It’s amazing what can be right under your nose without you knowing it’s there. I’ll admit that I only became aware of the practice of open rehearsed play readings recently, when I had the opportunity to have a reading of my own play, Glanaphuca, at The New Theatre in Dublin’s Temple Bar. Since then I’ve attended a number of play readings in theatres around Dublin – it’s my new favourite night out.
The idea behind a rehearsed reading is fairly obvious – like the use of beta readers for novelists. When a playwright finishes a play, puts it aside, edits it, puts it aside, edits it again (novelists should recognise this process) and is finally ready to show it to someone, the next step is a round table reading. This usually involves friends of the playwright (actors or not) sitting together (the provision of wine and snacks is encouraged) and reading the play from scripts. Aside from being good fun, the playwright can learn a lot from this process – and will most likely edit the script further after this reading is complete.
The next step is the rehearsed reading. This time, the play is read by real actors. It is also preferable to have an independent director involved, rather than the playwright directing themselves. The other element of a rehearsed reading is an audience. Usually, a rehearsed reading involves the actors sitting or standing on a theatre stage, under theatre lighting, holding the scripts and reading from them. For the audience’s sake, it’s ideal to have a static reading i.e. for the actors to move about as little as possible, but this will vary depending on the director, and the length of rehearsal time available. Some directors try to incorporate as much acting as possible into a rehearsed reading, others might just have the actors move about the stage at salient points. It’s important though not to distract the audience from the text with bad/uncomfortable movement, which can be an unfortunate inevitability of short rehearsal time. The same can be said for stage props and lighting. A good rehearsed reading will take place on a stage, under fixed stage lighting, but won’t necessarily have a lighting technician involved, and it’s not usual for the readers to employ props, unless something is particularly crucial to the story.
A good director will conduct a Q&A session with the audience after the reading – another good reason for the writer not to direct the event. During this session, questions may be put to the actors, the director and the writer. Again, the playwright can gain a lot from this process, although it can be mortifying and gratifying in equal measure. But we’re here to learn, and the playwright should be open to all feedback, positive and negative. If it gets too negative, well, I refer you back to my advice about employing a director – he/she can wrap up the Q&A at that point. But if the playwright has gone through a robust editing process, and if the theatre is enthusiastic enough to allow the play on their stage for a reading, it’s more likely that the feedback will be positive and helpful to the writer.
My own experience at The New Theatre was both helpful and encouraging. Writing can be a lonely business, and I’ll admit that the buzz of hearing my characters come to life through professional actors, in front of a real, live audience, will be difficult to beat.
As a punter, now that I am aware of these rehearsed readings happening around the city on a fairly regular basis (in addition to regular readings at The New Theatre in Temple Bar, there have recently been readings at the Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire; The Mill Theatre, Dundrum; and The Axis Theatre in Ballymun), I’m hooked. It’s a fantastic, and usually very cheap, way of getting to see new work at the early stages of development, and maybe even having the chance to affect how a future Tony award winner is written! It’s not often the audience is asked their opinion of a play, and it’s a joy to discuss a piece of work with those most involved in its development. And who knows? You might be lucky enough to attend a reading of an established writer, or hear the very first works of a future Pinter or McDonagh!
So keep your eyes out, and if you have an opportunity to attend a rehearsed reading, jump at it. And if you are a playwright, and are fortunate enough to be able to have a rehearsed reading of your own play, here are my top 5 tips.
- Don’t direct it yourself, get a professional to do it. Even if it involves a small financial cost, it’s worth it. You will gain far more from the experience by sitting back and watching it happen. Also, it will be the director’s job to cast the reading which is, er, a director’s job.
- Print a simple (one page, black and white) programme for the audience members. Doing this gives your reading the status it deserves, and is a nice keepsake should you never get to hold the real thing.
- Try and record at least part of the reading, it might help with your rewrites. Or, at the very least, take some pictures for posterity/Facebook.
- Get feedback from the theatre involved. They will know how well or otherwise your reading was attended when compared with others they might have facilitated. Ask them not to sugar-coat it, and learn from their comments.
- THANK those involved who most probably gave of their time and expertise for nothing so YOU, the writer, could see your work performed and make it better thereafter. Yes the audience gets entertained, and yes the actors and directors gain from the experience of course, but it is the writer who benefits the most from a rehearsed reading. At the very least, buy a round at the local after the event.
(c) Sheena Lambert