Friday, May 16, 2008

Readings (or How I Learned to Stopped Worrying and Love the Audience)

Next Monday night please join me in Portland at the Portland Theatre Works as they present a reading of my newest full-length play THE ALBATROSS in their FreshWorks series.

By the way, that is what an albatross looks like (Photo courtesy of National Geographic, of course!)

If you’re in the area, check it out. It starts at 7 pm in the Theatre Noir at Theatre! Theatre! The reading should last about an hour and half and there will be a brief discussion with me afterwards. As this is the first public reading of this play (in fact, the first reading ever) I am going to be very curious as to everyone’s thoughts and opinions (Do you like it? Do you hate it? Tell me what you know, you mysterious audience, you!).

What is this new play THE ALBATROSS you say?

Actually, that probably wasn’t you, but rather one of the many voices in my head…

Here’s the synopsis:

David is an award-winning poet and teacher at a small private university. He has a great academic job and a golfing buddy in his colleague Mark, a recent divorcee. But underneath his polished lectures about “life as an artist”, he hides a secret pain, the suicide of his wife five years ago, a pain which is numbed through alcohol. He is violently shaken out of this numbness by Sofia, one of his eccentric students. A reactionary response to one of her poems begins a chain of events that will eventually cause David to drown under the watery weight of the past. He becomes a mentor to Sofia, recognizing her amazing talent yet also wary of it. There’s something else about her that he won’t talk about it, can’t talk about, and it’s this denial that will eventually cause his downfall.

Here’s the short form synopsis as quoted from my darling wife:

It’s the anti-Oleanna.

I love that!

Here are a couple thoughts about readings. There are many types of readings and many reasons for having them. Playwrights want them for their own reasons, directors have their own agendas, and certainly theater companies hold readings for other reasons, as well (sometimes its to develop a play, sometimes to get donors to give money, sometimes just for fun, who knows…) I don’t know the statistics, but I’m pretty certain that on any given day in this country, there are more play readings of new plays than productions. So the odds of you getting a reading with your new play are pretty good.

But my theory (and really one of my pet peeves) is that every reading should have a purpose.

If it’s to showcase the work, then great. If it’s to develop it, then do it with that goal. If it’s simply to hear actors say the lines and who cares what the audience thinks so you can find out what the heck you actually wrote, then, again, more power to you.

For me, when I have a reading, it’s usually developmental. Depending on how much rehearsal goes into the thing will depend on where I focus my attention. I’m looking at more than the script (I can look at the words on the page at home). I’m gonna pay attention to the rhythms the actors create from my words, if they got certain nuances, or if there are lines that are just problematic. Generally, though, I focus a lot of attention on the audience. I usually sit in the back and watch for a few behavioral things…(in the poker world we call them “tells”). Things like…oh, the obvious ones like laughing, oohing, gasping, yawning or coughing, but also if they’re leaning forward or backward, fidgeting, have puzzled faces or are just frankly asleep. No amount of discussion about characters or structure or the “arc” of the play will give as much information as whether or not the audience is actually interested in the story.

Because that’s what a public reading is for. The audience. Everything about a play changes once an audience starts getting involved. Everything.

And that’s the beauty of theater. And why it’s so freakin’ hard to write for the stage.

Also, my other general philosophy about public readings is to come in with some specific questions, usually three to five. No more than that. I mean, seriously, the audience just sat through your play and gave you feedback while watching it. They’ve been generous enough with their time. Ask a few things, but don’t grill them. Find out specifically what you want to know and get out.

Besides, most likely you already have some instincts about what you think is working and what isn’t. The audience will either confirm or deny it. Or maybe confuse you.

Oh, and one other important thing—don’t be defensive. Just listen. It costs you nothing to receive feedback, so absorb it. Even if you get some hard statements about the play. Take them in, evaluate them, and adjust if it works with your vision.

I’m already thinking about changes that could be made to my script and I will be spending the weekend going over my important questions.

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