Today I want to talk a little about doing readings; having a group of people sit around and read your screenplay out loud. I’ve found gathering a group of actor friends (or even, just friends if none of yours are actors*) to sit around a table to read a script aloud is an invaluable experience as a screenwriter.
Two years ago, I wrote a couple of television specs, one a Modern Family, the other a Parks & Recreation, which I used to submit to all the writing fellowship programs offered by a number of studios and TV channels. The experience itself was wonderful, and at the end of the day, the feedback I got made the scripts better. From that night forth, I swore I would always do a live, staged reading of all my future scripts as a way to truly polish the shit out of them so they’d sparkle like diamonds!
Though the posts on this blog to date have mostly followed my most recent comedy screenplay, I am taking a jump back to do a polish on the script I wrote before that which I am tentatively calling, Naugatuck. As you can guess from my television spec choices above, I mostly write comedy, but with the Naugatuck script, I tried to tap into something a little more personal writing what I consider to be an indie growing pains dramedy which takes place during the protagonist’s first summer vacation from college in which he returns to his hometown amidst his parents divorce.
I laid the script down after my last major rewrite to work on the comedy piece mentioned above (and in previous blog posts) After finishing a rough, rough draft, I dropped all my writing activities for the past two months so that I could give myself some time and space to breathe, relax, and take the self-imposed pressure off myself. Now is the time to get back up on the horse and a reading of the Naugatuck script is the perfect way to do it.
“Why?” you ask? I don’t mind telling.
A PAT ON THE BACK
I’ve found doing readings is a great way to bring closure to a project for a number of reasons, the first and foremost– and this might sound selfish– is that you get a handful of people together in a room to read your script; it’s a big boost to the ego! I don’t mean that in a bad way. Hearing your script aloud really showcases what is working and not working about the script. But more importantly, it breathes life into the project. It makes it real. The act of going outside yourself and getting other people involved brings the project to life, it leaves a historical record– even if only for you and your friends . It’s a great big pat on the back you can give yourself after having protected this small ember of creative fire that you’ve been harboring throughout the long winter of the writing process. It feels incredibly terrifying, but rewarding as well.
Second, when you get fifteen people around a table to read your script– fifteen people that scrutinize and analyze the character that are meant to portray, you inevitably end up with feedback that equates to doing fifteen character passes on your own. That’s a lot of free information about what is cohesive and/or incomplete about characters, story lines and subplots in your script. Some of the feedback might be good, some bad or inconsequential, but it’s all there to be mined. And if you are willing to listen, your readers will even offer solutions to problems that you’ve been wracking your brain about to no avail.
If you’ve ever given a screenplay to a friend to read or sent it out to an industry contact for some advise, then you know the feeling of waiting around weeks… months to hear something back if you ever do hear something back. Doing a reading is a great way to circumvent those anxious weeks and months to get cold, concrete feedback. Not from one person, but a cast of characters. So. Worth. It.
MISSING LINKS OR FEEDBACK 2, THE GAME PLAN
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never finished a screenplay that I felt was 100% FANTASTIC! There usually is always something I’m hung up on that I think could be better– the introduction of the protagonist, the midpoint climax might not have high enough stakes, the closing image is cheesy?
It’s important to go into the reading fully aware of what questions you have about the screenplay. Know what you are looking to find out or get from the reading process. This helps you ask the right questions so that your test audience, the readers, will provide you with the info you’re looking to gain.
Getting feedback is not the same as taking criticism. It’s an art, an acquired skill to learn how to mine the wealth of information that comes your way from the mouths of friends, family, actors, producers and any other Tom/Dick/Harry that has something to say about your spec. Everyone has a different idea of how the script should be and what your idea really is– that’s fine. You want to be able to ask specific questions of people so that you can find out A) what’s working, B) what’s not working and C) gauge how people are perceiving sections of the script you have doubts or insecurities about. You are trying to find out what is hitting and missing about the story you are trying to tell. This is not easy task because when folks start slamming your work– even constructively– there is a tendency to get defensive. It’s only natural. Be aware, nod your head, makes notes. These people have donated their time to you and they are acting out of a desire to be helpful (even if they’re being hurtful).
You know the parts of you script you’re having doubts about. For those parts ask questions such as “What did you think when the main character did _____?” or “Did you buy that she’d react like ______?” If you ask, they’ll be more than happy to let you know. If you just nod and take notes, they’ll even keep talking and probably give up some great ideas for fixes that may be helpful (or not). Either way, the feedback is invaluable and instantaneous. So go into the reading with a list of questions, specific questions and don’t forget to ask.
On a side note, you don’t have to get all this info right on the spot at the reading. Enjoy the moment and celebrate when it goes well. I like to take everyone out for a beer after the reading. A lot of the best feedback both constructive for the screenplay and also ego-satisfying comes over a pint. When you thank your actors afterward via email or meeting up for a coffee, you can ask your specific questions; they’ll be more than willing to spill their beans for you.
I like to rent a rehearsal studio for the reading so that I can have a formal environment with tables and chairs. I find the added production value of being in a professional environment heights the whole experience for everyone and makes everyone do their best. Of course, if money is a factor and you have the space in your home, you can save a few dollars and gather everyone over your house. I live in a tiny five floor walk up in New York, so that doesn’t work for me.
In regards to scripts, these days you can send out the .pdf of your script in an email to everyone and they can read it off their iPad, tablet or phone. This saves a few bucks in copying costs as well (unless you work in an office with lax copying policies). For this reading of Naugatuck, and I suggest this when you are in a final polish state, I’m printing out copies of the script for everyone and asking that they highlight or circle any spelling/grammatical mistakes that stick out to them. Then I collect the hardcopies after the reading so I don’t miss a thing. Fifteen sets of eye are better than just mine!
I also ask everyone to read the script before the reading; there’s nothing worse that someone cold-reading your screenplay when they have no idea what’s going on. I ask them to put any notes or questions on the pages so that I can address them later. Again, it ends up being a great amount of feedback if you’re willing to put in the work.
Lastly, book more time than you need for the reading and make sure you have plenty of water (bottled or pitches/glasses) for everyone.
I always record my readings. I like to read everything straight through without a break just like a movie. I set up my recorder on the iPhone and tape the whole thing. I always do this. In fact, I usually try to use two recorders, one at each end of the table, so that if for some reason one recording doesn’t work, I still have something.
Now, when doing a final reading for a script that I feel is done**, I like to cast as specifically and as out of my league as I can. Any professional actors I know or have met, if they’re right for a role, I reach out. I try to get as many working actors as I can on this cast. Additionally, I invite any working writers/producers/director friends to sit in an listen because if the finished script is good, people in the industry– no matter how nominally– will talk about it. They can help you get the word out or get the script into the right hands if they believe in it. This is the goal; this is the work you are about to embark on with the polished final draft, so if anyone else is willing to help you, accept that help!
Additionally, I like to make the audio recording of the final reading available for producers and agents to whom I send query letters. If they request the script, it’s a nice addition to have the reading available as well so they could listen to it when you send over the hardcopy of the script. Hey, you can’t read a script while in stop-and-go traffic, but you can listen to a staged reading of that same screenplay while stuck in that same traffic.
So those are my thoughts and tips about readings. I’m casting my reading and setting everything up for late August. Can’t wait to see what turns out from it. I’m incredibly nervous, but also extremely excited as well.
*Even doing a “casting” for talent by posting a flyer at a coffee shop or on Craigslist can add the the experience and broaden your network of contacts.
**these are the readings when it’s best to get the scripts back from everyone to check for spelling and grammar mistakes before sending your final draft out to agents, producers and contests.