Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor. He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.
“I’m working towards a rehearsed reading of my play but after the initial reading, the actors and director made suggestions for edits. I’m deeply offended. Should I call the whole thing off?”
That is absolutely outrageous. How dare they?
You’re the writer, you know the play back-to-front, you’ve slaved over it for months, obsessing over every word to make sure it says exactly what you want to say in exactly the way you want to say it.
These people just show up looking for a bit of exposure or some practice, which you’ve been kind enough to offer them in exchange for their unquestioning voices.
And they have the nerve to make suggestions.
It’s a disgrace.
But do you really want to call the whole thing off? I’m guessing you’ve probably worked pretty hard to get to this point. And, despite their flagrantly presumptive suggestive behaviour, your director and actors must see something in the play which has inspired them to turn up.
I’ve been in this situation many times, and it’s completely natural to feel defensive; your play is precious to you, it’s taken a lot of work to get to this point and you’d really rather not rewrite the whole thing at the whim of an actor you just met.
And they’re not playwrights are they? So what can they possibly know about the art of playwriting?
I always have to check myself a little bit at this point though. Maybe I didn’t ask them to make suggestions, but I’m sure they’re only trying to be helpful. I mean, they’re performing in this reading so they do have a little something invested in the success of the play. They want to look good.
Some self-interested actors will make suggestions like; “I think my character needs to say more,” or “I really feel like my character would be more compassionate and likable at this point.” I almost always ignore these outright.
Most of the time though, actors are genuinely trying to make the play better. That’s not to say they think it’s terrible right now, but nothing’s perfect right?
That’s why you’re doing a rehearsed reading. Because the play isn’t perfect.
Otherwise you’d be watching it on Broadway already.
I made the same mistake of thinking rehearsed readings are just to gain exposure. You want something to invite agents, producers and directors along to so they can be amazed and immediately drop to their knees, begging to work with you. And this is part of the reason we hold these events.
However, nine times out of ten, I’ve gone along to a rehearsed reading and come away thinking “That was fantastic, I really enjoyed it, there’s definitely potential for an incredible play there.”
I’ve very rarely thought; “That was an incredible play.”
Because readings are really part of the development process. They’re often the first opportunity you have to hear your play out loud. You should be listening carefully for clumsy dialogue, plot points which don’t quite come across and gaps in your character arcs.
Does this mean you should be taking these actors’ suggestions on board?
Not necessarily. It just means you should listen to what they have to say and try to be objective. Ignore the thinly-veiled pleas for more lines, but soak up the constructive criticism.
I find that the best thing actors tend to do at readings is ask questions.
“Why does my character slap his character with that fish?”
“How did we get from Slough to Dar es Salaam in forty-five minutes?”
“What happened to the severed head they left in grandma’s freezer?”
You don’t need to have answers to all of these right away, certainly don’t feel you have to make something up on the spot if you don’t know. Take them away and think about them.
Actors are people, like almost everyone else, so the questions that are bothering them as they read your play may well bother your audience further down the line. You’ll discover some points which feel crystal clear to you but are utterly confusing to anyone who didn’t write the play.
The other thing to bear in mind is that actors read a lot of scripts. Most of them have actually studied acting, which involves reading and analysing plays constantly. Good actors have ways of understanding characters you’ve probably never even heard of (unless you also studied acting), they have great experience of reading words aloud, they can spot dodgy pacing and weak motivation from miles away, and they’ve possibly had insight from other writers they’ve worked with.
A good director is very similar; they’ve got experience at examining all the little nuts and bolts that make up a script. They’re skilled at analysing the meaning behind each event in a play to see how it flows from beginning to end. If you’re the architect drawing up the blueprint of the play, the director is the foreman, interpreting your vision and relaying that to each actor in a way that makes the whole show stronger.
A director will often give you suggestions about the structure of the play. They’ll ask questions about why certain events happen. Again, in my experience, you’re not expected to be able to answer every question. You do need to consider these questions though, because they’ll often highlight flaws in your plot that need to be addressed.
The first time I sat in a reading of one of my own plays was in a rehearsal with a group of actors and a director. I was looking forward to hearing my masterpiece read aloud for the first time. It was an exciting moment, it felt almost like an opening night. I’m sitting at the side of the rehearsal room thinking “I’ve done it.”
I enjoyed the atmosphere as the actors warmed up their voices, scripts were handed round and characters were assigned.
They finally got down to it. I was on the edge of my seat.
The opening scene began to unfold in my ears. The reading was a bit stilted, but it was the first time the actors had seen the script so I let them off.
They eventually got to the end of the play. I waited anxiously for the applause.
The director announced a short break.
Everyone came back and sat down. The director then began deconstructing the entire play scene by scene with the actors.
“Why do you think this happens?”
“What’s this character’s motivation here?”
“What’s the significance of this location?”
The actors all chimed in with their thoughts, concerns and follow-up questions. It was excruciating.
I felt like they didn’t get any of it. Either they were a bunch of idiots or I had written sixty pages of complete nonsense. Maybe my keyboard was accidentally set to Chinese characters, or I’d had a stroke or popped some LSD without realising.
It was much easier to blame them than myself, so that’s what I did.
I was polite and diplomatic as I left the room, but I went away seething inside. How did they have the nerve to question everything I wrote?
Now I realise it’s all part of the process. As human beings we understand things through questioning. Our curiosity has led to everything from space travel to shoelaces to self-raising flour.
“What is this?”
“Why does this happen?”
“What would happen if I did this instead?”
This is how we learn. Actors and directors use questions to discover more about characters and stories.
You should use readings as an opportunity to learn more about your own characters and stories. I’m always surprised at what I don’t know about my own plays. Note down everyone’s questions and suggestions, then go home and ask your own questions.
“Why did this actor suggest this?” Maybe there’s something they feel is missing from the story which affected their understanding.
“Why didn’t the director pick up on this plot point?” Maybe it wasn’t as clearly signposted as you thought.
“Why did they want me to cut these lines?” Maybe those lines weren’t vital to their understanding of what was happening, and thus became distracting.
When you’ve been working on a play for ages you can easily become blind to its flaws. It can be hard to see the forest for the trees. You’ve read every draft a thousand times; you can easily forget what’s in there and what’s not.
Let the actors and the director point out the gaps for you. They’ll tell you what was unclear, interesting, boring, moving, funny or confusing.
Never dismiss anyone’s feedback outright. There’s always more you can do to improve your work, and there are always people you can learn from, no matter how experienced or competent you are.
Weigh up everyone’s feedback carefully and objectively, then decide what works for you and your play.
Use what’s useful and dismiss what isn’t. Don’t do yourself or your play the disservice of letting pride close your ears.
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