5 Tips To Producing A Reading

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:


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.


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.


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!”)


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.


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.

Is actor absenteeism at Broadway shows affecting our audience’s attitudes? A study tells all.

This past August, Michael Riedel wrote an article in the Post (in his usual smartly-snarky style), about a plague of absenteeism at West Side Story.

I’ve been concerned about absenteeism for some time, mostly because of its macro effects on our audience.  As theater tickets get more pricey, and the economy gets more dicey, audiences are bound to be disappointed if they aren’t getting what they pay for, right?


The truth is, I didn’t know if I was right.

So I decided to find out.

I called up my friend, Joseph Craig, formerly of Nielsen, and now out on his own at ERM (Entertainment Research and Marketing).  Audience research is what Joseph does, day and night, for movies, theater, video games, and more. I call him Dr. Stats.  He’s not allowed to talk about the clients that he’s represented for obvious reasons, but I happen to know a bunch of the producers that use him.  Let me tell you, some of the shows that he has worked on are so big, you’d wonder why they’d even need research (answer – there is always something to learn).

I told Joseph my concerns and commissioned his company to do a study.

Below is what I believe is the first ever published study on The Effects of Absenteeism On The Broadway Audience.

For the study, ERM did mostly live interviews as well as some internet surveys with “regular theatergoers” both in and out of the tri-state.

I would say that I’m proud to present this survey, but the truth is I’m not.

Why?  Well, because, unfortunately, I was right.  It is having an effect.

Here is the Executive Summary from the study, which begins with some general and very useful information on how these “regulars” choose shows to see, and ends with something scary.

Overall Response

  • In general, respondents are consumers of live entertainment who picked up the habit by “being taken to the theater by a spouse, date or parent”.  All try to see the “newest and most buzzed about shows” as early as possible in the run. However, a very high 86% still try to catch up on shows they missed and see them generally within the first two years of the run.
  • As far as preferences go, the majority (63%) prefer to see musicals followed by 23% who have no preference over plays or musicals while 14% consider themselves devoted exclusively to plays.
  • Interestingly, 67% of those surveyed keep a “list” of shows they haven’t seen and actively look for deals on tickets to these shows.
  • It is important to note that almost all of those surveyed are willing to pay full price for shows they really want to see.
  • A very high 78% of respondents had seen at least one performance of a show that featured an understudy substituting for a regularly scheduled performer usually in a leading role.  Most feel they “heard” the most common reason for an absent performer was an illness or injury that sidelined the usual cast member.  Almost all (91%) believe that a missing performer is out for legitimate reasons.
  • The newest shows tied with the shows that have been running for over 5 years as the shows with the most missing performers (non-star driven).
  • With a few notable exceptions, most feel that stars are more apt to appear on a regular basis in their leading roles.
  • The majority of theatergoers (51%) feel the problem has gotten worse over the last 5 years.  Most (66%) feel that “younger” or the “less experienced” Broadway performers are more apt to “call in sick” than those with a “career” in the theater.
  • When they saw the replacement notice in the Playbill, most (76%) were worried about how it would effect their overall enjoyment of “an expensive evening out” and openly shared with their companion(s) a level of concern about the performance.  Among those who brought guests, about a  fifth of those surveyed felt like they had to apologize or promise their companion another theater experience if this was “not up to snuff”.
  • About a quarter was excited to see what another performer could do when given a chance and was “pleased and happy” with the performance, or “it felt like they were always a part of the production”, and ultimately came away with good things to say about the show and never gave it another thought. Also on a positive note, some felt like they were given an opportunity to see “the future of Broadway performers” when a particularly talented performer “knocked it out of the ballpark”.
  • Having said that, the majority (73%) came away frustrated by their experience. They generally felt like they were given a performer who was “under rehearsed” or “struggled to keep up”, or “lacked chemistry” with other performers, or “would never usually be cast in this role”.  Consequently, it had an effect on the overall show. Most felt “cheated” or felt in the case of long runs that “the Producers don’t care about what is going on with their shows”.
  • Generally, this lead to negative word of mouth on the show. Most quotes stated that they would tell their “inner circle” that “it was not worth full price” or “you should see another show instead” or even in some cases lament how “Broadway producers just care about getting my money and forget about how all this affects my overall enjoyment of a show”.
  • An alarming trend we noticed is consumers are starting to be more cautious and aware of shows that have a reputation for absenteeism among leading performers.  The fallout is a more conscientious consumer who is becoming more careful with how much money is being “set aside” for attending a Broadway show.


There you have it.  In blog and white.  Empirical evidence that absenteeism is damaging the future of Broadway.

And why wouldn’t it?

That slip of paper in a Playbill says you’re not getting the Director’s original vision.

Imagine if you went to a famous steak restaurant and they said the beef was coming from a different butcher this week?

Imagine if you went to Six Flags, and Kingda Ka or any of the big roller coasters weren’t running?

You’d be disappointed, right?  You’d think twice about going back, wouldn’t you?

Without a doubt, we have a problem.

I’m not saying the problem is with undisciplined actors, or too-difficult choreography, or anything, actually. This isn’t about pointing fingers.

This is about trying to find a solution.  Actors Equity and the Producers (especially since we’re the ones being blamed) should come together and find out exactly what the issues are.  Is it getting worse?  Is part of the problem how we inform our audiences about absences?  Do we not have enough understudy rehearsals?

We need to find out the answers.  Now that we know how our audience feels, we’ve got to find a way to educate them and change their perception, before they change their habits.

Because no Principal ever calls out of a movie or a video game.

Play “You’re The Producer” on your iPhone!

Tommy, a reader at TDF, just tipped me off to a brand new app for my iPhone, created by the marketers of the “smash hit” jukebox musical We Will Rock You which, believe it or not, is now in its 6th year in the West End (after playing itself out in Vegas and Toronto).

In We Will Rock You – The Game, you’re the Producer!  From the app store:

We Will Rock You – The Game is a management simulator which puts you to the test as the show’s producer.  By making the right decisions your goal is to take your production of the smash hit musical We Will Rock You from a small school hall right up to the real venue at London’s Dominion Theatre – but can you sell out the show?

As producer, it’s your call to make production and creative decisions within the show’s budget.  It’s down to you to set ticket prices, sell merchandise and coordinate your marketing and once you’ve pulled in your audience you’ll have to make sure you’re gonna rock the show by selecting the right cast, staging equipment and props.

The more successful and profitable your show is, the quicker you can increase the size and quality of your production to rock your way to the Dominion!

The Show Must Go On!


It’s a pretty fun little app, especially for producing minds like ours.  What is most interesting to me is that of all the types of games that the We Will Rockers could have created, they created a game where you’re the Producer?  I’m not complaining, but you would think they would have created something with the plot of the show itself?  Or something with some karaoke?

But more power to them . . . cuz they’re the first show I know of that created an iPhone game app.

I’m going to see if I’ve got skills.  More later.

If you want to play, click here.

(On a side note, does anyone else remember when We Will Rock You was going to be more of a bio-musical based on the life of Freddie Mercury rather than the fictional story of a futuristic society with characters called Skaramoosh and Galileo set on Planet Mall?  The Mercury musical is a show I would have loved to have produced . . . even if only on my iPhone).

When you hire a captain, should you get his shipmates as well?

An interesting question recently came up when I was shopping for a director for a new piece:  is it better to hire a director that comes with a team of designers, actors, etc. that he or she always works with, or do you want a director that puts together a new team based on the project itself, and based on input from the authors, producer, etc?

Most directors do have their favorite peeps, and for good reason.  By working together often, they develop a shorthand that helps speed up the process.  Since their relationship has been already established, there is no awkward getting-to-know-you period.  The piece can benefit artistically and financially from such a rapport-y relationship.

But what if the team speaks the same language . . . but they’re going to a different country?  If the team isn’t the perfectly suited team for a project, do you lose more than you gain by trying to force them to paint with colors that aren’t in their palette?

In other words (and without the metaphors) if you want to hire a classic play director to direct a contemporary musical, is it good to bring all of his people to the party, even if they’ve never been involved with a musical before?

Unfortunately, there is no clear cut right or wrong answer.  As with most things in our biz, it depends on the project.

But the question has to be asked while you’re searching for the captain of your ship, because most captains want to pick who’s sleeping on their deck.

And it all comes down to how much you trust that your captain is going to get you where you’re going.

If you don’t trust them, well, you shouldn’t even push off from the dock.

Want to be a Producer? Learn to be a politician first.

I stumbled on an interesting “How To” on Squidoo the other day.  The title of the Squid?  How To Become a Politician.

Some of the tips?  Fundraise all the time, have a budget and stick to it, rudeness is always wrong and is not the same as confidence, etc.
Sounds like similar tips for being a Producer, if you ask me.  Read them here.
Leaders of any industry and entrepreneurs of any type require a lot of the same characteristics.
When determining the type of Producer you want to be, look at leaders in all areas of business, from politics to poker.  They share similar traits.
And you should too.
Ken Davenport
Ken Davenport

Tony Award-Winning Broadway Producer

I'm on a mission to help 5000 shows get produced by 2025.

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