What is a theatre writer’s best friend and worst enemy?
You might think: Writer’s block? The blank page? Technology? Caffeine? Sleep? Outlines? All good possible answers, but…nope. What applies only to theatre writers and to no other form of writing?
DUN DUN DUN! *Insert dramatic zoom here*
But why, Michael? Why are readings both potentially wonderful and oh-so-evil at the same time?
An excellent question.
“As the Horses Go Round…”"
Theatrical readings of all types - but particularly for musicals - have a tendency to live within a cycle. And this cycle is simultaneously comforting and deadly.
Allow me to explain:
You write and finally finish a presentable first draft of a new show. YAY!!! So what do you do next?
Home Reading - You gather some actor and/or writer friends together to give the new piece a read aloud and see what it is that you have created.
You have some food and drink for your guests, you have a light and easy time, stakes are low, and you all have fun. Your friends stick around and chat with you about the show to give some constructive critiques, you realize you have a lot of rewrites to do (insert small crisis here), and then you all disperse.
You rewrite lots for a lengthy period of time and come up with a new, better presentable version. Yay!!! What do you do next?
Closed Reading - This could take place in your home again, if there’s room, or you can rent a studio for this one. What’s different?
The atmosphere is definitely still casual and stakes are relatively low, but now it’s time to find out if what you have is worth digging into and pursuing. You now have rehearsed the show with your friends/actors/writers who are helping you out, you’ve taught music to be sung live, and perhaps hired an accompanist. You’ve invited a director friend you think might be interested in the piece or have good critiques. You hold off on the snacks and booze until after the reading is over and you’re all in discussion mode. It’s just a tad more professional.
And the critique is more specific, because the show has grown and changed. There are now multiple drafts that people have heard - they can compare and contrast. Ideas and opinions begin to flow, some helpful and some not. It’s harder to detach from the critiques, though they need to be heard. You gain a lot.
A little time away from the piece. Then more rewrites. A little re-structuring. More songs. Fewer characters. Better dialogue. You begin to really like the piece. YAY!!! What now?
Staged Reading - This one often comes in the form of a festival or an open reading for people you and your creative team know, taking place in some studio or small theater. Now what’s up?
Well, there’s still no real staging. “Staged reading” is a little bit of a misnomer. Usually everyone is at music stands and the director does their best to make this feel natural on the movement of your show - a true feat for all involved. The performers are now of the correct vocal and personality type - some of them you knew ahead of time and some you did not. There is a director and a musical director. The piece has been worked a bit during your short rehearsal process (well under 29 hours if using AEA actors). Many changes have been made with the actors on their feet. The whole thing feels more like a performance, even though it isn’t. Everyone is being paid…except the writers, who are usually paying for everyone else out of pocket while taking off time from work to make the reading happen. This occurs quite often.
The feedback? From the cast and creatives it’s usually over drinks in a celebratory fashion right after the reading. From the audience? Perhaps there was an open talk back session where people you do and don’t know offer their opinions. Some great, some out of left field. Otherwise, you approach your friends and beg them to be honest to help your work grow, even though you know some of the critiques will hurt more at this point. More work piles on. Major changes needed. Off you go.
Back to the drawing board. Great experience. More work necessary. Lots of rewriting. Plenty of new material. Now it needs to be tested again before the public sees and hears it. Yay?!?
Home Reading - We’ve been here before, haven’t we? What’s different?
You’ve more actor friends who know the material to choose from. More performing can take place for the older material and you can personally supplement for the newer material. Things are lighthearted and fun as you test out the new version, but there’s more stakes now for you the writer. Critiques are critical, particularly from those who know the show well. Everyone has pizza and booze, or you give a little gift, and they go on their way. Onward.
Now you have a plan. You know what the show is missing, it’s not nearly as much as before. You’re oh-so-very close and you have a goal. Solid rewrites. More fire. Lots of coffee. Excellent new draft. Very solid yay.
Invited Reading - This one has definite stakes attached. Money will be raised, everyone will be paid, industry people you know and trust and/or are interested in will be invited, and music stands will be nowhere in sight. What is this thing?
We may be in a high profile festival of some sort, or perhaps just rented a nice space somewhere. You’ve gotten performers with excellent credits in the city - Broadway and Off-Broadway for sure - with at least one recognizable name who will perk ears up. You have found, or are courting, a director you really like who has great connections, whose interest in the piece could really move you forward. Scripts are in hand - contractually - but the performers like the material and care, so they’re basically off-book anyway. There is light staging and some good lighting. It feels theatrical. The audience is excited to be there - since they’ve all been invited for xy or z reason. This time it’s not about getting critiques - though necessary always - it’s about garnering interest in the piece and getting it out there into the world/the NY theatre scene’s psyche.
It goes well. You get good feedback, potentially even great feedback. You get industry people interested and/or attached. Or you don’t. Many factors are involved. You’re stoked about your piece. Lots of celebration after the reading. Everyone goes home, having had a great experience and looking forward to next time. You go home, knowing there has to be a next time. You’re not getting produced quite yet. The balloon deflates. Or perhaps you are! Congratulations! Depends on who you know, who came, where you are in your career, and what exactly happened. But there’s still more work to do.
If you’re getting produced, it’s time now to get the piece in perfect working order for production. Lots of work, much of it minutia. If your not getting produced, it’s time to get the piece in perfect working order to be sent out to every submission opportunity you can think of or find. Lots of work to do. Lots of cover letters to write and samples to be created. Demos to be recorded. Formatting to detail. This thing is great now. It’s totally what you want it to be. You’re pretty sure at least. YAY.
Home Reading - Whoa. What are we doing back here?
Well, you need to make sure you’re not crazy and that this thing is indeed where it should be. Friends love to hear and be a part of good pieces in good developmental stages. It’s actually a lovely time, despite how much work went into this little reading. You’re happy, they’re happy. It’s a good evening. Yes, there’s always more work to do, but you’re, like, totally there.
The show gets produced! Wahoo! (If it doesn’t, see above instructions for another Invited Reading and also do tons of submissions. Perhaps you’ll win a contest or be accepted to an opportunity where they will put on a Staged Reading for you. In that case, see instructions even further up.) Production went great. Much happiness. Not perfect though, and it needs revision before the next production and the next step. Okay, yay!
Workshop Reading - There’s a lot that’s great about this one. Like what?
It’s produced for you. Hells yes! Now you can be the writer, and only the write,r during a reading process - isn’t that a luxury? You are given more time. BOOYAH. It’s not rushed and everyone can take time to engage in the creative process together. It’s memorized. It’s rehearsed on its feet. There’s a dedicated creative team - and some cast - that are likely to remain attached to the project. The piece is finally starting to resemble what you had envisioned all along. The reading takes place for for backers and the next production step is discussed - will you be able to do a big regional premier? A pre-Broadway contract of some kind? Off-Broadway? West End? Minor tour to gain interest? Many possibilities.
From here, it’s likely production to production with tweaks in-between until you get to your final destination (Broadway, Off-Broadway, licensing, etc.). Perhaps another Workshop Reading takes place, but it’s unlikely to go too many steps back up on the list. I think you did it. You think you did it. You broke the cycle. YAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Well, until you do it all over again with your next show, at least. But that’s for another day.
Whaddya Say, Old Friend?
There are many lessons to take away from the reading cycle. There are many emotions attached to each step of it, as well as the entire concept. It’s a lot. And it’s easy to get caught cycling between a few of those steps. It’s difficult to break out.
But you know what helps at every single stage? The people. The friends. The artists you know and love who help you, support you, sing for you, read for you, and give you the most honest-yet-kind feedback throughout the entire journey.
Never underestimate their value. Cherish them. Pay them, even if all you can afford is some pizza and booze to share. They are you biggest fans and your best allies.
Short Personal Application
This past weekend I held a Home Reading (version 3 from above) of The King’s Legacy in preparation for this summer’s production. It was wonderful.
The show is in a fantastic place, the people were lovely and helpful and generous and kind, the food was good, the booze was better, the critiques were tops, and it was the best. And readings can totally be the best.
I am so incredibly grateful to all of the artists who have been involved in readings of my shows over the past decade+, for without them I could not do what I do. So, here’s to all of you who support writers through the chaos that is the reading process - you are loved more than you could know. Cheers!