I had an interesting conversation with a playwright who has had over 200 productions of his work in the last couple of years, some for very long runs. Very bright, good guy. He is making an excellent living.
But we got talking about Staged Readings and the value of any kind of reading in general. He likes to “read his plays to death.” He’ll assemble any actors he can at any time just to hear it read. He’ll do 20 readings of his plays, not necessarily in a public forum, but within a forum of a group he is with, or just in his own living room. He edits out over time anything that does not work.
I mentioned to him, as I always do here, that “a bad actor can destroy your reading.” He has another theory, “If something goes well with the worst of actors, that means it works. I want my plays foolproof so anyone can do them.” He mostly writes comedies and some musicals.
So he made a great point, that if a bad actor can make it work, if an audience can get a reaction to a line out of a bad actor, then the writer keeps it. Mind you, he is not QUICK to cut, but he makes meticulous notes on EVERY reading, and over time he re-writes them as each line has FINALLY PROVEN ITS WORTH to the larger piece.
I will paraphrase a quote I have somewhere stuck on my wall underneath other quotes that I am too lazy to look for at this moment, from Anton Chekhov which says, “The best writing is that with can be understood in the briefest of moments. Less than a second.”
How do others feel about this playwright’s idea?
I think it is brilliant, but one must do many readings to make it work, as he does to make it work.
I agree with your friend's point if view and I would always suggest multiple readings to other playwrights.
But here is the thing and I vehemently warn other playwrights NOT to do what I'm about to tell you. (Kato, don't jump on me, but I do not do readings, and I suspect this goes against your point of view -- see how well I think I know you :)).
I am blessed with an uncanny ear and I can watch my work from moment to moment in my head. I have a strong sense for truth and I apply it to every word of dialogue. I approach playwriting pretty much as a painter approaches his/her canvas. When done it's done because I say it is. My work is my legacy and so I am adamant about doing it my way. And it hasn't much hurt my career. I do use an agent, but strictly to write contracts and collect money. If left to me I'd give it all away.
Would my work be better if I did do readings? Perhaps, but the work might be different and the work would be more commercial -- which I care nothing about. But that's me and, again, I do NOT recommend to anyone on this forum to do the same.
I do not write strictly to be produced. I don't really care all that much. I write to express myself and much of my work rests in boxes and in the closet because I get my joy from the process and playwriting is the medium I know well.
I do not send plays out. I don't always know how producers and directors find me, but they do. They do enough to pay my rent with money leftover. That suits my needs. I guess I'm an arrogant, egotistical freak of nature -- but it is my nature, how I am wired, so to speak, and I think that's cool. None can accuse me of not being true to myself.
Peeps, unless you're looking to travel on a very rocky road, DON'T do what I do. Listen to IMR's friend.
Following on from Edd’s comments, I would have to say that this method, which obviously works well for your friend, IMR, wouldn’t necessarily work well for everyone, and certainly not for me.
I wouldn’t necessarily suggest multiple readings for playwrights unless it suited the way they work. I think the necessity of readings really depends of the writing process of the individual writer. I write my plays with a careful ear to everything I’m committing to the page and to the characters lives. I am very precise and deliberate. After this, my “readings” begin, as in me reading it to myself (in my head). This is because it is me who knows better than anyone else what I was striving for, so my reading of it back to myself is the only opinion I can truly trust. The characters voices will sound just as I wanted them to, their emotions gauged as I wrote them. And then I rewrite. And read again, and rewrite, and so on and so on, until I’m happy with it. Then it’s done. That’s not to say that rehearsals won’t raise questions and necessitate some tweaking, but essentially the work is complete. I don’t write by committee.
Not everyone writes that way. Some write in broad strokes (to co-opt Edd’s painter analogy), hurling everything onto the page that comes to mind at the time in a rough-hewn manner, all to be trimmed and pruned in a process of “development.” They write less as an independent creator and more as someone who relies on a process to collectively shape what they have begun, through the use of readings, dramaturgs, audience talk-backs, etc, etc. This can work very well for some people. For others, like me, it’s neither necessary nor wanted.
As for your friend’s particular methodology in regard to the bad actor test, IMR, I personally would still side with your original argument, as I see nothing worthwhile in writing to the lowest common denominator, which is in effect what he’s doing. If his main concern is multiple productions and royalty payments, then doubtless that is the best policy for him, as his process means that any old ham can do a decent job with what he’s written. Personally, I prefer to write what I want to write in the knowledge that intelligent, skilled actors who know their craft will make it sing.
As with most things in life, there’s no one approach that’s right for all.
IMR, one of my very favorite writers is Proust. He throws economy of words out the window and meanders like none other, but through his meandering one rides a gorgeous wave right into our own sense of Being. Of course, I can't imagine doing that in a play. At least, not one I'd want to see.
Chekhov? The guy in Star Trek? I didn't know he was a writer.
I do like readings - and I enjoy the reading process.
I just got from an amazing week working on a play as a reading. And the play is better for the experience - plus I met some talented and committed people.
That said - I think that playwrights need to take responsibility for the "workshopped to death" syndrome. If you're done workshopping it - DO NOT CONTINUE TO SEND IT TO WORKSHOPS.
Edd - you know up front you don't want a reading - and I bet you don't bother sending to a theater interested in doing a reading, right? Why put yourself and the other people involved thru a tortuous process, right?
And I totally agree that you learn a lot from miscast workshops. And it's way better to have a miscast workshop and learn what your play requires with low stakes, than to get a miscast premier that could haunt the play for ever after.
I do dig readings -- I think they're fun, fast, and revealing.
Interesting post. Traditionally, I'll lock myself away for awhile... re-writing re-writing re-writing... i'll pull a few friends from a local drama group together for an informal read through, perhaps in a pub... then i'll re-write it again based on things that made me shudder at the read through before I'll finally have something complete, and when I say complete, I mean my best possible draft.
I'm soo fussy and my own worst critic. I recently sat and watched a third amateur performance of my first ever full length play, I wrote it 5 years ago, and I found myself cringing a little at the odd line here and there. Nobody else noticed, but I did.
"I've improved now, I wouldn't have written that line like that had I written the play today!" I often think to myself.
Pulling back to this thread... I quite like the idea of read throughs, making notes, re-drafting... but I can understand that by doing this... you may loose a little YOU in the writing... and your work becomes a little "commericialised" to please others.
I'm not sure how to sum up my post. So i'll just say "yes"
When I began writing plays, I started with ten minute plays to gain the most experience in the least amount of time. Over the next few years I wrote nearly 70 of them. Several have been produced and one was selected for a special presentation at a writers conference and one has won third place in a national contest.
I routinely had readings of these plays. They were mostly for me but I also had the readers and others attending rate the plays on a scale of 1 to 5. I got to time the plays, to hear what didn't work and get an audience reaction to the plays. I don't have readings any more.
It reached the point where the criticism bothered me more than it was worth. As has been said before, the quality of the reader has more to do with how people felt about the play than it should have. The comments got more negative than I was willing to accept.
I actually stopped writing a couple of years ago because of criticism I received on a full length play. I know I'm being unreasonable about it. I know I'm over reacting to well meaning but uninformed criticism. I know that I need to put it behind me and move on. Knowing all this doesn't help me put pen to paper. I have tried many times to start writing again but I get a page or two and I stop. I have this great desire (need) to write but I just can't get restarted. I don't know what the problem is - probably afraid to have another years work trashed by the readers.
Another thing that bothered me was the directors vision of my plays when they were produced. One of my favorite plays was produced and the director took a heartwarming drama about my father and made it into a comedy. None of the words were changed but it sure wasn't what I saw when I wrote it or heard when I had readings. Not that the production wasn't good, it evidently was. It was the best of show - but it wasn't what I wrote. A couple of close friends who know me and the play said that it was different from what I'd written: "Not better, not worse but very different." Getting a second production is harder than getting the first. I know I'll probably never get to see what I wrote.
Readings can work- if they are carefully controlled. If the playwright has specific issues that he wants comments on. "What didn't you like about it?" is no good. "Did Georges sentence structure help you understand that he is illiterate?" is good.