a writer, the theatre is one of the last places where it’s still the playwrights work and not the product of a committee. The focus should encourage writers to listen to the impulse that's inside them and to honor that impulse.
To quote David Wright & 34 members of New Dramatists in NYC:
'A writer's voice is as individual and marked as a thumbprint, and is a playwright's truest imprimatur. It is as innate as breathing, and can be as unique as any genetic code. By its very singular nature, it is seldom born in the act of collaboration. True authorial voice always pre-dates the first rehearsal of a text. And it is -- and will always be -- an author's most distinguishing and valuable feature.'
Sometimes change is good and sometimes change is bad – but some workshops reward change regardless of whether or not it is good or bad. If every day the playwright brings in new pages in response to feedback, the sheer activity of all this creates the impression of productivity: when people say that a given script was torn apart and rewritten in the course of a workshop, they generally believe they are praising the workshop.If not much rewriting is happening, the verdict is that the playwright is not taking advantage of the process, though it may be that the process confirmed the playwright’s preference for what was already written.
Another potential problem is in the mix of personalities and the varying degrees of experience, talent and power each brings to the project. If the play is about factory workers but the actor playing the supervisor is dominating the conversations, guess who the play might be about when the workshop/feedback session ends?
Most playwrights have enough self-doubt that it’s easy to give into clearly expressed and/or sincerely felt criticism about something we feel insecure about.
Playwrights need observations and not suggestions. An observation is open-ended feedback that asks for reflection; a suggestion asks for acceptance. It is more helpful to hear things like, “I got confused in the second act because…” than to be told, “You need a flashback.”
The trouble is, the more I write, the less I feel I can articulate what is going on when I’m doing it. And the more suspicious I become of any “rules of playwriting.”
I do believe that you must have a good sense of what works and doesn't work on the stage. You need to recognize when well-meaning advice is useless, and, as sometimes happens, when spiteful advice is useful.
A play requires an audience and fellow theatre artists to go to the deepest parts of themselves in order to see if there is a link between them and the text.
For me, staged readings/workshops naturally flow into the rehearsal process where that link is forged. So, I believe that staged readings/workshops should be focused on presenting the characters and the play as written.
There are other ways to create theatre pieces/plays. But for me, I believe in the power of the idiosyncratic voice of the playwright to move people to feel, think, remember and understand in a way no other art can. And I know that staged readings can be an important tool – but like a double-edged sword, you need to handle it carefully!