The Play Reading’s The Thing

I so enjoy play readings. I’ve been to two in the last two days — one at TheatreWorks and one at ACT in San Francisco.  By stripping back to nothing but actors (really good actors in these examples!) and a script (really good scripts in these examples!), the readings reminded me of all the different elements a fully produced play combines to form the total theatre experience for an audience. How the sets, costumes, lighting, sound, the physicality and interaction of the actors — under the guiding vision of a director — all are an integral part of that whole.  I also noticed the inverse — how much an actor can do with just her voice — an inflection, a volume or tempo change.

When you see a reading of a play, whether a table read or a staged reading with scripts on music stands or even minimal blocking with scripts in-hand, you pay a different kind of attention, I think. When there are no “production values” to pay attention to, there’s more time, and more need, to really listen to the words — to let the words help you imagine the world the characters are living in. Hearing the stage directions read out loud is a treat and an aid to help create in your own mind what the designers do for you in a fully produced play.

On Monday, TheatreWorks had a small private reading of Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky, to test out some changes the playwright wanted to make in the script between its world premiere last year and its upcoming second production at TheatreWorks this winter.   The play is an amalgam of turn of the (nineteenth) century astronomy, feminism, romance and family, based on historical astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, with Gunderson’s trademark wit and warmth.  The audience for this reading was small — just a few dozen staff, board and patrons –but deeply engaged, often rapt, and clearly having a great afternoon. It left us all enthusiastically looking forward to seeing the fully staged work in the upcoming season.

Last night, ACT gave a little thank you gift to some of its subscribers — a short notice, one-night-only free reading of Tom Stoppard’s rarely produced play Hapgood. In her brief introduction to the reading, Artistic Director Carey Perloff explained that having the cast available from ACT’s current production of Arcadia felt like a good opportunity to hear this complex play and share something with her loyal audience. (She then went on to warn us that if we “thought Arcadia was abstruse, wait until [we] heard this play!”)   What a fun evening. The very complexity of this work (it is a twisty spy story — the most Shakespearean of Stoppard’s plays and  heavy on long speeches, clever, erudite language and expository dialogue) makes it particularly well-suited to a play-reading format.  My companions and I untangled the threads and discussed the twins and the “twins” all the way home.

Play readings are no substitute for fully produced theatre;  but, for lovers of this art, they are wonderful appetizers.  If you get an opportunity to catch a play reading — take it!    (One possibility:  TheatreWorks New Works Festival this summer.   More on that to come in a future post.)


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