Watching Readings

Playreadings and staged readings are endemic in theater. But do audiences really enjoy watching them?

Fertile Ground is springing up about us again, and Portland’s theatrical venues are filled with performances—dance, original drama, comedy, even a couple of premiere musicals, all there to delight audiences.

And then there are the playreadings.

The festival is heavy with new works, and that means that there’s a large dose of play readings and staged readings. The differentiation between the two forms is that you don’t expect more from a reading than some actors, chairs and music stands, while a staged reading can vary from a couple of simple props or costume pieces to some fairly elaborate blocking and tech—which can be indistinguishable from a workshop, which are also featured at Fertile Ground. (This is what happens when artists try to label their own work.)

Both playreadings and staged readings are generally seen as part of the natural trajectory of a script leaving the page and climbing the ladder to a regional theater premiere.

Two Portland playwright collectives, PDX Playwrights and Linestorm Playwrights, have multiple playreadings through the Festival, and along with Theatre Vertigo and numerous smaller companies, you could see a playreading or a staged reading every night of the week, with some extras on the weekend.

But would you want to?

This last week I saw several playreadings and staged readings, adding them to a lifetime roster of hundreds of such events. I’ve had my work featured in playreadings, and I’ve produced readings, and directed them, and performed in them, and taken tickets for them. I even have a couple of books on what was called somewhat grandiosely “Reader’s Theater” back in the 1960s and ’70s, when there was a school of thought that it was a legitimate dramatic form. Each of them features diagrams of where to put music stands, and black and white photos of people in dark sweaters sitting all askew on raised platforms.

You might say that I’ve looked at readings from both sides now, up and down, but still somehow … I kind of don’t like them.

Several works at Fertile Ground, including Milagro’s “Bi–” (above), are being presented not as readings but as fully staged world premieres. Photo: Russell J Young

I don’t hate them. (I do hate talkbacks. More on that in a bit.) But I think they’re disappointing. They’re like walking by a food truck and hearing your stomach rumble, but just when you get your wallet out the truck drives off. Yet what am I disappointed by?

Let’s start with the title, and the concept. “Playreadings” are to plays what “scriptreadings” are to film—not the thing itself, but only a small taste of what the final envisioned project will be. It’s just people sitting there in chairs, sometimes walking up to an ugly music stand to read, and sometimes (woo-hoo!) sporadically engaging another actor at another stand. This is not inherently dramatically interesting.

(Staged readings aim to do more, but they run into the fundamental problem that as unsightly as music stands might be, they’re a better way for an actor to read a script than holding it tightly gripped in one hand while they’re trying to remember their blocking—or change costume, move furniture, or dance, depending on how overly ambitious their director has been.)

Yes, readings are cheap to produce, with limited rehearsal time, and yes, you can produce a LOT of them—and when you’re a playwright collective, for example, you want to produce a lot of them to make your playwrights happy. But is a playreading a valid theatrical experience for an audience?

To help answer this question, I called Luan Schooler, Director of New Play Development and Dramaturgy, at Artists Repertory Theatre, who I figured probably knew more about plays and play development than anyone I knew in town. (“I do have the most words in my title,” she pointed out, quite reasonably.)

Luan Schooler, Artists Rep’s Director of New Play Development and Dramaturgy.

As someone who’s intimately involved in bringing new work to the stage, Schooler has a vested interest in championing playreadings. Yet at the same time, she admits some ambivalence. “A playreading is a complicated animal,” she says, particularly when the playwright is present, and an audience is encouraged to give feedback. “First, do no harm. Recognize that a writer has put hundreds, maybe thousands of hours into this thing, and as an audience member, you’ve put in a couple hours. The audience’s main role is to provide feedback, not necessarily verbal, about how it’s working for an audience.This comes from you laughing, or gasping, or whatever.”

For many playreadings, however, there’s the post-play discussion, or “talkback,” where audiences are invited to stay for an extra ten or fifteen minutes after the play to give their response. (For my own feelings about talkbacks, please see my short play Hell, With Drinks After; Or Every New Play Reading Talkback I Have Ever Attended or Been a Part Of.) Schooler agrees that talkbacks don’t always give a playwright the right sort of criticism.

“The question is always to me ‘how do we make this a useful exchange?’ It can be lovely to hear an audience talk about how a play has triggered a personal memory, but not always germane to the conversation. Sometimes, an audience may enjoy expressing and sharing their opinion, and if that’s the goal, great. But a moderator is really doing their job if they’re guiding the talkback towards information the playwright needs. It’s usually more helpful to focus on a particular moment—I was surprised by this moment; I was confused at this time. Though often, a playwright can get that without a talkback, just from watching the audience.”

This leads me to ask Schooler if she thinks every script can benefit from a public performance, and she answers “no” so quickly that we both laugh. “If a play is still really young and malleable, what it may need is to have the ideas tested in a workshop, not a reading. I was just in a workshop of [Hansol Jung’s] Wolf Play in NY, and we didn’t set any culminating presentation. That meant we could spend the whole week just answering the questions about the play. If you’re focused on presenting to an audience, half the workshop is about figuring out who walks to which music stand at what time. That can be a distraction from answering your basic questions about the play.”

Given these reservations, does Schooler see any intrinsic theatrical value in playreadings? She muses for a bit, then answers, “I think there’s something really exciting about the concentration on the language. Readings can be the most direct expression of the playwright. Some pieces, when you’re hearing it in that fresh, stripped-down way, can be thrilling, even though it lacks all the bells and whistles.”

I agree with this. Though it’s a rare event, there are times when a reading can be even more exciting than a play’s production. This is particularly true of writers like Tom Stoppard, whose complex interplay of words and ideas often lose, not gain, dramatic power when they’re fully staged and their fundamentally static nature is revealed. Years ago I remember the first public reading at Seattle’s ACT Theater of Stephen Dietz’s Fiction, a play about a convoluted and ultimately tragic romance between two writers. At the end of the piece (mercifully free of a talkback), there was a spontaneous excitement that we as an audience had been at a privileged and rare event. It was only when I saw the full production that I realized that a play about writers and their writing may be more powerful with nothing more than some actors, some chairs and some music stands.

While I applaud companies for playreadings and staged readings, it’s important to remember that these forms are best as an early step toward a play finding its way to a stage. It’s useful to know that not every play benefits from a reading. And when the applause dies down and the moderator steps forward to set up the talkback, it’s particularly good to grab my coat and get while the getting’s good.

One Response.

  1. Lynne Duddy says:

    Thank you, John. Excellent take. Totally agree.

    I did just experience E.M. Lewis’ “How The Light Gets In.” I have not attended many readings. My expectations were modest.

    This reading has me yearning to see a full production of “How The Light Gets In.”

    It resonated with me. The story held me captive and the work of the actors, especially Lolly Ward, did the piece justice… in spite of the music stands and chairs.

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