Readings of new plays and musicals are one of the hardest things to do. It takes a truly imaginative audience to be able to see what “could be” from a reading under fluorescent lights, in the middle of a weekday afternoon, with actors in front of music stands, and no costumes, etc. Because this industry is so hard, producers are just looking for reasons to say “no,” and we give them plenty at these “backer auditions.”
They are important, though, for raising money and for developing material. So, here are five tips to making sure you get the most out of your reading:
1. STAY AWAY FROM REHEARSAL HALLS
Fluorescent lights are an energy-suck, and folding metal chairs are literally a pain in the ass. Spend the extra bucks and put your reading in a theater. You’ll get a few stage lights, more comfy chairs, and you’ll raise the stakes of the event. It’ll just feel like it’s closer to completion. There are plenty of Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway theaters available during the day for this sort of thing.
2. CAST GREAT ACTORS EVEN IF THEY AREN’T PERFECT
When there is no staging, no choreography, no set, no costumes, etc., all that you have are those performers. So cast great ones, even if they may not perfectly fit the role. Someone too old? Too young? Don’t worry. You need representations on what the show will be. You don’t need the exact show. I’ll never forget a reading we did for Altar Boyz where Chad Kimball played Juan. It made no sense. And we learned more about the character at that reading than the prior four.
3. SKIP THE SPEECH
We all know you are grateful to the actors, the authors, and everyone else who even thought about being involved in the reading. Oh, and please don’t remind us you only had 29 hours to put it together. We know. We get it. No excuses. Just start the dang thing. Most people are giving up a part of their busy day to be at the reading. Get it going already. If you have people to thank or something to say, put it in a program. If you must say something, keep it super short (e.g. “Welcome to the reading of Joanie Loves Chachi – The Musical. Enjoy!”)
4. KEEP IT SHORT
When you’re looking to raise money, or get partners, don’t feel like you have to show people the entire thing. Tease ’em a bit. Give ’em the best. Make them want more. Don’t hesitate to truncate sections if you can still follow the story. If you’re working on the material itself, then you’re going to want to do the whole thing. Just make sure it doesn’t run too long. Over 2 hours gets tough in a reading. With intermission and mingling, you’re talking about a “3 hour tour” out of an 8 hour day. That’s a lot to ask. The longer it goes the more likely you’ll have people checking their phone all through the show. One of my favorite strategies is to do “selections from” readings to get people on the hook, and let the people that are interested come forward after that . . . then invite those folks to the longer reading.
5. SURVEY IT
No one is going to tell you what they really feel to your face as they leave the room. They’ll smile and say nice things even if they thought it was Moose Murders II. And that’s not good for anyone. Take RSVPs for the reading electronically and send them all a Survey after the fact. The audience base won’t be traditional theatergoers, but you’ll learn something.
Readings have a tendency by nature to be dull, so you have to work a bit harder and spend a bit more money to make them more interesting. Use percussion in addition to piano. Have free water (or Red Bull!) available. Dress it up any way you can.
When kids are ready to go to sleep, they say, “Read me a story.”
That’s the last thing you want at your reading, so make sure you do what you can to keep people on the edge of their non-ass-paining seats.