table-read / bench-reading / staged reading rules

Each playwright needs and wants different things from a table-read. By publishing these “rules,” I’m trying to ensure that in the case of my work, everyone’s precious time is used well.  Thank you for reading my work.  Hearing it accurately is invaluable to the playwrighting process.

Disambiguation: These rules do not all pertain to “table work,” that process at the beginning of rehearsals by which the director, actors, and playwright come to a consensus. For the purposes of this article, “table-read” or “bench-reading” define a step in the playwrighting process in which a group of people – not necessarily actors or playwrights – gather to read a play aloud.

General instructions

  • Speak clearly.  If dialect is called for, less is more.
  • Speak with sufficient volume that everyone in the room can hear easily.  If called upon to whisper, use a “stage whisper,” a breathy but fully audible sound.
  • Speak all of the words as they are written, just as you would read someone else’s poetry aloud; do not paraphrase, substitute, add, delete, or change words.  If the playwright wrote “No no no,” read three Nos – not two, nor four.
  • If you’re unsure how to pronounce a word, don’t hesitate but speak it as best you can.*
  • Pick up your cues.
  • If you’re called upon to sing but don’t know the tune, speak rhythmically.
  • Please do not stop, e.g., to comment to your neighbor, to ask the playwright a question – do not ever halt the flow, unless the director or playwright stops you.

Stage Directions reader

  • Do speak the title, character descriptions, times and settings descriptions.
  • Speak all indented and italicized text unless it is in parentheses.
  • Do not speak any parentheticals.
  • Please invest.  In other words, try to visualize what you’re reading about as you speak, and paint word-pictures to better help everyone understand where they are and what’s going on.  You are the sets, you are the lights, you are the costumes and scene changes and musical underscoring.

Roles / Characters

  • Please speak the role as written.  Do not add dialect or manner unless it is specifically requested in the character description or within a given line.
  • Respect all punctuation:
    • a comma means a brief pause
    • a period means a full stop
    • a paragraph break means an entirely new thought or tactic, and the time it takes to synthesize those – more time than a period
    • a slash / means that the slashed line overlaps all contiguous slashed lines *at the point of the slash*, which does not necessarily happen at the beginning of a line
    • an em-dash means an arrested thought (if you see “I love–” you mightn’t know whether the rest of the line is “you” or “him” or “ice cream”, but a thought or intention exists)
      • if – is within a character’s line (“I love– No, I hate it!”), the character interrupts her- or himself
      • if – is at the end of a line, the character with the next line must cut the previous character off at the moment of the –
  • Please think and feel and respond, but do not make some “choice” based on never having seen this play before.  If the situation or relationships or words work on you, let them, but your deciding ahead of time or based on their first line what/who a character will be, how they’ll behave or feel or react, robs the playwright of understanding whether their choices in the matter got onto the page.
  • Listen to the others, and behave accordingly.

*The caveat regarding pronunciation pertains to a cold reading (one in which the readers haven’t previously seen the script): if you’ve read through it and have pronunciation questions, make sure you ask them before the reading begins.

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©2012 Deborah Magid. You may only reproduce the above in whole or in part if it is properly credited.

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