When I moved to New York City in the early 1980s, play readings were rare. In the rest of the country, they were practically unheard of. Now, public readings of new plays have grown into an international phenomenon. They are an essential component of the current model of new play development, and an almost inevitable step on the path to production.
As a playwright, director and Director of New Play Development at Queens Theatre, I’ve seen and been involved in countless readings. I firmly believe that first and foremost, readings should be presented to help the playwright. Yet I’ve seen many readings that served other needs, and were not helpful to the writers. I began to present “Play Readings: A Workshop for Directors, Playwrights and Actors” at various Kennedy Center American College Theatre Regional Festivals, in which I proposed a simple model for putting together an effective reading. I was contracted by Focal Press (now Routledge) to write a book based on the workshop – the first and only book on the subject, entitled “Play Readings: A Complete Guide for Theatre Practitioners.”
Writing the book was nowhere near as enjoyable as writing plays. While I held strong views, I didn’t want to sound too prescriptive. I found a way to address this by including quotes from theatre professionals who disagreed with me. That way, it would clear to readers that despite my preferences, there is no one right way to present a play reading (a term I prefer to “staged reading,” because most readings are not, in fact, staged.)
Among the many aspects of play readings that distinguish them from full productions of the plays is the use of stage directions. Here is an excerpt from the book on that subject, adapted for this article.
Stage directions are written by the playwright to inform readers of the time period, set considerations, production requirements, stage action, character movement, entrances and exits, line interpretations, even the style and tone of the play. They offer guidance to the creative team, and are not written to be spoken aloud in a full production. Stage directions are formatted differently from the dialogue, usually in italics, and often in parentheses. Publishing houses have their own policies, but no uniform rules exist about how to write or format stage directions.
STAGE DIRECTIONS FOR READINGS
Because play readings are presented with minimal staging and technical enhancement, it is necessary for certain stage directions to be read aloud, providing the audience with information that would be evident in a full production. Along with actors reading from the script, from the audience’s perspective, the addition of an actor reading stage directions is the one of the most distinct aspects of a play reading. The impact of this element is not to be underestimated.
In most play readings, stage directions are edited unless they are particularly sparse. But this should not be done at rehearsal. Editing stage directions in advance is essential, and one of the most significant ways of using the limited rehearsal time effectively. It’s best if directors and Playwrights collaborate on editing the stage directions. Either the playwright or the director can generate a first draft of the edits, then adapt and adjust through discussion. A director may want to eliminate a stage direction that playwright feels is necessary. A playwright may want to strike a stage direction for which a director has effective directorial idea. Stage directions can also be rewritten or revised slightly, for clarity.
In the current model of New Play Development, playwrights who have had numerous readings of their work limit stage directions from the first draft of their play. This is unnecessary, and the thought of writing plays with readings in mind, rather than full productions, is an alarming prospect. On the plus side, the stage directions in these plays require fewer edits.
Certain directors feel that they are violating the playwright’s intentions by editing a single stage direction. But stage directions were not written to be spoken; they are suggestions for the artistic team, and most playwrights do not write stage directions with a consideration of how they will sound when spoken, and how hearing them aloud will impact the flow of the play.
For a play reading, it is best to eliminate as many stage directions as possible, but never at the expense of clarity. The less frequently the audience looks at the actor reading stage directions, the better.
In a full production of the play, the intention of the stage directions is communicated to the audience through design and performance. While some of this information is necessary for the audience at a play reading, much of it is not. Whenever a stage direction is spoken in a play reading, the audience’s focus is pulled from the actors. This can remove the audience from the experience of the play, and may impact the reading adversely, especially if there are numerous or lengthy stage directions. For these reasons, editing stage directions for any public reading is advised.
Given that the quantity, quality and style of stage direction vary considerably from playwright to playwright, editing poses particular challenges, and must be done conscientiously. There are few standardized rules or easy solutions.
The first step in editing stage directions is to examine the play thoroughly, from beginning to end, before making any cuts. This is the only way to determine which information included in the stage directions is essential for an understanding of the play. Playwrights should revisit their play before a Play Reading with this consideration in mind.
READING DRAFT AND STRIKE-THROUGH
After all of the stage directions have been edited, playwrights should generate a reading draft of the script, with the pre-rehearsal edits decided on by the playwright and director indicated by “strike-through,” a typographical function which places a horizontal line through edited text. Strike-through is preferred to eliminating stage directions entirely from a reading draft. When adverbs are edited, the Actors should know the playwright’s intention. Also, the artistic team may find in rehearsal that an edited stage directions is necessary, and should be reinstated. The reading draft should be emailed to the actors and the person reading stage directions, and hard copies of the reading draft should be available when they arrive for rehearsal, if actors have not printed out their own copies. A reading draft is a great time-saving strategy; without it, the director, the actors and the person reading stage directions waste valuable rehearsal time transcribing all of the edited stage directions into their scripts. While a preliminary edit and reading draft should be completed before rehearsal begins, the stage directions won’t be finalized until rehearsal, where the collaborative process on editing stage directions continues with the actors.
READING STAGE DIRECTIONS
Cast an actor to read stage directions, or at least an individual with a strong, clear, speaking voice and stage presence. Too often, stage directions are assigned to someone with little to no stage experience, and the audience loses important information. However, it’s important that the person reading stage directions doesn’t “perform.” In a full production, they would not be onstage. While the information they provide is essential, they should not distract attention from the characters or the text by attempting insert a “character” who does not exist in the play.
Preferably, the actor reading stage directions should not look at the actors during the play reading. When this person is not speaking, it’s best if they focus on the script. The audience’s response can be influenced if the actor reading stage directions finds a particular joke amusing and laughs out loud, and doesn’t respond to the next joke. Although they are not a portraying a character in the play, they are onstage in a play reading, not in the audience, which their behaviour should reflect. They should not function as an audience surrogate. The actor reading stage directions may also perform a small role in the play, as long as this is done in a way that is not confusing to the audience.
It’s important for the person reading stage directions to attend all rehearsals. While reading stage directions may not be as rewarding as portraying a character, the play reading can be compromised if this actor arrives late into the rehearsal period, or only for the performance. Changes are made in stage directions during rehearsal, or directors may decide that a line of dialogue should be followed a movement or action before a stage direction is read. It’s awkward if the person reading stage directions steps on an actor’s lines, or if an actor has to wait for a stage direction. The best way to avoid this is if the person reading stage directions is required to attend rehearsal. If it’s not possible for the actor reading stage directions to be at the entire rehearsal, it’s important that the director, playwright, stage manager or coordinator makes note of any changes that were made in the stage directions during rehearsal, and that time is set aside before the performance to review the changes with the cast, and the actor reading stage directions.
Instead of one actor reading stage directions, the stage directions can be divided among the actors in the cast, particularly with large cast shows. It’s important that this doesn’t become confusing to the Audience, so it’s best if the Actor reading stage directions is not a character in that scene. Actors should not read stage directions that apply specifically to the character they are portraying, for example, the Actor who “sits and reads the newspaper” should not say, “He sits and reads the newspaper.” This device calls attention to itself, and makes it more difficult for the actors to stay in character.