Uncovering Staged Readings and Discovering the Art of Collaboration

After six years of producing a Theater for Young Audiences play development series, I still had an obsessive need to control details instead of embracing the unpredictable nature of development. Each season I focused on creating clearer guidelines for my artistic teams that would magically resolve any problems we faced, like onerous requests for technical elements. Instead of allowing the play development process to flourish, however, I inadvertently stifled it. New play development is a bit messy. This is especially true when a staged reading is part of the process.

Staged readings do not come without potential problems. If the goal is to showcase the script for further development or a full production, the pressure to create a polished product may outweigh the need to dig deeper into the play during the development time. If the goal is to promote the theater, organization, or a larger field, this may also put pressure on the artistic team to focus more on presentation than the actual script. If the development period is short, something of the process is likely to be shortchanged in order to meet the need for staging.

Another problem with staged readings is when they mask a problem within the script—or when the playwright inadvertently rewrites for the staged reading format. The script suffers. In the former scenario, the problem with the script is never resolved and it is left for each subsequent performance to figure out. In the latter scenario, the script gets stuck in a format that is close to, but not quite a fully realized production.

While staged readings are often used in new play development, there are times when the staging of a work in progress ends up impeding rather than enhancing the development process. My initial impulse to prevent that from happening was to more carefully define staged readings, with a particular focus on the roles of physical movement and technology, so as to avoid those elements getting in the way of script development.

Yet after reading about staged readings and their role in play development, I hit a roadblock. I couldn’t come up with a definition that addressed every possible scenario. More vexingly, I couldn’t figure out how to negotiate concrete meanings for words like “minimal” and “basic” that are often used when discussing staged reading elements. Despite the many points of agreement found when looking at various discussions, there are too many differences in definition to develop a clear picture of what exactly a staged reading is or how it should look. While it may be fairly obvious on a superficial level to tell a staged reading from a full production, many of the finer distinctions between the various definitions affect more than just the look of a reading—lighting, sound, set, costumes, and props, They also affect the rehearsals leading up to the reading. How do the playwright and the director expect they will be presenting this script? What elements do they need in order to develop the script and stage the work into a presentation for an audience? What elements can the production team provide given the finances and resources they have on hand? The collaboration that answers those questions will have a big impact on how the development process proceeds.

So I reached out to trusted colleagues for their advice. I asked them what kinds of misunderstandings, confusions, frustrations, and challenges they see happening with respect to identifying the acceptable or necessary elements of the staged reading. I asked them what their experience was of the collaboration between artistic and production teams with respect to how much movement and tech should be allowed in the staged reading. I wanted to know if my experience was generalizable or mostly in my head. Their responses helped me see I’d been looking at the problem from the wrong direction. They helped me identify the key to successful play development as the collaboration between all those involved in the process.

Striking a balance between expectations of the artistic team and that of the production team in determining what a script needs on stage for its development to flourish is not an easy task to accomplish without skilled collaboration. When is it time for table work and when is it time to get a script up on its feet? How does one determine when stage movement crosses the line from being helpful to the playwright to masking a problem with the script? How does one decide when a technical element is integral to the script and when it is actually covering up a textual problem? Technology and movement are often embedded within the framework of a script—limiting them can stall the creative process.

As one colleague reminded me, communication is the key to successful play development. This is particularly true if one or more of the key participants—playwright or director, most notably—are new to the experience. Sitting down and establishing what the script needs and how best to meet those needs is vital to the overall success of the development process. This collaboration requires, however, that those running the process know how to figure that out. Someone in the room has to have the experience to know when to nudge the process along and refocus the work. Someone in the room has to know how play development works so that script development actually occurs.

Whether you define a staged reading in a very strict way or hold a looser definition for it, the bottom line is that the staged reading must serve the script. While I initially identified the broad understanding of staged readings as a problem with the model, upon further investigation I recognize that broadness is actually what makes the model so useful to new play development.

 

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I'm also concerned about the staged reading process masking things that would not be a problem in a rehearsed production, by making them appear to be problems. As an example, physical actions which cannot be readily performed due to script in hand that are missed because an audience member zoned out the replacement stage direction (or the stage direction was not read), but which are crucial to the plot. Another example would be believability of a character's action which depends on getting a particular emotion across.

It's important to only get out of a staged reading that which can be gotten out of a staged reading. For example, they are fairly strong for reviewing the speakability of the lines, testing of any scripted blocking (hopefully minimal, but occasionally necessary), or the coherence of the plot. Staged readings, while useful in many ways, are IMO an impoverished form of theatre compared to even a workshop off-book productions. This especially applies to music-stand readings, but even to readings that are blocked by a director.

In sharing this blog with my colleagues, one noted the problem is more complicated than this blog could capture. I completely agree. As she pointed out (and I'm hoping she'll post her thoughts here), there is a problem with authority -- who in the room has it and how does that influence the developmental process. She recommended that development processes start without a director. I don't know that I agree with the director being taken out of the room, but I do think that role needs to be rethought when it comes to play development. As David Kahn and Donna Breed talk about in their book on directing in new play development (Scriptwork), the director's role is a complex one. Michael Wright, in his exploration of developmental programs in the US, also talks about the role of the director in the work.