Thursday, November 8, 2012

New Play Smell Pt. 2: Staged Readings

In New Play Smell Part One I gave you a cheat sheet about New Play Development (how a playwright gets her plays out there). Now we continue our series on the adventures of Susie Q. Playwright. Susie Q has written a new play and wants to get it done so she can make lots of money (we'll let her keep her hopes for right now). But all she has is a rough draft, she doesn't know if this play is any good or not. Or maybe she's tried to submit her play to a theatre and all that the Dramaturge says "All we have for new plays is a festival of staged readings." So Susie Q. has to get a staged reading to move forward, but what is a staged reading? Well here's a cheat sheet.

What in the World is a Staged Reading?

A staged reading is exactly what it sounds like. Actors read you script in front of an audience onstage. There is a short rehearsal time and a lot of times you have a director. Sometimes you're the only playwright on the bill and other times your play is a part of a festival of staged readings. Usually a reading is followed by a Q&A session. These are very popular in the college theatre world and the bigger cities where the arts are very prevalent. Just about all of the big regional theatre's have them.

The staged reading for my new play at Hollins University.
Part of Lab during the summer session.

 So what  does it do for Me?
There are a lot of ways that a staged reading can really help you out. However there are some ways that different theatre venues use staged readings that may not be beneficial to your play or your career.

Me Chatting with the illustrious Ernest Zulia after a
reading. He runs the Undergrad theatre department at Hollins
and is a Jedi Master in the professional theatre world.


  • A reading is a great editing tool. You get to see the play being read in front of an audience and hear them react to it. If there are any big problems with your plot or characters this will be a great place to know. Normally you're in the company of a dramaturg that will guide you through this process.
  • It's a great networking opportunity. A good theatre will get key members of the community and important theatre people to come and see the show. If you're trying to establish yourself in a community or build a good bridge to further work then a reading is a good bet.
  • You can get paid. In the bigger places paying a royalty for all readings is automatic. In the smaller venues you can negotiate to get some portion of the ticket sales. Who else but playwrights get paid to submit and edit an unfinished work.
  • A good resume credit. It's always good to have some choice credits on the resume to show directors and producers that you can work with a producing team in a development setting and interface with the audience. It shows them that you can be someone that they just have to work with on their next project.
Me taking part of a staged reading for my buddy, Marshal Opie's
play in Lab. I love him to death.


  • There can be a glass ceiling. There are some companies out there that only provide staged readings and give no promise to a full production later on. There are even some companies that believe that they're doing people a favor by giving you a reading and nothing more. But they don't offer you a full production. I have seen some plays that get stuck in some kind of development hell because they keep hopping from one reading to another and still nobody picks them up for a production. It can be a vicious cycle.
  • Some people just don't know the purpose of a staged reading. You may get a director that feels like this is his time to go crazy or a producer that is trying to impose changes that he wants in the play. It's very easy while trying to conduct theatre business to lose sight that this is a service that they are offering you.
  • Poor staging. Very many times in your life you've probably have heard that phrase, "What you do now decides what you do for the rest of your life." Well a reading is a decision for your play that that determines it's future in the rest of the world. A staged reading doesn't mean that you that  the actors just have to stand there. There are always ways to shake things up that give you a better product. 

So what am I supposed to do with this?

Here are some helpful tips for your next staged reading.
  • Make sure it's in your best interest. When a company gives you a staged reading they're supposed to be doing something for your play that you can't give yourself. If you're not getting anything special out of this in terms of money, networking, advancement, or a full production in the long's time to pass.
  • Get a team that best understands your work. Make sure you have a producing organization that understands new works, a director that is in love with your show, and a dramaturge or close friend who's opinion you trust. Take a pass if you ever feel that your work isn't the main focus of the reading.
  • Feel free to call for better staging. Ask if there's anyway at all you can avoid just having actors at music stands reading lines. See if you can encourage a little movement, blocking, and a bit more rehearsal time. Most companies have strict rules about their readings, just make sure that you ask what the limit is and go for it. There are no rewards for asking too little. 
Me getting ready to join a question and answer session with
my fellow playwrights.
Some ways you can go even further.

  • Do it yourself. If you feel that you can give three quarters or more of the benefits to yourself then there is no law against producing your own staged reading. They're great ways of getting your friends together and advancing yourself and learning new professional skills. If you ever wanted to get into producing or management this is a great way to start!
  • Put it online. Youtube is running rampant with theatre and musical artists putting their readings and studio productions online and submitting it to the audience of the world! You can do this as a video or even a radio show! What is a radio show but a staged reading where you don't see the actors! As a caveat you do have to up your production value a bit when you go online but you should be thinking in terms of production quality anyway. Just ask a tech or media savvy friend to help! 
So as you see a Staged reading can really help you out when you start to see all of the benefits that it has for you. Just remember that a reading is supposed to help your show. If you at any point that focus is lost you find yourself on the verge of dangerous territory.

All the photos were graciously borrowed from The Hollins Playwright's Lab. I'd be remiss if I didn't offer them a shout out as the best MFA playwriting program in the world. You can see their Facebook page here. You know you have some questions and comments. That's okay, just leave them below.

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