Should you do a full reading of your show to raise money?

One of the first steps of every show’s developmental process is the reading.  Put a director in a room with some cast members, give ’em a few hours of rehearsal and then bam . . . put ’em up in front of a bunch of people and pray they give you money, right?

Wrong.

Of course, we all hope that whenever you present your material to an audience, someone is going to raise their hand (and their checkbook) and say . . . “I’m in!”

And it does happen.

But honestly, I don’t think that should be a Producer’s primary intention of producing a reading.

The primary reason for a reading should always be to assess how the show is working creatively.  That’s why you present the full production . . . to see how it flows from beginning to end, and to get feedback from your peers and fellow artists (who, according to this great book, are much better at predicting success than any focus group).

So what do you do if you want/need to raise money?

Of course, you still need to present your material to potential investors.  There’s no doubt that when people experience your product, they are more likely to invest in that product.

So you do have to show it to them.

But maybe, a 2.5 hour reading, under fluorescent lights, in a plain-jane rehearsal room, with no costumes, on folding chairs, in the middle of the afternoon ain’t the best way to get people to write a check . . . especially if your show is still in its awkward phase (as most shows are when they’re being “read”).

But what about a teaser . . . what about 45 minutes of your best material?  Or 30 minutes.  Maybe even 20?

You’re not going to get the full flow of the show, but I’ve got this feeling that a whole bunch of audience members may be thankful that they can see what you got, and get themselves back to their office before half the day is gone.

And since your show probably isn’t perfect yet, why show people the lumps?

We know that audiences are demanding more efficient entertainment (which is a fancy way of saying shorter).

Attendees of readings are no different.

And the best way to hook them may be to take a lesson from Gypsy herself.  Don’t show them everything.  Tease them until they’re begging for more.

I’m doing a 45-minute presentation in a few weeks.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

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Comments
  • Kevin Clancy says:

    I completely agree. When we do readings, we get our cast up on their feet, with some blocking, and an implied set. We find audiences, knowing it is “just” a reading, throw themselves into it more and the playwright and audience gets a better idea of what a full production would look and sound like this way. We’ve been doing this for many years and have gotten very positive reactions from the audiences.

  • Bear Kosik says:

    Not having ever gone through a development process with a play or script, I have no way of judging how to do it. The fact is, I don’t get it. Two of my plays had readings at new play festivals, The audiences certainly did not respond as though the pieces required much more work. Did playwrights fifty years ago spend as much time in development and workshops? No. Is such a process necessary? Perhaps for collaborative and experimental work. When I attend a presentation at a theater, I am confident I can evaluate what I am seeing and determine whether other people would enjoy seeing it or not. Is it not possible to give investors a nearly finished product at a reading? Why would you need money if the piece still requires a lot of work? I don’t get paid until what I have written gets published or produced. I have written short plays in an afternoon and blown away audiences. When the spark hits me, the words flow naturally and quickly. All I need to do afterwards is make sure everything is tidy. I’ve spent all of maybe twenty hours total on my first ever sitcom pilot. It has gone from being promising to being a finalist for LiveReadLA after four revisions. Then I see people selling books on how to write a thirty-minute pilot in six weeks. Six weeks? My first draft is done ins six hours. I know my longer work always benefits from some feedback. What I think is clear may not be to someone else. And my expository style of writing and Chekhovian influences befuddle people who expect everything to be neatly packaged in a three-act formula. But I just don’t get why so much time is spent talking to people about a project long before it is ready to be shown to people.

  • This was helpful to hear, Ken. Thank you. My wife and I are planning a reading of our new musical here in LA, but not for investors. We need to hear it before getting it in front of $$ people. I love the idea of a abridged version to perform for them when the time comes. Yes please let us know how yours goes–hope its a hit.

  • Love it!

    We’ve been talking about bringing back a musical that did very, very well in it’s London and Florida runs quite some time ago. I’m with you. I’ll advise the team not to do a full reading when the time comes to raise money.

    Thank you Ken

  • dkelly says:

    For a lot of people reading this, putting a reading in front of investors is a step we don’t even know how to get to.

  • Ariana Johns says:

    After a couple years of developmental readings, we’ve managed to secure front money, hit our goal on indiegogo, and have received additional donations and most recently, people who want to support us by offering free rehearsal space (!) and free printing…so now we’re ready, but still need the rest of the funds for our Off Broadway opening. To that end, we’re doing a limited-run (2 week/8-10 performances) of an AEA Showcase contract, that ties in with a charity event.

    It’s a long haul, but throughout the process, we’ve learned so much, and the show (BUZZ, Son of a Bee) is tremendously stronger for having done it all–and some readings were abridged/some were staged (book in hand for dialogue, no book for songs)…I would never have thought that all the development applied to us, but yes, it applies to everyone!

    Cheers

  • E. Thomalen says:

    I agree also. I think there is a place for a staged-on-your-feet script-in-hand reading of a 15 minute segment (scene) of a script that is videotaped and that could be used as a marketing tool. There is a group in Canada videotaping seated readings of whole scripts or scenes. But acting is a whole body sport not just a voice sport, so reading alone does not convey it as well. The playwrite needs to be involved more than passively in casting as well.

    E. Thomalen

  • Nattalyee says:

    Such a smart idea. I can’t wait to see how that turns out!

  • M Edan says:

    Totally makes sense Ken in regards to presentations for investments for a project.

    In regard to development of a piece, I find a staged reading of any kind can be beneficial to get a clearer sense of what works or does not work, where it’s clunky, what you as playwright thought so obvious the audience does not get, and occasionally what the audience sees or questions that actually does bring something of value and possibility to any future editing and rewrites. I had a play receive a staged reading at a national competition, which was wonderful having only started writing four years previously. It was the 5th draft of the play and I thought it was pretty much complete. For the most part I was personally relieved that 85% of what I thought worked, did indeed work (based on audience talk back and my own observation). However, in the talk back there were a few comments from viewers about a character mentioned in the play but never seen. They were very interested in what happened to her. I also asked the group what scene with which characters they would like to have seen that they did not.
    And again a few individuals concurred they would have liked a scene between the mother and father. I was intrigued with both possibilities, went home wrote a scene between the parents and another with the previously unseen character and strategically placed them making the play stronger and more cohesive, expanding it from an 85 minute no intermission into a 2 hour with intermission, still doable in today’s market. I say all of this to acknowledge the value of staged readings for play development.

    Where I also have questions, and perhaps some strong opinions, similar to Bear Kosik, is the degree of ‘development’ process theatres are involved in these days but still avoiding actual production. It’s a large topic I realize, many dynamics involved, financial, political etc etc. In doing a little research I’ve tracked plays that have won major, recognized awards, competitions, received professional ‘staged readings’ and development workshops. In many instances several readings and development workshops, and yet still no productions. Several questions arise for me with this scenario. Are plays so inadequately constructed these days they need all these developments and readings to ‘get them in adequate shape’ before it merits an actual production? Why do so many regional theatres put time and money into a development workshop and don’t back up the new work additionally with a full fledged production? Why does a play that has won a major competition award still have such a challenging time in getting produced? I realize how business and creative ventures change over time. The world we live in is not the world 40 or 50 years ago. However, the sad irony is that it is also very likely, in today’s theatre market, that if a new playwright, say by the name of Edward Albee, were to be submitting a new play titled say ‘Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolfe’, IF it were even read because the writer does not yet have an agent, it would very likely not be taken too seriously because [a] it’s a three act and in today’s market WHO wants to sit through a three act, and [b] it’s language is somewhat excessive, would need an awful lot of editing.

    The last thing I want to address is the style and quality of the staged reading. It initially confused me why they were called ‘staged readings’ when there was really nothing staged with actors standing behind a music stand with a script, and with NO production values of ANY kind. I’m sorry, theatre is meant to be seen as well as heard. How difficult is it really to add SOME movement, even using folding chairs as furniture? How difficult is it really to pick a venue that has some access to theatrical lighting (even basic SR, SL, CS, DS, US areas)? How difficult is it really to put in a few sound cues? I direct as well as write and decided to do my own staged reading of a new play I had been working on for several years. It was an ambitious project as the piece did include a lot of sound and some visual projections as well. True, I spent extra time with these elements, more than most staged readings would, but I also combined it as a fund raiser for a local theatre, had some wine and cheese. Spent 12 hours in rehearsal with the actors (including the tech). Raised $700 for the theatre (after expenses), and got a LOT of insight into ‘what’s next’ for editing and writing based on what I saw and heard from others. There were certain aspects ‘comments’ on ‘slowed the piece down’ and wasn’t really ‘necessary’ that initially bruised my ego because it involved radical cutting in one instance, a fair amount of editing in two other scenes, and restructuring of another scene. But the piece is stronger and better now, and I think those insights came to light more dramatically because the extra time was taken to ‘dramatically’ present them. Perhaps more dramatic staged readings, when offered through competitions, might foster community response of “oh you really must produce this next season” – instead of something more along the lines of “oh that was interesting”.

  • Adam says:

    Sounds good, but I think sophisticated investors and producers would conclude that you have major second-act trouble (or whatever you’re you’re not showing). Just as with some movie trailers, you don’t always think “Looks great!”. You often think, “I think we just saw the only two decent minutes in the movie!”

  • Ken,
    Thank you for this and for all of your insights. Much appreciated.
    I’ve been involved in mentoring and workshopping many musicals, as well as some plays, and do agree with the short version… been there done that on full length versions a lot … and the short versions are always more appealing, and yes, leave them wanting more, especially if you incorporate a narrative into it, and in a clever way.
    That said, how do you feel about filming a ‘backers audition/staged reading’ or even off book… doing it under a SAG development/low budget agreement say, and using that as a calling card..?
    I was a part of such a beast a bunch of years ago as an actor, we actually did the full musical, under a SAG contract (sort of like an AEA workshop).
    What I think was brilliant about it was that now the writers/producers could use it to get into the hands of many more people across the states because now it was something you could watch in your spare time. They did finally raise the money that way, and did an Off Broadway production.
    Thoughts?
    ps: On behalf of the writer, and myself as a mentor/collaborator, a big thank you for honoring the musical-play Life on the Mississippi, to your Pick List 2016.

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