Sweaty palms. Pounding heart. Darting eyes. Sounds like a victim-to-be in a slasher flick-or a playwright at a reading of his play.
Play readings are an important step in developing your new play, and they come in all shapes and sizes. It might just be you and some friends reading your play at the kitchen table so that you can hear how it sounds out loud. But at some point, it's likely that you'll have a public reading of your play-probably with some rehearsal-after which there will be a discussion, sometimes known as a talkback. The very idea of throwing your baby to the wolves can be traumatic for many playwrights: sweaty palms, pounding hearts, darting eyes, the whole nine yards. But it doesn't have to be that way.
The key to making your play reading useful and enjoyable rather than terrifying is knowing what you want to get out of it and how to do it. If you have a director or a dramaturg working on your reading, talk about the play beforehand, and with her help, develop a specific list of questions about your play that the reading might help you answer. For example, "are the scenes in Act II too similar in texture?" or "is Baxter's dialogue consistent?"
Having a list of questions at the start doesn't limit what you can observe, but it gives you a starting point. And speaking of observing, don't forget to watch the audience. It's at least as important as watching the play. Watch when they fidget or read their programs, when they laugh, when they look riveted. One note of caution, however: sometimes the audience reaction to a certain moment (let's call it Moment B) may actually not be because of how Moment B is written, but because of how Moment A is written. For example, we don't laugh at the joke on page six not because it's not funny, but because a similar joke precedes it on page five.
Finally, there's the talkback. The key to a good talkback is having a good moderator who can enforce a few simple guidelines:
FOR THE MODERATOR
1. Start the talkback by asking the audience to talk about any moments or elements they particularly enjoyed. That gets things off on the right foot.
2. Ask them about any moments or elements that confused them, or moments that pulled them out of the play. (For example, "I was confused about why Ben left the restaurant.") It's then up to the playwright to decide whether the problem is with the play or with the audience member-and then rewrite accordingly.
3. Enforce the Audience and Playwright guidelines.
FOR THE AUDIENCE
1. Ask rhetorical questions so that the playwright can answer them on his own terms. (For example, "How well do Baxter and Holly know each other? How would that affect how they interact?")
2. Offer absolutely no suggestions on how to "fix" problems in the play. That's the play you want to write.
FOR THE PLAYWRIGHT
1. Never respond to questions or comments about the play. Preferably, don't talk at all. NEVER try to defend your play. It's almost guaranteed that you'll come off as a jerk. If someone in the audience is missing the boat on something, it's not important that you enlighten them after the fact. You just need to decide whether the problem they had merits a rewrite.
Here's hoping that those sweaty palms, pounding hearts and darting eyes are a thing of the past!