How to stage a reading of your work to improve your writing

Readings are a vital part of the playwright’s toolkit and a key stage in developing your work from page to stage. With #WrAP having come to an end last week, this guest post from Sam Sedgman is about getting that all important feedback on a work-in-progress.

As writers, we can spend far too much time in our own heads. When you’ve been working on a play for a long time, it’s very easy to lose track of it, or to build up great big misconceptions about how other people might respond to it.

In both cases, it’s healthy to give your script some fresh air and invite other people to listen to it so you can learn from their opinions – and readings are one of the best ways of doing that.

But before you jump into arranging a reading, look at what stage your script is at. If you think it needs major work, you might want to share a copy with a trusted friend or a fellow writer first.

But, if your script is finished and you’ve redrafted it two or three times (or ten…), and if the idea of it gives you even a little flutter of pride, it’s probably time to share it. Exciting!

When it comes to staging a reading, here are the important questions to ask yourself:

What do I want to know?

What  kind of feedback are you after? Is there a particular character you think needs more attention? A scene which you feel needs work? Are you concerned about the pacing of the plot, or the balance of opinions you’ve given to your characters?

Write down the big concerns you have with your script – the big ones and the small ones – and work them up into a list of questions. This is your mission statement: the things your reading is going to help you answer.

What will I do with the feedback?

Some writers love a deadline, and others hate them. But when it comes to readings, they’re necessary. You need to know what you’re going to do once you find the answers to all those questions you worked out above.

Maybe you’re working towards a writing deadline, or planning on submitting this script to a competition. And, if you’re not, you might want to think about setting yourself a different kind of target to ensure you keep up the momentum after all your readers have gone home.

It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed by the advice you get after a reading and to just push the script into a drawer. This can sometimes be healthy, but only if you’ve made an appointment with yourself to come back and sit down with the script properly after you’ve had a breather.

So try and schedule some writing time in your diary, working back from the next draft deadline you choose to set – and remember, an achievable deadline is a lot more useful than an ambitious one!

Who’s reading?

Don’t worry too much about finding professional actors to read your script. The goal of a reading isn’t to put on a top quality show with great performances, but rather to let the text speak for itself.

Find some friends who know how to read aloud. And resist the temptation to join the cast and read it aloud yourself. Sure, you know the play inside out, but you’ll be so focused on reading that you won’t be able to focus on listening.

A reading is about paying attention to how your script sounds when placed in the hands of real people who don’t see it like you do. If you must, read stage directions – but it’s better to put these in the hands of someone else too.

Remember to send everyone you invite to read a copy of the script well in advance, explaining who you’d like them to read. But try and avoid telling them how to read the part, the aim is that your script makes that clear by itself.

Who’s listening? 

It’s good to invite some people not to read, but to listen. As they won’t be thinking about their lines, and instead will hear the script as a whole.

But this reading isn’t about promoting your work, so don’t try and make the audience too large. Eight to twelve people – including the readers – is probably about the right size. It’s large enough to invite a variety of opinions, but small enough to be able to hold a focused conversation with the group.

And when inviting people, think about who will give you useful feedback. This could be a fellow writer, an insightful friend, a colleague well-versed in pop culture, someone who works in the theatre industry, or just someone you trust deeply to give you the unvarnished truth.  Aim for variety.

And don’t worry too much about collecting together an audience stuffed with theatrical credentials. If you’re lucky enough to have a phone book full of actors and agents, then good for you – but remember that their insider’s view may be radically different to the general public who will end up being your show’s audience.

You could even invite your mother. I bet she has lots to say.

Where is it?

 All you really need is a quiet room that can comfortably seat a dozen or so people. But while it’s tempting to suggest your living room, it’s worth trying to hire a space in the centre of town.

Chances are it will make it easier for everyone to travel to, as well as giving the event a sense of formality that will make your participants take it more seriously. Several venues hire spaces from as little as £10 per hour so, if you can afford it, it’ll be money well spent.

How should I interact with my readers?

Remember that everyone you’re inviting is doing you a favour, so be as cordial and welcoming as possible. Invite them well in advance, with a personal message, explaining why you’d like them in particular to be there.

Be sure to follow-up nearer the time, and help them with directions to the venue if they need them. Arrive early. Bring water, and snacks. Be understanding if your guests drop out at the last minute. And thank everyone – before the reading starts, after it’s finished, and later, in person, when you follow-up.

Remember they’re donating their time to help you and it’s always important to appreciate that.

Where do I begin?

Make sure you supply every reader with one copy of the script, with one left over for you to mark up as you read along.

Welcome everyone before you start, and be sure to introduce the play a little. Don’t give a lecture – a few brief points will do: what it’s about, where it’s set, and who the main characters are.

Tell people how long you expect it to last (a minute per A4 page is a good guide) and if you’ll be taking breaks in the middle. Then note down the time, start a recording device if you’re using one, and start reading.

As you read, have your key questions in mind. Read along with the script, and circle anything that pops out to you – both good and bad.

It’s important to note down the stuff that worked well, as well as the stuff that didn’t, so that when you read back over the script later you’re not confronted with just negatives.

Note down laughs, good pacing, and lines that sound good in the actors mouths, as well as parts that are slow, confusing, or fall flat. When you’re done, remember to note down the time again. This scribbled on script will become your best friend when the re-drafting process begins!

How do I move the conversation into being about feedback?

Now comes the important part. Tell your readers and audience the concerns you had with the script which led you to arrange the reading.

Once you’re done with your list of questions, open the floor up to anything your audience might want to add. And though it’s easier to get swept up in the conversation, remember to write all this down!

But what if they don’t like it?

In the face of criticism, resist the temptation to justify yourself or to contradict the group. Don’t get proud or defensive. Take note of what everyone has to say, and then go home to consider it.

You don’t have to act on every suggestion or criticism that you collect, but you do have to consider them before you disregard them.

Use your instincts. If you feel one reader completely misunderstood the character they said they didn’t like, you might choose to ignore that feedback. But if three people felt the same way, then perhaps that character needs some work.

When do I follow up?

Try to follow-up with your guests the day after the reading. Ask them directly if there’s anything extra they’d like to share.

Some people might not have felt comfortable sharing their thoughts in a public group, but an email is the perfect way for them to reflect and collect their thoughts.

And finally…

Asking people to read your work aloud can be a nerve-wracking experience, but it’s an invaluable tool in giving your writing the energy it needs to take it to the next level.

And don’t forget to keep the writing date you made with yourself. Gather all your feedback around you, and go through your annotated script (and your audio recording if you made one) and get to work.

And when you’ve finished your next draft, you just might be ready to share it with the public…

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