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FilmHelp: Screenwriting

Staging a Screenplay Reading

By Greg Pak

 
Last month I held a reading of my new screenplay “Robot Stories” at the Asian American Writers Workshop. I was very happy with the event — here are a few pointers based on the experience.

 
Why do this reading?

 
Step number one is to decide why you’re doing the reading. This will determine your schedule, presentation, and target audience. I wanted to do a reading of “Robot Stories” primarily for workshop/script revision purposes. The film is a feature consisting of three shorts — I wanted an audience to absorb the material in one sitting so I could see how well the shorts work together as a feature.
    Finding a producer or financier willing to back the picture would have been an added bonus, but that wasn’t my primary purpose for holding the reading. So I didn’t go hog-wild trying to get industry presence at the event. I sent emails to people on my mailing lists, but I largely left the publicizing of the event up to the Asian American Writers Workshop, the fine organization which was hosting the reading.
    It’s worth noting that if you want maximum industry turnout, you should avoid holidays. The reading took place on January 15, Martin Luther King Day, which a few folks mentioned as a reason for not making the event.

 
Casting, rehearsal

 
For the most part, I cast actors I knew in parts I knew they could nail. But I had no intention of doing the reading cold — I wanted the screenplay to come alive for the audience, which meant rehearsal. Since it was a just a reading, without blocking or memorization, we were able to be very efficient with rehearsal time, meeting the day before the reading for four intense hours.
    In casting the piece, I had everyone read multiple roles. This avoided the boredom an actor feels when he or she has a two page scene in the middle of the screenplay and never appears again. And it kept the number of people involved in the event smaller, which meant less logistical complication and fewer mouths to feed.

 
Food

 
I provided three meals. First, an informal dinner at my place a few nights before the event, for whoever wanted to come over and hobnob. Two actors came, and since they were playing a husband and a wife in the piece, we were able to talk about the script and their characters and do a little reading. Entirely helpful and made the subsequent formal rehearsal more efficient.
    Second, I treated the cast to brunch right before the big rehearsal. The meal let people get to know each other, which is always good. And it ensured that everyone was well fed and jolly as we began to work, which was outstanding. A four hour rehearsal can be grueling if people have skipped breakfast.
    Finally, I took everyone to dinner after the actual reading. Since the reading was over, this clearly didn’t affect its outcome. But it was fun. And an entirely appropriate thank you, since I wasn’t able to pay anyone for participating in the reading.

 
Staging

 
I told the actors not to act out any of the characters’ movements physically. We treated it a little like radio or voiceover work. We set chairs in a half circle on stage. When an actor was in a scene, he or she would stand up, script in hand, to deliver lines. The actors would look at each other, working off of each other emotionally. But they did not march through any blocking.
    I brought in a few clamp lights, two light stands, and a dimmer. This allowed us to have a few light cues, fading up and down when the script dictated. A nice touch which helped the audience settle into the piece.

 
Two people reading narration

 
Having been to readings before, I knew that the most important and hardest-to-execute part of the production are the stage directions or narration. Without anything to see, the audience can quickly zone out during these descriptions. In order to enliven the narration, I always had two actors trading lines — every time there was a carriage return in the screenplay, a new voice took over. I paired men and women for this narration. So the actors could play off of each other a little, building a little scene as they read the narration. And the audience’s interest was maintained by a variety of voices telling them a single story.

 
Music

 
In the biggest coup of the evening, my friend Rick Knutsen provided improvised accompaniment on the piano to the reading. We spent about an hour right before the reading going through the screenplay, talking about and practicing a few different music cues. We rehearsed many of the transitions with actors, music, and light cues.
    The music was minimal, but it helped enormously. It gave the actors something more to work with. And it helped bring the narration to life. I was extremely happy with the music in the last two pieces, less thrilled with the music in the first piece. This was my own fault as a director, though. And, actually, making a mistake like this was exactly the point of doing the reading — better to do it now than when I’m actually shooting the film.
   To be specific, the first piece in the screenplay is something of a tear jerker, and the music was very sentimental. So the piece became much too gooey. To make the piece work, I’ll need both the music and the performances to run counter to the sentimental tendencies of the story — then the emotional impact at the end will be much stronger. An excellent thing to learn at this early stage in the development of the picture.

 
Customized Comment Sheet

 
I made a one-page sheet which I asked audience members to fill out after the event. Here are the questions I asked:

  1. What moments did you like the most? What did you like the least?
  2. What, if anything, did you find confusing?
  3. Do the three stories hold together as a single feature for you? Would you like to see this as a feature film or as a series of half-hour television programs?
  4. The title “Robot Stories” may be taken… Any suggestions for an alternate title?
  5. Please list three of your favorite movies
  6. Any other thoughts/ideas/suggestions? Things that could be cut, things that are missing, things that you just loved or hated so much you need to rant about ’em? Don’t be shy! (Please use the back of this page if you need more space).

I found the responses very interesting and helpful — although no one did have a good alternative title suggestion. I asked people to list some of their favorite movies just to get a little hint of their preferences and taste — helpful in determining how to take certain comments.

 
Conclusions

 
That’s all I can think of for now. After I’ve revised the screenplay, I’m hoping to do another reading or two, this time perhaps in hopes of getting some industry interest. I’ll let you know how it goes!

 

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