Performing Your Script: Notes From the Table

By David Willis · March 20, 2013

You’ve labored long and hard to get here. Finally, you’ve reached the point where you feel as though your intentions have been realized and your script has come to life. You’ve done your rewrite, maybe even the polish. You think you’re done, but don’t start shipping off copies just yet. There is one more thing that you can do to make sure you are putting your best foot forward and that your brain isn’t filling in the gaps of your own document. You should organize a table read and hear the words read aloud by actors. The following steps will ensure that you and your actors walk away from the reading feeling satisfied.

The benefits of having your words read aloud are extreme.  Screenplays are in fact meant to be performed, so through this exercise you can in turn become a better writer. However, do yourself the service of not having this table read until you feel you have reached your best draft. You are going to discover things here, but it’s not the actor’s job to break story. You are calling on them to give you a professional read, you must reciprocate by only asking them to read a script that is ready.

When that time comes, cast the read the best you can. You’ll need at least a few men and a few women to divide the parts across. Use friends who actually want to do it. Forcing somebody to help you slog through 90-120 pages they don’t want to read helps no one. If you are lucky enough to live in New York or Los Angeles, you are literally surrounded by actors. Actors want to act. Most of us have come to a passion for screenwriting by surrounding ourselves with like-minded people, including actors. Utilize your resources.

You may be starting out and not yet live in New York or Los Angeles. If you live in a creative vacuum, devoid of accessible actors, you can at least take the time to program the speech control function in Final Draft. I find even a robotic table reading is helpful during the earlier drafts.

In advance of the reading you will need to buy or rent a handheld record. The one I like to use is the Tascam DR-100 and is professional enough to double as my on set recorder for short films. You could probably get away with something as simple as the Tascam iM2, which for $30 turns your iphone into a reasonable recorder. The only requirements are that the device be able to record long takes, up to two hours, and that it be able to get a good level on all the actors when placed in the center of the table.

Schedule the reading for midday on a weekend. Your chance of nailing this many people down on a weeknight or one of their only free weekend nights is slim to none. Set the reading in a comfortable location. Find the friend with the biggest dining room table and ask if they’d like to help out. Have one script printed for each person willing to read. Make sure water is on hand. Snacks, craft beer, and a decent wine help too. Make this an event, showing that you’ve planned ahead. Make it fun and they will be open to reading for you again in the future. I have used some of the same actors in multiple table reads and ended up casting them in short films. This is an opportunity to strengthen creative relationships.

You will be tempted to narrate. Don’t. Your job is not to get caught up in recitation of the words. Your job as the writer is to listen carefully. In a pinch I have read my own descriptions before and regretted it. Though you can go back and listen to the recording, you are less present. You will miss things. My first instinct was to feel bad for the narrator, who does all the heavy lifting, but you must listen. Cast a narrator with the ability to read well aloud who has the stamina to do the job.

Don’t rush right in. Treat this as an acting exercise with adequate warm-up time. Start with an introductory period, just shooting the breeze, let your actors get comfortable. This is especially important if several people don’t know each other. Introduce them and above all be a good host. There will be a time when everyone will come to a natural place where they are ready to begin. Somebody usually asks, “should we get started?” That’s the right time.

Now the fun part begins. If you have done your job, there should be very little direction required to get through the script. If actors have to stop and ask questions about a location or what a character is like, you may need to go back and reinforce some descriptions. When you send this script out, you do not have the benefit of explanation. Seize this time to figure out if your descriptions conveyed what they needed to. That said, don’t get hung up on taking too many notes. Write in shorthand. The recording will help you decipher these later. Listen to the words, for awkwardness, for things that cause a snag in the performance.

You have now entered into the world’s greatest lie detector. If there are any moments in your script that you doubted, they will be immediately validated or fall flat on their face as soon as they pass an actor’s lips. A clever joke, a tech-heavy monologue, or overdrawn blocks of unnecessary description. All will pass through this gauntlet. Be honest with yourself. Listen to what is working and put the rest on your hit list with a bright red pen.

Listen for signs of fatigue, even 90 pages is a marathon when doing a cold read aloud. Be ready to stop about halfway through and just take a break, but let the recording continue. You will get a lot of notes here if you just let people relax and talk while they catch their breath, have a drink, etc. Actors usually can’t help but offer up some general pacing notes during this gap. It’s good to know how people are feeling at the midpoint of the script. You are smack in the middle of the treacherous second act. If people aren’t energized by where the story is at this point, note why and address it in your next pass.

After the break, if you’ve done your job and the structure is working, your characters should really come alive as you get into the part of the script where you start paying off all those setups. Most importantly everyone should feel satisfied at the end of the script. You have to end on your strongest note, sending the reader and future audience away feeling their time was well spent. If there are any moments of conflicting logic or missing beats, this is where it will become most evident.

It is up to you to put your actors in a place where they feel comfortable giving you constructive criticism. If you see something that clearly isn’t working, bring that up and discuss. it. When your actors feel that you can be objective and realize you aren’t made of glass they can give you their best notes, which is why you are at the table. Even if somebody says something that tears your guts out, or is just an about-face from your views on the script, take these notes seriously, thank them and think about WHY they came to this note. Sometimes a simple note is a reaction to a larger problem. Make sure everyone has a chance to voice their opinion and share ideas about how to fix it if they desire. Not every note is a gem, and some will be discarded, but treat them all with equal value and take the time later to decipher what the core of the note is. What does it say about your story?

When the discussion period has dwindled, thank everyone for helping you and taking time out of their schedules. Follow up in email. I like to post the reading to a shared Dropbox so that the actors can listen to the reading if they want to. I also send them a copy of my next draft, pointing out if any of their notes have been incorporated and thanking them again for their help.

You may not be able to organize this for every script you write, but if you can the benefits are obvious. Perhaps most importantly, you have now had your work performed in some way, which is what this is all about. The next time you sit down to write a new script you will remember this experience. You will more easily see the words from the actor’s perspective. Not only can it make you a better writer, it is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have as one.