While Broadway continues to recover post-covid, there is a noticeable increase in the number of readings being offered. This is a good thing – many of the shows written during the shutdown are now ready to try out in front of a live audience, and I see it as a positive sign of recovery. Is your show ready for a reading?
I had the privilege to see five readings last week (two of them were my own). They were all different types of readings, and they give a good example of the different stages of development of a play or musical.
The Private Table Read
Most of us are familiar with a table reading, or “pizza reading,” where we gather actor friends to cold read our script and get their feedback in return for feeding them dinner (or pizza). It’s a good first step, after you have a full read-through with your dramaturg or writing group, people you know and trust.
I actually had a zoom reading of a work that we’ve been working on for almost four years. Why a Zoom reading? It was the right choice to try out the latest changes in the script in front of an audience. Our actors were mainly involved in the hip hop music industry, so it was important to test out the script and get their thoughts before we produce a bigger staged reading in the Spring. We could have had an in-person table reading, but as our actors were music artists some were on the road and couldn’t all be in NYC at the same time.
This is an example of why Zoom readings are useful: your actors and creative team can gather from anywhere in the world to experience the script together “live” at the same time and get immediate feedback. I have to stress that a table reading this early in development is still a private invite; you need to protect the work at this early stage of development and only invite in people you trust for feedback.
Another form of an early reading I attended was more public, although still recognized as a very early developmental step. It’s a unique program put together by Lincoln Center for NYC musical theater folk called the Across a Crowded Room Fellowship, which pulls together a librettist-lyricist-composer team in one networking event to produce a 20-minute musical in 6 months. One of my writers participated and presented his 20 minute musical in front of a panel of Broadway musical professionals, who gave their feedback. This was a very public presentation of a new work in front of an industry audience who is familiar with the process of development. If you can get this level of feedback this early on, you should do it, although I normally wouldn’t advise an early reading in front of 100 people!
The Local Staged Reading
Not every show should immediately hold an early staged reading in NYC, even if the creative team lives there. Just like the old model where upcoming Broadway shows had their “out of town tryouts,” if you’re able to produce an early staged reading with actors on their feet at music stands locally, then do it.
I’m partnering with SUNY Cortland in upstate NY to develop new musicals away from the high costs (and high visibility) of the industry. Colleges have professional programs training the next generation of artists, with talented directors and state-of-the-art theaters. We held a first full read/sing through of a new musical that was first developed in Chicago. We’re so excited by what we’re seeing we’re hoping to transfer the reading to NYC in the spring. By developing it upstate first, I’m buying time for the creative process to happen at a lower cost but still with trained and talented professionals.
Another local staged reading I attended was on Long Island at a tiny arts council storefront. The script still needs work, but just listening to an audience react (or not react) I’m sure was helpful to the team, and it was funded in part with local grant money using local actors. A win-win.
The Investor Invited Staged Reading
The fifth reading this week was staged uptown, out of the regular theater “box” midtown. This was a very smart decision by the producers. They staged the reading about a black star (Marian Anderson) at the Marian Anderson Theater at City College in West Harlem. a beautiful theater with magnificent acoustics – perfect for the show. I attended an earlier staged reading midtown (the second one they offered, I believe), and this latest presentation demonstrated all of the hard work the team has done on the script. The show is ready to be produced, and the audience’s reactions proved it.
But remember – this was achieved after quite a few years of work, and was the third or fourth staged reading presented.
Don’t Rush Development
Sometimes the baby needs more time than you think it does to be born. Trust the process. Trust your actors and your early feedback. Don’t be precious about your work, and be open to change it based on the reactions you get from the audience. Don’t resist change – ultimately it’s your friend. The audience doesn’t lie.
At the same time, develop it privately as much as possible, and listen only to voices you trust, especially early in development. And although these five examples are musicals, new play development is the same.
Keep writing and re-writing, but check in with an audience periodically. Ultimately it’s for them.