To polish your script for production, incorporating notes from a table read into your draft can make a real difference in the overall quality of your screenplay.
In my last article for Script magazine, among many of the writing tips I offered, I briefly mentioned using a table read to help with script development. Since that post, I’ve heard from a few writers who grabbed onto the idea of a table read, want to set up reads for their own scripts, but admit they’re not quite sure how to go about it.
My first table read was for a short script I planned to direct, and we held a reading a few months before casting was set to begin. The goal of the read was to allow me to hear the script out loud and get it into better shape for production. That reading was absolutely invaluable and helped me to improve many aspects of the screenplay.
If you’re heading toward production with a script or want to ready it to go out to managers, agents and production companies, incorporating notes from a table read into your draft can make a real difference in the overall quality of your screenplay.
The following are my best tips for hosting a successful read of your own. In addition to my own experience, I’ve asked two actors – Sonora Chase and Erin Cronican – to chime in and give us their best advice from the actor’s point of view, too.
SETTING UP YOUR TABLE READ
A script development table read should come once you’re deep into the rewrite process. If you’ve tackled structure, plot and character issues in earlier drafts then your table read will be an ideal environment to uncover ways to enhance dialogue and action lines.
Building relationships with actors should be something you cultivate year-round, but even if you’re just getting started building these connections, there’s still a lot you can do to find actors who will participate in your reading.
- Start with your best actor friend. Recruit the actor or actors who you already know well enough to ask for a favor. They can take a role in the read and help you find other actors who will too. If you don’t have a large network of actor friends yet, this person will probably be your best ally, so make her feel great about helping you out, offer to return the favor when you can, and remember not to be bossy – they are helping you, not working for you.
- How to approach actors. “I think the best approach is to be honest,” Erin said. “Let the actor know you are developing the work and are looking for feedback from actors in a reading setting. Also let them know that casting for the final project may be out of your hands, but if the role is a good fit you'll do everything you can to have them seen for an audition. That way, the actor can feel good about the possibility of ongoing involvement without the writer making promises they can't keep.”
- Cast for type… but not a physical type. “Cast an emotional type. An Archetype,” Sonora said. “Don’t cast a sweet girl as a mature bitch, just because she has whatever look you had in mind. The movie might be visually stimulating but the script needs actors with chops and an internal archetype to match the character on the page.”
- Establish a location for the read. You can certainly hold a table read in your home if your place is big enough to accommodate it. Some people like to keep the “table” part of a reading literal and have everyone working around a large table. Others prefer a more casual, living room setup with couches or arm chairs. Whichever way you go, be sure it is a comfortable, well-lit, temperature-controlled space.
- Plan for food and beverage. Have plenty of water on hand plus easy-to-eat snacks. You don’t need to provide a meal but you don’t want anyone going hungry or thirsty either. Do lean toward healthier snacks when serving actors, focusing on natural protein and sugar sources for an energy boost.
- Have the right tools on hand. You’ll want to have highlighters, pens and a stapler available. Also, if you plan to record the event, a video camera and/or a still camera. And a bowl of throat lozenges or hard candies never hurt either.
- Contact the actors with final details. Send the actors the final script no less than 3-7 days before the read, depending upon the length of the script. You want to give them time to read it and do any prep work of their own. Let the actors know if you’ll be seeking feedback after the reading so they can prepare themselves to talk about the script as well.
HOSTING YOUR TABLE READ
Once you have everyone together for the reading, remember they are your guests, so try to relax and have fun.
- Work like a pro. “The best way to show gratitude is to start on time, finish on time and respect everyone’s time,” Sonora said. This can’t be stressed enough. Set a start time and an end time and stick with them.
- Recording & photography. Consider capturing a video recording of the reading so you can go back over it if you need. In addition, take still photos to document the event. Keep this simple though, if you think you’ll get caught up in videography and be too distracted to hone in on the read, have another friend record it for you.
- You’re a writer at this reading, not a director. A writer needs to focus on how the script can be improved, not on listening for a performance. Keep in mind, the actors will be reading, with feeling, but not performing. Pay close attention to when the actors seem to be losing interest in the moment and are simply reading versus when there is a spark in their work and they are visibly connecting to the text.
- Taking feedback. I suggest taking any feedback that is offered and even encouraging it. Once the reading is done, you can run a quick feedback session, time-permitting. Be sure to listen more than you talk during the feedback and don’t be defensive – you’re not aiming to justify your script, you’re aiming to improve it.
What you do after the reading will ultimately decide how much good you're able to harvest from it.
- Thank the actors. And anyone else who gave you a hand. Be sure everyone has your contact info. Sign up for the actors’ email lists or Like their Facebook pages. You should absolutely keep in touch with these actors and build relationships in this welcoming community. If you shot a great group photo at the reading, you can include that with your thank you’s as well.
- Process your notes. If you didn’t get all of your notes from the reading down on paper, do that right away before you forget the details. But after that, don’t feel pressured to go over your notes until you’ve had a little time to digest the reading. Once you’re ready, look for elements in your notes that are unique to working with actors. Actors will often give feedback that is specific to their character’s point of view. You’ll find which actors understood their character’s goals and their relationship to the other characters. It will be noticeable who felt they had a meaty role to bite into, and who didn’t.
- And… rewrite. Yep, it was all leading here – to another rewrite. But as you prepare to send that script out to professional readers or move closer to producing it yourself, you need every tool you can to create your absolute best work.
The experiences I’ve had hosting table reads have been extremely positive. They’ve led to my scripts becoming unquestionably better, and I’ve stayed in touch with many of the actors from these readings as well.
“First and foremost, actors want to build lasting relationships with writers, directors and producers,” Erin said.
These relationships are the foundation for your growth in the film community and a table read is a natural progression for both script development and relationship development. Even if you haven’t hosted a read for one of your scripts before, push yourself through this writer’s rite of passage and you’ll find there’s no downside to improving your script while strengthening your network.
And if you do nothing else, have cookies at your reading. Everybody likes cookies.
- More Write, Direct, Repeat articles by Kim Garland
- Write, Direct, Repeat: 4 Lessons Film Editing Taught Me About Screenwriting
- Balls of Steel: Grab an Actor and Listen
- Balls of Steel: Lessons on a Set
- Writers on the Web: 4 Questions to a (Somewhat) Painless Webseries Rewrite