Other creative writing teachers may be surprised how much time the typical playwriting class spends in the act of reading aloud. In my classes, students rarely if ever take their classmates’ scripts home to read silently. Since plays are meant to be performed, writers learn a great deal more by hearing how their words function in the mouths of actors. While, in an ideal world, readings would be rehearsed and conducted by trained performers, in reality most readings in a beginning playwriting class will be unrehearsed—“cold” readings—with members of the class. Though imperfect, these early performances still stand to teach a lot—at least, insofar as they remind beginning writers that words are tied to and derive their significance from performance.
Unfortunately, many instructors do not spend time on the skills of out-loud reading, sometimes called “oral interpretation.” To help facilitate cold readings, instructors should discuss the reading as a form itself, as a type of performance. By providing guidelines on author and actor preparation, the instructor can ensure a more valuable experience for all.
First, playwrights should prepare their scripts for easy reading. They should familiarize themselves with current playwriting format. They should pay careful attention to stage directions. While in rehearsed, fully-staged theatrical productions, all stage directions are performed; in a reading, though, they must be read by a narrator figure. I suggest that writers take care to determine which directions must be read aloud and which directions can be suggested by the actor. For example, “Pause” and “Sadly” can be acted. In contrast, a stage direction like, “He walks in dressed like a bird,” should be read aloud or the audience may not understand. As another example, if one character suddenly and quietly kills another, the audience may be confused unless that stage direction is read aloud.
In their book Scriptwork, David Kahn and Donna Breed lay out guidelines for actors in an unrehearsed reading. From my classroom experience, my best advice boils down to urging actors to refrain from making bold choices. For example, I have occasionally heard an actor read a character a certain way—for example, as very lazy or as having a British accent—only to learn as the reading progresses that that interpretation is wrong, leaving the audience confused. It is far better to read lines tentatively, without undue emphasis on how the speeches fit together. In other words, at a cold reading, it is the playwright’s job to build a character, not the actor’s. The actor’s job, then, is simply to express what is present on the page. In a fuller production, the actor adds details and fleshes out the character; in a cold reading, to avoid an uninformed and incorrect interpretation, the performer should aim simply to neither to add nor detract.
The skills of the reading are different from the skills of production. But, if considered and thought out, they can yield a positive experience for all.