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Balls of Steel™: Grab an Actor ... and Listen

Actors give a different feedback perspective than other writers. They crawl into a character’s head and call you out on dialogue that isn’t believable. Use their advice to help your writing.

When I rewrite scenes, the very first thing I do is read them out loud. Hearing the words spoken checks the authenticity of dialogue and actions. But the problem with reading dialogue yourself is you can’t always hear what doesn’t work when the words are spewing from your own mouth.

There’s only one way to really test your work: Grab some actors and have a table read.

Slant of Light Theater Company

Slant of Light Theater Company

Recently we did just that for Slavery by Another Name(SBAN), testing the opening pages. Listening to actors speak our words showed us whether or not they would translate from page to screen.

They did.

But the very first time we had a table read, the holes in dialogue clearly showed. Our initial reading was at Film Columbia last year with actors Scott Cohen, Peter Riegert, andChristie Lee Hughes. After listening to their feedback, we tightened dialogue, flipped the order of scenes, and brought the inciting incident within the first six pages.

Actors give a different feedback perspective than other writers. They crawl into a character’s head and call you out on dialogue that isn’t believable. Use their advice to help your writing.

I hear a few grumbles of “sure, but where do I find these actors?” It’s not as hard you think.

  • Small film festivals often provide table reads of scenes. Some also have competitions to get your entire script read at the event.
  • Do a web search for actors groups or live theaters in your area. You don’t need to live in L.A. to find an actor. They’re everywhere.
  • Local universities, colleges, and high schools all have drama departments with hungry students wanting to stretch their talent beyond their assigned plays.
  • Twitter has screenwriters, filmmakers, and creatives galore and even an actors’ chat called #AGYST, which stands for “Actors Get Your Shit Together." Tweet out using that hashtag, and you’ll find talent like you never dreamed.

Which is exactly what I did after being contacted by Robert Dillon, who founded the Act Write Googleplus Hangout, a high-tech answer to traditional table reads. He had an opening in that weekend’s schedule. I hit Twitter hard to get the actors I needed. An online reading gives you a pool of talent from around the globe.

Within a few days, our G+ Hangout was live with Moses Olson, Len Anderson IV, Curt Hendley, Seth Ruffer, David S. Hogan, Gary Ploski, Jimmy Zhang, Cassandra Nicholson, Dan Dollar, and Troy Daniel, ready to dive into the pages of SBAN.

M.J. Moneymaker records the hangouts on her Ustream feed, giving us an opportunity to review the reading later … after the knots left our stomachs.

In listening to the recording, I heard things in a way I couldn’t in the moment. The stress of having your words read aloud is an experience in and of itself, and one I highly recommend. You’ll most likely sit in utter fear, so be sure to record it, whether it's online or in person. You’ll be glad you did.

After the reading, ask the actors questions. See what their gut reactions were to the characters they played. Was the dialogue forced, too on-the-nose, or unique enough to the character? Did the scene grab you, leaving you wanting more? Is this a character you would want to play?

Sometimes, in seeing their body language, you realize you might not even need the words. Their expression says it all.

If you're writing a comedy, a table read is a must. If no one is laughing, you've got a problem.

For the online table read, the actors had access to the script days prior, but often in-person reads are done cold. One tip is to bring a copy of the script for each actor and highlight individual reading parts. That allows the actors to easily see where their lines are. They appreciate that. You want them relaxed in order to give you the best on-the-spot performance possible.

If you want to try an online reading, contact Robert Dillon and ask to be added to the Act Write circle, allowing you a link to the hangout. Also follow @act_write on Twitter for updates on upcoming readings.

But if you’re more of a traditionalist, go the old-school route and find an actors group in your area. Remember, bring your Flip.

You might want to pack a flask in your bag too. Just sayin’.

“Slavery by Another Name” Update: The documentary version of the book has been accepted into this year’s Sundance Film Festival. My writing partner, Douglas A. Blackmon, and I will be there, business cards in hand and ready to work it. If you’re going, find us.