One year ago today, the incomparable Mr Simon Josiffe and I put on our first rehearsed reading. We’d found a small fringe theatre in London that we could hire for the day relatively cheaply and bribed a bunch of actors with the promise of sandwiches and biscuits. A rehearsed reading is a really back to basics affair with no set, props, or costume – the actors meet to go through the material a couple of times but they perform, sitting or standing, with the scripts in their hands.
Despite – or perhaps because of – the reading’s bare bones nature, the whole thing was a bit of a daunting prospect. At the time I was a writer who’d never really put out her words forward for public consumption so, for that first reading, I merely dipped my toes in the water with a selection of sketches I’d written during last year’s 28 Plays Later Challenge (incidentally, you can listen to recordings of said sketches here) rather than risking any of my more substantial pieces.
Did we make any money? Er, no. Were there rave reviews published in the press? Um, not that I’m aware of. Was the industry there in force and do we now have agents/producers/directors fighting over us? Yup, that’d be a no as well. So why do it in the first place – and, more to the point, why on Earth would we keep doing it?!
There are various reasons why these readings mark a positive step forward in my journey as a writer (yes, I am aware of how pretentious that sounds – just go with it, alright?). There’s the obvious result that I’m now able to point to these productions and say to anybody who cares to ask “Look, I’m doing stuff, alright? I’m not just sitting alone at my computer writing things that nobody aside from my editor will ever see!” which I’ll admit was initially a big motivator for me. But this has turned out to be a very minor plus compared to some of the other benefits.
It’s a genuinely frightening moment when you hand your script over to an actor. You don’t realise just how frightening until you do it for the first time. The worries that went through my head ranged from “will they understand what I’m getting at?” through to “what if they read the first page and laugh in my face and refuse to participate?!”. I’m pleased to report that none of our cast has ever laughed in my face or refused to participate; and asking them to perform my words is slowly getting easier.
Confidence issues aside, there’s a lot to be said for asking other people to read your work out loud. A script differs from other forms of writing in that it is basically an instruction manual, designed to be seen and heard by its audience, rather than read like a novel. Getting proper actors to breathe life into your characters gives you a practical insight into how your script actually works in a way that you just don’t get from reading it aloud to yourself.
We’ve taken an audio recording of every single reading we’ve done and, even though the quality hasn’t always been brilliant, listening back has given me a chance to assess what works about the script; areas of dialogue that don’t quite make sense, passages that take too long so start to get boring, missed opportunities for jokes, etc.
All of the above could, of course, be achieved behind closed doors; but having an audience has also given me some interesting insights into which bits of the script are and aren’t working. Which bits are people engaging with? What is making them laugh? Where are things falling a bit flat? Of course we all know that you can’t please all of the people all of the time and there will of course be some things that one audience won’t get but another would find hilarious; but all of these things are useful indicators and give me clues as to where I can tighten up my script.
Our last reading, which took place at the end of April, was in Oxford which has been my home since 2005. As I discussed in a previous blog post; this one was kind of a big deal for me as it didn’t allow me much space for anonymity. We had a modest audience which was half comprised of people who didn’t know us (and therefore had no reason to be kind to us) and I’m pleased to say that it all went well enough that I won’t have to move or go into hiding or anything like that.
Would I recommend that other new writers put on readings? Yes, absolutely – it’s taught me a lot about my writing and helped in giving me the confidence to publicly identify as a writer. What’s next on the agenda? Well, we’re discussing where/when to do another reading; and also planning on doing some audio recordings to release on the world. Watch this space…