I’ve been away for a while. I recently attended the Spalding University MFA in Writing residency in Louisville, and a busy semester is sprinting to the finish at USC, with my students there closing in on Fade Out in their 8-week Shotgun Scripts.
One of the staples of the Spalding residency is that each of the faculty must read from a recent work in their area of expertise. Poets and prose-writers are accustomed to this, and while playwrights and screenwriters need to have their work performed, rarely are they doing so on stage by themselves. I struggle mightily with this reading every May and November – choosing what to read, editing the selection down to eight minutes, then deciding whether to read it all myself, or cast it up and let others play parts.
I’m a big advocate of reading scripts aloud. It’s an invaluable workshop tool, especially when the writer reads the script herself without assigning parts. Why? Because casting opens the presentation to interpretation and performance, and also draws away the focus of the class itself, who should be closely considering the material at hand and not worrying about how to deliver the next line. Plus, I think as a writer, when reading your own work aloud to a group of peers, you know instantly when something is not working. You can feel it in your gut. And if you get that sinking feeling often enough, my theory is that your gut learns to warn you when something isn’t working as you write.
It’s also very important to have your script performed before you send it out for industry consideration and contests. Whenever I think I’ve done all the polish and shine I can on a project, I beg my actor and writer friends to donate an afternoon, I cook a big meal for them, serve drinks and coffee, and we read through the whole damn thing. The read-through helps you to clarify visuals, discover cumbersome phrasing, polish jokes/lines, determine the rhythm of the piece, and gauge how others are interpreting the work. It’s a standard practice in film, TV and theater to have a read-through before going into production, and should also be one for spec scripts heading to market.
But clearly, there’s a big difference between reading in a workshop and reading to a room full of your colleagues, students and employers while standing on a stage. I’ve seen several dramatists pull off the one-person read with great aplomb. Sometimes using their hands to indicate which character is speaking, sometimes actually characterizing the parts with different voices, and sometimes just strutting through great, visual writing and sharp, clipped dialogue with a sexy South-African accent. I’ve tried all of those methods (save for the sexy South-African accent), and have mostly failed when going solo. I read too fast. I blow the timing. I forget to perform the work. And that’s what dramatic writing is meant for, right? To be performed.
So, as much as I envy the poets, novelists and essayists who stand alone commanding the stage with powerful rhythm and flow uninterrupted by the insertion of character names, slug lines and transitions – I know I must cast. I choose simple scenes with two characters and very clear conflict, that are relatively easy to setup. I attempt to show a little arc or movement in the overall selection, and if I can, end the reading on a key turning point in the story. I usually read the scene description myself, to be present in the performance, control the pace, and add emphasis or clarity if need be.
Every time I read or listen to a reading in a workshop or otherwise, I’m reminded of how important it is to hear written work spoken aloud. A reading brings a project to life and projects its existence into the world. So, as you toil alone dreaming that the words and ideas you assemble are someday bound on shelves for sale, performed before an adoring audience, or projected on silver screens across the world, along the way, give your work a voice, let it breathe air, bounce it off walls and into eardrums – let it be spoken so that it may remind you that it is real, alive, and worth the great effort you are giving to it.