We ran a play-reading of Romeo and Juliet on Sunday 13th December – our last play-reading of 2015, and our first with our new MFFEV5 Cloud Reader (though we’ve used a pre-release version for the previous three play-readings).
We had 14 players for the play-reading which is really too many (the biggest part – Romeo had 587 lives; the smallest part: Tybalt & Balthazar had 64 lines). Along with most Shakespeare plays it would be best to have around 8 – 10 players: there’s usually around 8 – 10 principal parts in a play and its good if each player has a principal part to read, as well as some minor parts to make the play reading work. We’re going to move to this format in 2016, which means we’ll have to run two play-readings a month, and probably need a few more players to get two readings of 8 – 10 players.
When we have so many players, we let the gods allocate parts by picking parts randomly from a hat. Then we correct the gods’ casting by players negotiating changes of role with each other. This worked really well on Sunday with some really good performances. It’s invidious to mention names, but Juliet (a teenage actress who I had directed as Viola); Romeo (a newly retired English literature teacher); Mercutio (an aging ex-diplomat); Nurse (a professional actress) all doing exceptionally well. I was offered the part of Capulet by someone who thought I might do it well, and was happy to swap that for the Prince. I hope my Capulet was worth the sacrifice! When there is a critical mass of players with parts that suit them, the performance of the play does come alive, in a quiet sort of way, and I felt that happened with Romeo and Juliet.
There were a few interesting things came out about the play from the play-reading:
Only one player (Juliet) commented on the fact that the opening speech of the play (“Two households, both alike in dignity….”) was missing from the script. The First Folio, derived in the main from The King’s Men’s prompt books, doesn’t contain it. I imagine The King’s Men’s players telling Shakespeare that, although the Prologue is a fine speech, it’s not so dramatic a way to start a play as the testosterone-filled scene with Samson, Gregory, Tybalt, etc, so I resisted the temptation to re-insert it. This is the Modern First Folio Edition, after all.
One of the players told me after the play, that she loved the domestic minutiae with which the play is filled, and how it moves on the plot. This was just as well, as one of her roles was playing SERVINGMAN, who asks Romeo to read out the list of party-invites, which is key to the plot, as it let’s Romeo and his friends gate-crash the party and see Juliet.
In a similar vein, though perhaps without the significance for the plot, I really like the scene with Peter and the disappointed musicians who’ve come to play at a wedding, only to find it’s a funeral, and won’t play Heart’s Ease for Peter, and he gets rather cross about it. I have no memory of that scene being included in any production I’ve seen, and yet it introduces comedy at a moment of tragic climax (the ‘death’ of Juliet). Think the porter’s scene in Macbeth, etc.
And as the Nurse said, after the play-reading was over, “At the end of each play-reading, I always learn more about the play”. That’s why we do it, I guess.
The Technology (MFFEV5 Cloud Reader):
This was the first play the group had read using our recently-released Cloud Reader. We had used pre-release versions of the Cloud Reader for previous readings, but the latest release has some significant changes (the configuration screen has completely changed; there’s a slight pause when everyone moves from one scene to the next; etc).
We read the whole play with everyone using the Cloud Reader, and on the whole people seem quite excited by it. The ex-English Literature teacher said he wished he’d had such an aid to teaching in his days as a teacher, and thought our focus on ‘playing’ the play, rather than studying it was exactly right. He has offered to introduce us to some teaching colleagues to see how we can explore using it in a school / academic environment. I think we’ll be ready for such an exploration soon, so I’m interested in finding other academics who would like to explore what it can do.
Inevitably there were a few teething problems which we’ll need to think about:
Configuring 14 different PCs to play different parts in the same play took far too much time (20 mins perhaps), particularly as it was the first time the group had used the configurator. Luckily we’ve had enough foresight to allow plays to be pre-configured and players can select one link from a page to get to the right configuration for their part(s). We’re in the process of writing the first few of these pages at this very moment, and you’ll see them early in January, I hope.
We had a variety of different web browsers: some Windows laptops; some tablets (mostly Apple mini-pads); and some smartphones. The tablets and the smartphones seemed to work better than the Windows laptops, mostly because of the touch screens, which let players select options with their fingers; and because they show the script full-screen which simplifies scrolling more than somewhat. My personal preference was a mini iPad, mostly because it lets my aging, dimming eyes read bigger text than on a smartphone, but those with younger eyes seemed to find a smartphone more than acceptable. Certainly a lap-top feels quite ungainly sitting on a player’s knees, compared with a mini-iPad in it’s leather cover, looking just like a book. Besides, the lap-top screens kept timing out, or people found scrolling with a mouse difficult.
With the Cloud Reader, everyone has to press a button at the end of each scene to move onto the next (this is a design feature primarily insisted on by me to make sure that we can analyse how people use the CloudReader). There is a little pause (maybe 5 – 10 secs) as all the web browser request a new page at the same time, and those requests go through my wi-fi router, send the request to the server, and back comes the data. Towards the end of the play, this problem seemed to go away as players learned to move to the next scene earlier, if they weren’t playing in that scene.
In summary, I think we’ve got a way for groups to read scenes, or whole plays, in an online, interactive way, which offers some significant advantages over using paper scripts. Those groups might be play-reading groups like our own, or school / university groups studying a play, or theatres running a play-reading group for their patrons. Perhaps the key advantage it has over more conventional ways of group reading a play, is that it focuses on ‘playing’ the play rather than studying it. And that is more fun!
Our plans for 2016:
The Cloud-Reader enables us to expand the range of things we can do with our play-readings, so we plan to change things a bit next year:
The group is growing, and we find that play-readings work best with 8 – 10 readers so everyone gets a ‘principal’ part to read as well as a few minor parts. So we’re going to try and run two play-readings a month of the same play, so we can get back to that ‘ideal’ size of reading. Paradoxically, that probably means we need a few more members. We don’t want a play-reading to be less than 8 readers, just as we don’t want it to be more than 10.
We’re going to introduce ‘prepared’ readings, where each player knows a month or so in advance which part they will play, so that they can prepare that part. This needs a fall-back plan which comes into play if someone cannot make a reading for some reason. I think we’ve developed a way of coping with absentees. We’ll let you know how it goes.
And finally, it’s the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on 23rd April, 2016, and the 452nd anniversary of his birth on the same day, so we’re going to celebrate with ‘prepared’ readings of Twelfth Night on 17th January (not too far away from Twelfth Night), and (probably) Love’s Labour’s Lost on 23rd April. We’ll publish casting sheets for both these productions so that you can commemorate / celebrate as well.