We ran our first prepared play-reading on Sunday, 17th January, using our “Let’s Play” pre-configured reading of Twelfth Night. This report will talk quite a bit about the play-reading, but also about the changes in technology and approach, and how that affected the play-reading.
Our usual play-reading process:
Let’s start by telling you how we normally run a play-reading. We have a group of sround two dozen potential players who we invite to each play-reading. Usually, around 10 – 12 players say they’ll come to a specific play-reading. Often, not everyone turns up on the day, for various reasons, so we have to be able to change the number of players who read the play. For each play, we produce castings for round about 8 – 12 players. These castings are available within the MFFEV5 online version of the play, and we use the appropriate casting to allocate roles.
Note that we don’t pre-cast the play, because we don’t know who will turn up. Instead, we cast the play when people arrive, and usually we let the gods decide who plays whom – we choose roles by lot. This means that players cannot prepare a role. Any preparation has to be of the play. So, for example, my partner and I read each play twice together, alternating speeches,with one starting the first reading, and the other the next reading, so we’ve both read every speech in the play. This re-familiarises one with the play. This reading out loud also exercises the mouth.
A prepared reading:
For the play-reading on 17th Jan, as an experiment we thought we’d try out pre=castomg the reading. We selected a group of 10 players, and invited them, back in early December, to play specific roles in the play. The script is available online, so they could prepare with the script as much or as little as they liked.
What happened when people turned up for the reading?:
Firstly, as often happens, someone was ill and couldn’t come. With our usual process we just use a different casting in this circumstance for 1 less person. However, if players have pre-prepared specific roles we have to do something different. If we use a casting for 1 less person the casting software will have cast roles differently, and may well have combined different main roles which people have prepared. So, we have to adopt a different approach which is to re-allocate the roles which the absent player was playing to other players, preferably someone who interacts as little as possible with the roles being re-allocated..
A by-product of our casting software provides a spreadsheet which shows these inter-actions. The Twelfth Night character interactions are shown below:
The player who didn’t turn up was playing ‘Sir Toby’. So how do we find the replacement player for Sir Toby? We find the row with Sir Toby’s name, and look across the row, to see those main characters who have the fewest inter-actions with him. There are two real candidates: Orsino, who only interacts with Sir Toby twice (both in A5S1 as it happens) and Sebastian who inter-acts with Sir Toby six times. Orsino agreed to play Sir Toby, – and played both parts really well as it turned out.
Feste was a bit late arriving for the reading, so I had a minor panic before he arrived, wondering who could replace him. Again a quick look across the row for Feste shows us that the player playing Fabian and Antonio only interacts with Feste six times, and so could take over that role without too much trouble.
So far, it seems that in most plays, if you do a prepared reading with 10 players, you can cope more or less satisfactorily with 2 no-shows, by re-allocating their roles in this way.
Incidentally, I wonder if this analyses of the interactions between characters in different plays would tell us how dramaturgical practice was developing?
So now we have 9 players ready to read Twelfth Night, and they can choose whether to read their parts in Parts and Cues, or Highlit Text (except for the person reading Sir Toby / Orsino. He has to work in Highlit Text because he needs to see both Orsino’s and Sir Toby’s lines.)
So a prepared reading can work and cope with a limited number of no-shows.
How did the reading go?:
So, now everyone has arrived, has been given their (in one case, re-allocated) parts, and we’re ready for the off. At our previous play-reading we had to configure each person’s PC to show the right script for them. It took us 30 minutes to get everyone ready, with a few frayed nerves. This time, because we had a pre-configured page for Twelfth Night for 10 players everyone followed a link to that page, and then clicked on their role, 30 minutes was reduced to 15 minutes. This will get shorter as players get used to the “Let’s Play” pages.
So now it’s “beginners on stage…houselights down…curtain up” and we’re off.
Did the casting of roles to players and the preparation make any difference to the play-reading? I think it did. There was a definite shift from reading to acting. There were more accents around than usual; there was more thought about characterization; a major highlight was that Feste sang his songs and that added an additional dimension to the play; the timing of some scenes was significantly better than previously – notably A2S5 where Sir Toby and his mates, behind the box hedge, overhear Malvolio’s fantasies. The humour in this scene only comes out if the timing is fast, and it was.
So the play-reading was moving away from a reading towards a playing. That is not always a blessing. On the whole we have good readers in our group, but perhaps they’re not all the best of actors, particularly without rehearsal. So some of the acting might have been a little clunky and technically not ‘parfait’ – half-lines were not taken up quickly enough in all cases; and timing was frequently out. However, this was our first attempt at a ‘prepared’ reading. Encouraging. It should get better if we do more ‘prepared’ readings.
My personal summary was that 4 of the nine readers had significantly improved; 3 had improved; and maybe 2 were not so good (including myself). I had given myself the role of Malvolio. How did I do? Well, dear reader, speaking strictly between ourselves, I didn’t do as well as I had hoped. I found the part more difficult than any other part I’d played. I had a number of problems:
Firstly, most of my Shakespearean acting has been done with an outdoors promenade performance group. Performing Shakespeare outdoors in Scotland requires loud volume and exaggerated movements. Most of the audience are quite some distance away, and usually one is competing with the wind whistling through the trees and pouring rain. This volume and these movements transferred to a rather genteel Edinburgh sitting room seem more than a little out-of-place, perhaps even ‘over-the-top’.
The character is extremely difficult to portray convincingly. He wanders over a wide range of emotions: he is supercilious and sneering in A1S5 when running down Feste; in A2S3 he treats Sir Toby ‘and the lesser folk’ like an army regimental sergeant bullying some raw recruits; in the box-hedge scene he shows his more sensitive side, fantasising about Olivia. This went quite well, mostly because as I’ve said above, the timing of the outraged asides from the onlookers was good, and that’s key to getting the humour of the scene to come out. Then, despite all the conventional opinion to the contrary, Malvolio in yellow stockings is not the funniest thing ever, but faintly ridiculous. What is funny is him making a complete fool of himself in front of Olivia – and the others. But the really difficult scene is A4S2. Having built up this really obnoxious character, obsequious, disagreeable, a fantasist and foolish, you now have to make the audience feel sorry for him as Sir Toby’s, Maria’s, and Feste’s revenge goes too far! Compared with A4S2, Malvolio’s call for revenge in the midst of the happy celebrations of the couples planning their weddings is a piece of cake! Well, I know when I’m beaten! The dramatic range was too great for me, particularly in a play-reading. Actor retires hurt. “Directing (or maybe script-editing) is where my true skills lie..” 🙁
After the play was over, I thought the conversation seemed more animated than usual, particularly among those who had performed best. There was the usual discussion of characters in the play, and a lot of debate about the relative merits of ‘Parts and Cues’ versus ‘Highlit Text’ or even Standard script.
Prepared readings V Random Allocation of Parts
I asked the obvious question, did people prefer ‘Prepared Readings’ or the random allocation of parts. Opinion was divided, with no really strong opinions either way.
I’ve thought about that question quite a bit since the reading ended.
What I’m most pleased about is that we can support either. Our multiple castings per play, allows one to invite say, 12 people to come to the play-reading, and if only 10 turn up, we’ll use that casting. Even if more turn up, as has happened occassionally, we’ll probably still be able to give everyone a role to play. With the invited cast, with each player allocated particular role(s), we can still cope with one or two last-minute cancellations by using the Character Interactions to re-allocate a role from a no-show to one of the players there.
Is a ‘prepared reading’ better than ‘random allocation of parts’? I think the answer depends on what the objective of the play reading group is.
If the group exists to help actors familiarise themselves with Shakespearean roles, than a prepared reading helps more. Each actor is given role(s) to focus on and prepare, so it would be unsurprising if they focused on their roles. But this is what they’ll do in a rehearsal process, and it is unlikely that a play-reading will do better. However, such a reading could be a useful part of a rehearsal process – or for keeping actors’ Shakespearean skills alive.
However, if the group is exploring the plays as plays, the ‘random allocation of parts’ has the key advantage that nobody prepares a role, because they don’t know what they’re going to play. I have found my process of preparing the play by reading it 2 or 3 times (and editing the script) has given me a much deeper appreciation of the play by the end of the play-reading. There is also something appropriate in allowing the gods – or is it only Dionysus? – to allocate parts to the players.
Here in Edinburgh, our focus is, I think, on exploring the plays rather than the characters in the plays, so I suspect most of our future playreadings will not be ‘prepared’, though we might run the occasional one, if only for the variety.
One final thought, dear reader! I hope this playreading report might encourage you to read plays with your friends – and you don’t need to start with complete plays with a cast of 10. You can read (prepared or random allocation):
“Let’s Play” extracts for 2 players
“Let’s Play” extracts for 3 players
“Let’s Play” extracts for 4 players
“Let’s Play” Complete plays for 10 players