Friday, January 21, 2011

Are readings good for you?

Actor Brett Fetzer and director Jose Amador, at a table reading of Resurrecting the King by Dennis Schebetta at 14/48

A few years ago, a renowned playwright who I admired and looked up to, said to me about public readings, “I can never hear my play.”  She hated them.  She thought they were a waste of her time.  If some hack said this to me I might shrug it off, but this was a widely produced playwright, as well as an actress who had performed many times on Broadway.

Of course, she said this to me on a panel right before I was about to have a public reading of one of my plays.

And it made me wonder, are public readings helpful to playwrights?

You might have seen this article in the New York Times recently about the plethora of readings in New York City.  You’ve probably been to a reading, either a small intimate affair or a big staged reading.  Maybe it was for a benefit or fundraiser, or maybe it was because of theatre company’s reading series, or because the theater company was either going to do it later that year (so it was a preview) or they were thinking of doing it (so it was an audition for the play).  I’ve also coordinated readings of new or alternative plays, since readings are quick and easy to put up and you can introduce audiences to new writers without the danger and risk of a full-scale production.

This article seems to infer that many plays from the readings get productions.  Given the amount of readings there are and low amount of new plays being produced, this seems highly unlikely, though no one has ever done a quantitative study.

(Oh, wait, no...TDF did a study and published a BOOK on the ires of new play development, called Outrageous Fortune.)

My main concern with readings is when they take the place of an actual production.

And I’ve seen that far too often.

Readings can have serve several purposes.  Sometimes it’s for me, the playwright, and for that I don’t always need an audience (and I usually don’t need a discussion afterwards—please, let’s not call them “talkbacks”, because who in the right minds wants to be talked back to?).  If the reading is used for promotion, or for audition for producing funding, I understand that.

What annoys me is when the reading is obviously for some other purpose (like raise the profile of the theater company) but masquerading as “developing a new play”.  This usually occurs with young companies who have no development background, no dramaturg on board, and no experience doing that kind of work. 

Also, with more presentational readings (reading as cheap production), theater practitioners and audience members often seem to think that this is a polished product.  If something doesn’t work in a reading, it needs to be cut, rewritten or dealt with.  This is sometimes the case, but not always.  There is rarely discussion of how something might need more work in rehearsal, (ie, more emotional life, blocking, etc.)

It’s funny, but whenever it’s a new play, suddenly we see it as “imperfect”.  We never do this with Shakespeare, even though many of his plays are quite flawed and make no sense.   But I digress…

In a time when theater is more and more moving to some kind of “Hollywood” model, I would hate to see theater using test audiences or surveys.

Writing a play is not done by committee.  It’s part of the collaborative endeavor of theater, but in the end, it is the Playwright’s vision and voice that will endure.

So, what do you think? Do you hear your play in a reading?

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