Screenplay Readings: Writers First Aid

The Day has come.

You’ve finished your screenplay, and now you’re ready to send it out and make your millions, right? Stock up on silver brads, load up on 3-hole paper, and get an account at your local UPS store. You’ll send it to studios, big and small, and wait for their call. But while you eagerly pine for your phone to ring, your screenplay will most likely sit in a box under several others for months, until finally it’s picked up and read by one of the many underpaid script readers. And while it might seem long and laborious, this is actually how screenwriters get started. How screenplays get sold. This is a good thing, unless of course, your script sucks.

Remember, you only get one chance to make an impression with your screenplay, and overconfidence in your screenwriting is certainly an Achilles heel. Life will knock you down more times than you can possibly imagine, your screenwriting included, so don’t knock yourself down by sending off a script that isn’t ready. But how do you know when it’s time for your screenplay to be sealed in that Manila envelope and mailed off to the powers that be? There is no absolute answer or picture perfect recipe; however, organizing a script reading can improve your screenplay and your screenwriting in more ways than you can presume.

The Reading. It’s the thing every screenplay requires. So get a one up on all the other scripts that sit in the inbox. Before you send out your latest piece of brilliance, learn what it really sounds like. Because scripts, unlike novels, are meant to be read out loud.

The Things You Need:

The Script

This is a given, you’d think, but it’s amazing the number of writers who pull together a reading “just to bounce off ideas”, or “to improv.”

I did it. In fact, I once held a play audition where I told all of my actors to “tell me a story.” I got the cast I needed, yes, but it was a little dumb, and I took up a lot of everyone’s time: actors, directors, and mine.  Improv is great, but it has its place in the conceptual phase. Your Reading, dear writers, is not that phase. This day is after you’ve poured weeks, months, even years of hard work and thought into your story. It’s after you’ve pushed your dialogue as far as it can go. It’s to hear for yourself if sweat, blood, and tears actually works. So, don’t get too excited that you’ve actually got people at your disposal and try to “test them out.” Don’t. They’ve got a couple of hours of freedom, and they’re spending them with you. So get your script as polished as you can possibly get it before you get a bunch of actors in the room. Don’t waste time. Yours, or theirs.

The Actors

There’s a certain idea that you have to pay actors for your reading. I don’t know how many times I’ve talked to writers that are putting together a table read, and they tell me, “Oh, it only cost $1000,” or “A friend is trying to get Equity.” (Equity? Really? For a reading?) While I’m sure they would love the extra rent money, this really isn’t true.

There are two great things about actors:

  1. They’re everywhere. In New York or Los Angeles, you can walk into a Starbucks and there’s at least four actors within a skinny latte’s reach. In New York, go to any restaurant and tell the waiter you’ve got a script. In LA, hit up the tour buses. Chances are, you’ll head home with a handful of business cards and headshots stuffed into your pocket.

But even in Anytown, USA, you can find any number of high school and college actors, waiting for a part. Yes, high school. Look, you’ve written a screenplay, congratulations, but don’t take yourself so seriously that you’ll only take method actors. Unless this is your studio rewrite, chances are, your movie isn’t that good, yet. And besides that, you’re not doing this for the performance. You’re doing a reading to hear your work out loud.

  1. Actors are ALWAYS looking for work. They don’t care where it comes from. Sure, you’re not going to get Tom Cruise for your reading, but there are thousands of actors that are waiting for their next chance at “the latest hot new thing.” I once had an actress ask me the name of my production company so she could put it on her resume. And my guess is, hers isn’t the only resume that has a list of readings plastered on it. So make up a company name, and tell them they can be any character they want, as long as it’s what you want.

The Space

I know, I know. Doing your reading in a theater would be awesome, right? They just make everything seem so professional. The stage, the lights – they’re a catalyst for pure creativity. But when it comes down to it, a theater is really just four walls and some chairs. So before you throw down $500 or $1000 or even $100 for a space, stop and think about it. Is the next two hours really worth it?

As much as you want this to be a performance, it’s not going to be. As much as you want this to be great, it’s probably not going to be. It might be several levels of good, and even have moments you think are awesome, but there are no producers here. There’s no critics from the NY Times. There’s you, a few friends for an audience, and some actors.

At my last reading, we had it inside my 4th floor, 350 sq. foot apartment. We bought some drinks, made some coffee, and baked some cupcakes. We used music stands for the scripts, and brought in metal chairs for the actors and myself. The audience got the couch.  And believe it or not, it still went off without a hitch. If you have a theater or a studio at your disposal, great. But this isn’t about the performance. This is about getting your script out of your head. Find the room, and have at it. Whether it’s your living room, your conference room, or the shed out by the garage.

Red Pens

What? You think this is for fun?  Look, as much as you want to be able to enjoy this moment, you get about 30 seconds of enjoyment. That 30 seconds right at the beginning of the reading, when everyone sits down, picks up their script, and you hear the words “FADE IN” spoken out loud. Enjoy that moment. Because after that, you’re here to work. The truth of the reading is that there should be so much red on the pages by the end of it that you don’t even recognize the script. This is your chance to turn on your inner critic, and attack your own work. Listen to how the scenes flow, how the names sound. Are characters always talking? Then you’ve got a play, not a movie. Are you starting scenes too early? Too late? Do your scenes actually move the story forward? Are there great visual descriptions? Are you painting pictures with your words? Dialogue runs too long? Cut it. Actors stumble over lines? Red ink. Don’t be afraid to kill entire scenes, if for no other reason than you’re running long. If you get bored, you can be sure that audience members will start snoring, and even more so, studio readers while they’re trying to get through the pile of scripts hanging out on their desk will slip into a coma.

Got everything you need? Great. Now it’s time to begin. You’ve got just a couple of hours to make the most of your reading, and trust me, they go by faster than you want them to. So…

Here are a few tips to make them count:

Listen.

Sounds simple right? Just wait. Wait until you’ve got a room full of actors, audience members, a hundred pages, and two red pens sitting in front of you. All of a sudden, everything you’ve written, your months of hard work, your sweat and tears and love will sound like utter shit.

The typical reaction is to beat yourself up, call yourself a failure, and tell everyone to go home and apologize for wasting their time. But you’re a writer, remember? That’s not what you do. You quietly whimper to yourself and listen to page after excruciating page. Because you need to know. You need to know what works, what doesn’t work. You need to know exactly how bad your dialogue is, and it will be bad. You need to hear your slugs and stage directions and character names read out loud, all the way until someone reads THE END. Because only then will you know what you’ve done, and what kind of experience you’re giving the audience. Only then will you know if you’ve got something or not. Sometimes, you’ve got pure gold. A line of dialogue here. An entire scene there. A character that makes people actually laugh – out loud, more than once. You’ve got an audience now; listen to their reactions. Do they laugh or cry? Watch their faces. This is your moment to notice and gather everything you possibly can. This is the time to hear exactly what you’ve created.

Write.

Your writing isn’t over. In fact, your rewriting stage has just begun, and to some writers, that’s where the script really starts to take shape.

During the reading, about a thousand things are moving through your head, and you don’t have time to process, so write as many notes as possible. Rewrite lines on the fly. Learn shorthand. Make symbols that you’ll remember, circle words and phrases that don’t make sense (or even ones you love), and most of all, X out or strike through anything that just doesn’t work. Remember, in two hours, you’re running through pages that have taken you weeks, if not months to write. You won’t have the same time frame you had before. So move fast. Be honest with yourself, and let your inner critic come alive. Be ruthless. Make that script bleed red.

Ask Questions.

Ask your questions at the end, after your breather. Don’t you dare stop your reading in the middle of a scene and ask people what they think. I swear, if you even think about doing that… Just. Don’t. But at the end of the reading, it’s fair game. Tell everyone, including your actors, that you want about 20 minutes to talk about what just happened. Don’t ask for 30. If they’re enjoying the conversation, they’ll stick around and keep talking, but if they got nothing to say, they’ll just be looking at their iPhones, and the worst feeling in the world is finishing up your last six months worth of art, and watching your audience check their emails. 20 minutes is all you need to ask what you really want to know. “How did you like it? What about the characters? Did you get that lump in your throat? Would you watch it again?” Ask about the scenes, the choices, the dilemmas. Ask them about anything you can possibly ask – any questions that stayed in your head, or that your inner voice wondered, “Oh dear Lord, why did I do that”? Ask them. Now. These people just heard your worst possible draft, and they can only help you make it better. Ask, and you shall be rewarded.

Throw it away.

Yep. That’s right. Toss the entire thing in the trash can. All of your notes, all of your x’s and red marks and questions. All the conversations, the questions – everything – and toss it.

Give it some time, maybe a day or two, and then print out a fresh draft. The truth is that it’s your screenplay, and all the advice and answers and comments in the world can’t make it better than putting in your own work, your own ideas. And after a break… after it’s all behind you, you will remember it clearly. Better than clearly, because now you’ve had time to think, to organize, and to plan out an attack. Now you can look at your screenplay and know what it’s supposed to be about. Now you’ll be able to see the path that your story is supposed to follow, and when you read through a fresh print, you’ll see exactly what it is that works, or doesn’t. You’ll remember the laughter, and the questions, and the puzzled looks.

But after taking time away from it, you’ll also notice that your next read through is a little different. All of a sudden, your work is not your baby. It’s not new. It’s no longer personal. It’s old, and it’s fine to tear it up to make it better.

You can’t do anything with a draft that has a whole bunch of red ink all over it, so don’t try. Instead, print it fresh. Clean, crisp, white paper. Use your fancy brads, and even UPS it to yourself, if you really want to. But focus on your read. Pour yourself a cup of coffee, a glass of scotch, or twelve pints, whatever your poison, and begin the process anew. Because in the end, all writing is rewriting… and rewriting some more. Good luck.