Directing a Reading of Your Play
Created by Marshall Mason; Edited by Dawson Moore and further edited and amended by Erma Duricko
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. Do NOT try to direct the performances. 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.
- Prepare a one sentence statement that captures what your play is about or/and prepare a brief statement of the inherent fight — “Everyone in this play is fighting to create a safe harbor.”
Rehearsal and Speaking with Your Actors:
- Go over with the cast which stage directions will be read, and which will NOT. Make the decisions ahead of time and have your script marked.
- Describe the world of the play to the cast, emphasizing where and when the play takes place. Give your cast a one sentence statement of what you consider your play to be about or/and your brief “spine” of the play.
- 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 encouraged to pick up cues as quickly as possible, so the action flows. All readings are too slow – general rule of thumb. Large dramatic pauses tend to obfuscate the story. Ask the actors to take pauses only when you have written a pause into your play.
- Give the cast a chance to ask specific questions about their characters, relationships, or history after you have read through the play – otherwise, you might never get to read the play.
- 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. Do NOT give line-reads or try to direct performances. Do NOT give line-reads or try to direct performances. Do NOT give line-reads or try to direct performances. Do NOT give line-reads or try to direct performances. Remember – the goal – the goal – the goal. Make sure the story is being told clearly! Actors are really quite marvelous artists – tell them that you can’t follow the story on page 22 and they will immediately clarify for you.
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 thestools 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.” The stages at the conference are small. Therefore, if you have a large cast – do not try to do this. I’ll show exactly how to handle large casts.
- Make sure the center chairs (or stools) are arranged with a slight arc, so that the actors can see each other and play together.
- The provided music stands will allow the actors to have their hands free.
- Place your stage direction reader outside of the realm of the “playing area” — either SR or SL.
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 you use music stands, 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. BUT, you might wish to have the actors enter as 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. The Reader should then announce the title of the play, the time and setting and read the opening stage direction.
Entrances and Exits
Use of Time
Talking with the Actors
Stage Hot Spots