What does a play need from a staged reading? A response that might immediately come to mind is something along the lines of ‘to hear the play out loud’ ‘so I can hear the words come out of actors mouths” So I can get a fresh set of eyes and ears on the play’. These are fine answers, and they’re probably true. Yet, it seems to me that something is missing, that these answers don’t encompasses quite enough about the staged reading. Perhaps I had even lead with the wrong question, my apologize, allow me to refine. As opposed to the question, what does a play need from a staged reading? I should ask the question, what does your play need for a staged reading? Or what are the individual needs of a given play in a staged reading?
I had recently seen my first staged reading since coming back to Boston, and it was a pretty standard affair. I look out and see four music stands and four chairs for the actors, and a shorter chair off to the side was for the person reading stage directions. A character would sit when offstage, and stand when on stage, and actors would face each other in a horizontal line created by the music stands when speaking to each other.
I don’t want to discredit this. Sometimes, this is all a play needs from a reading. It’s simple, efficient, and gets the words and actions out in the air for the writer and audience to hear. However, I sometimes feel when this is the format that something is missing, that something is being ignored. When I was at this staged reading, I was getting the text, but had a particularly difficult time imagining how the world of this play functions. What does it look like? How does it feel? How does it move? what’s the theatrical sensibility? What conventions are being used and what the rules?
I think we’d all agree that a play is not solely text. It’s a living breathing thing, and a reading shouldn’t ignore this. I’m not asking for production value, that’s not the point of a reading. But often, it can come down to really simple things. My favorite example, and greatest pet peeve, is the question of stage directions in a staged reading. I think every staged reading needs to tackle the question of what stage directions do we need, and what are actually getting in the way of the reading.
There was a moment in the reading where two characters strike a pose together, and they had chosen to have the stage direction reader tell us that they would be making the poses and what the nature of the poses would be. All I can think in that moment is “YOU HAVE ACTORS, RIGHT THERE, LET THEM DO THE POSE, LET ME SEE WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE, LET YOURSELF SEE WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE”. Because it was read to me, I have no idea if that moment works. I have no idea if that joke lands because your not actually doing the joke, even though it is very much in your capacity to do so.
It’s choices like these that prevent us from finding out the full possibility of what a staged reading can do. To find out what is the full capacity within this frame that we can serve this play. Maybe the music stands aren’t in a strict horizontal, maybe the reading demands some depth? Maybe the reading demands a single prop or a simple design element that captures the larger essence of the world of the play? Maybe it demands a soundscape created by the actors using their voices? Maybe it requires an actor to scream in delight as they run around the room (something that happens in this play but once again all we get is a stage direction so I don’t know if it works.)
Or maybe it needs none of that, and simply the standard will do. But you have to at the very least invite the question of what if? What choices are going to serve a greater understanding of this play? Be bold. Be creative. If a reading is not as alive and as curious as the play is, then the reading has failed that play. Listen to the play, think hard about what it needs from you, and only when you follow that, can you reach the potential of what your reading can do.