One of the great joys for a playwright or screenwriter is seeing and hearing our stories come to life. While a full production of your screenplay might not be in the immediate future, a table read is a simple and accessible way to hear and evaluate your work.
I recently organized a table read of my new screenplay 'The Manny'. The screenplay had already received coverage, been submitted and placed in several contests, but I felt I now needed to hear the completed work read in order to hone the dialogue and get a feel for the pace of the film, before any schedule was set on a path to production.
The first step was to find a place for the table read. A former Brooklynite, I now live in the Catskills and I don’t have the network I once had in the city, so I started by looking at rehearsal spaces. While a reading can be held at your kitchen table, it is probably not going to be the great impression of your work you want to impart upon the world.
When choosing a location for your reading, you want to pick somewhere that is centrally located and easy to get to. Make sure you engage a room big enough and comfortable enough for your cast and guests. You may be inviting possible backers or production partners, so you’ll want the place to look clean and professional. In any case, you don’t want your actors and guests to feel in any way uneasy with the space you have invited them to. Make certain there is plenty of seating, because you do not want people standing or sitting on the floor. Also, the space should be well lit and climate controlled. You want people thinking about your script, not about sweat stains or frozen toes. If you have a big, beautiful house, that may be fine, but no dogs, cats or babies. Think of this as a business meeting.
Shelter Studios & Theaters in Manhattan
I was able to find a fabulous rehearsal space in New York City and I booked it in off-peak hours for a fraction of the regular price. Besides rehearsal spaces or theaters, a bar or restaurant could also work well and you might be able to work a deal to hold your reading before they open for business, especially if you offer to use their services for food and drink. You don’t have to spend a lot on the space, but be creative.
Next, you will need to consider the cast. While you may be able to get your Aunt Mable to read the part of the sexy cheerleader, or your mom to read the part of the crack addicted lesbian hooker, besides the psychological scarring you may incur, you really want professional actors reading in order for you to hear your characters come alive. So how do you go about finding actors?
As a member of Stage 32 you already belong to the premiere social network of the film industry. I started with an ad in the jobs section here at Stage 32. A simple job posting got me most of my actors. I also joined several NYC actors and filmmakers groups on Facebook.
When advertising for actors, be honest and DO NOT promise people anything you cannot guarantee. Actors like what they do and enjoy the opportunity to do it. They understand the plight of screenwriters and what it takes to create a great script. You may find many willing to give their time freely just for the asking and don’t discount the social factor. This is an opportunity for real life networking for both you and your cast. It is always fun to meet new people who love the same things you do and you never know from where friendships or business opportunities may begin.
For a large cast, it's helpful to do a cast report. If you are using Final Draft, there is a reporting feature under the tools menu. A cast report will list all speaking roles and the scenes and pages in which a character speaks. You may only have three or four main characters, but what about the gas station attendant who says “Fill it up, ma’am?” or the one-legged homeless man that follows your heroine through the streets of old London begging for change? If a character has no lines to say you do not need to assign it, however, if a word is spoken, someone must speak it!
My script ended up having over forty speaking roles, many with just a line or two. You are probably going to want to assign several of these smaller roles to an individual actor. I had 16 actors reading all the various parts. Each main role was assigned a single actor while I assigned multiple smaller parts to the others.
I have specifically NOT referred to 'casting' here because you really will not be 'casting' the roles. The idea is for you to hear the script read, not to make a mini production of the film. You will find that the talented actors will have no problem reading for the characters you’ve written, even if they are not perfectly suited to the roles. Make sure you request pictures and resumes and assign roles that you think fit the best. I knew an accomplished actor I asked to read the title role of my script and I was also extremely lucky to find two young actresses to read the little girl roles. (I worked out the arrangements with their parents who also attended the reading. Do not engage child actors directly.)
Do not forget to assign someone to read the stage directions. DO NOT DO THIS YOURSELF. It is your job to listen, so find a strong voice (male or female) to read the stage directions. They are a big part of your script and a good actor can bring a lot to the reading of them.
Speaking of jobs, you will need help pulling off your reading. You need to concentrate on listening to your script, so find people to help with set-up and organization and have one or two people to do the photography and video recording.
It’s a good idea to provide coffee, water, and snacks. My reading was in Manhattan on a Saturday morning, so bagels and cream cheese were mandatory! I also had juice boxes, granola bars, and cookies. You might want to consider pizza if you are holding an evening reading. Remember, these people are giving their time freely, so make them feel welcome as well as comfortable.
Plan to start your reading 15 or 20 minutes after you schedule actors and guests to arrive. If you are renting a space, make sure you have plenty of time for the reading. A 90 to 100-page script will take at least an hour and a half to read. With a discussion afterwards, you’ll need at least two hours. We had to set up the tables and chairs beforehand and clean up the space afterwards, so I rented the space for four hours.
You will also need to provide enough scripts for your actors. I assigned roles in advance and gave the actors a link to the PDF of the script. Communicate with your actors to make sure they have received the script and can bring it to the reading. Some will print out their scripts and some may like to read off a device, but it is still your job to make sure everyone has a script. Have highlighters and pens available for people too.
Once everyone is there and sitting down, take a bit of time for introductions. This is also a good time to make sure you have all the roles assigned. I was incredibly lucky that only one person was unable to attend, so a couple of roles had to be adjusted. Be prepared for something like this to happen and roll with it. Remember it is a reading and not a production. There were also a couple of roles that somehow didn’t get assigned. We simply assigned those roles on the fly. You can stop the reading to correct small problems, such as an unassigned role or the mispronunciation of a character's name if absolutely necessary, but you really want to keep problems and interruptions it to a minimum. The idea is to hear the script read straight through.
DO NOT DIRECT THE ACTORS.
Your job is to listen. You can give some notes before the reading if there are some specific things you want to hear, but if you are not hearing something that you thought you had written, perhaps it is not on the page. This is one of the purposes of the reading. A joke is not funny if you have to explain it. Make sure you give the actors space to do their jobs. You might even hear something brilliant you didn’t even realize you had written!
When the reading is over, there will be time for discussion and questions. This is possibly the most valuable part of the reading. You can pay hundreds of dollars for one person to read your script and give you an opinion, but here you have a room full of trained readers (after all, most actors have read dozens of scripts). Take notes and respect their words. This is not the time to defend your script, so listen, question and most of all, be thankful, you have just been given a gift and everyone involved has given you their time, that is truly the most valuable commodity anyone can give.
Once the formal discussion is over, go be social. Don’t rush out yourself or rush people out. This is a great opportunity for real 'offline' chatting! Besides a reading, you have also just organized a MeetUp!
If you’re writing for film (or theater) and you have never heard your work being read, this is your opportunity. Writers write, but films and plays live off the page. You have probably spent hundreds of dollars and many hours having your work evaluated. Coverage, readers, coaches and contests are all valuable tools, but in the end you need to hear the script read.
Putting together a table read may seem a bit intimidating at first, but it isn’t much more difficult then throwing a party. You will find a lot of help from people here at Stage 32. If you don’t know any actors, this is a great opportunity to meet some. Most importantly, have fun. It may be the only time you hear your script read, or it may be the first step on your journey to production.
About the Author
Robert Rosenbaum is a produced playwright and published author with several screenplay options. An episode of his original series, 'Manhattan Crawl' can be viewed on the web at manhattancrawl.com.
His newest screenplay 'The Manny' has been selected as a Semi-Finalist in the 2016 Table Read My Screenplay Contest (Park City), a Quarter-Finalist in the 2016 BlueCat Screenplay Competition and a Quarter-Finalist in the 2016 Happy Writers Comedy Screenplay Competition here on Stage 32.
The table read of 'The Manny' was held at Shetler Studios & Theaters in Manhattan on March 26, 2016. The parts were read by Phillip Smith, Bob Teague, Lesley Frey, Candace Mcadams, Jessica Cherniak, Sophie Pogodin, Leigh Fitzjames, Betsy Winslow, Christopher Williams, Michele Lyman, Aaron K Zapf, Jeff Lutz, Christopher Justo Edwards, Paul Saltzberg andJose Antonio Claudio.