The New York Critic: Essays
If acting is the elder son and
singing is the favorite, reading is the bastard child of the theater. A “reading” of a play is
considered a poor
second to a “production”, and the word is used in an
apologetic tone. For many
actors, it implies a presentation with decisions at best half-realized. Audiences, for the most part, stay away.
In fact, a script reading can be
hugely rewarding for both actor and audience.
It can present the script more directly than a mounted
the interfering trappings of costume and set.
At its simplest, the reading is a
bunch of actors sitting around with the script in their hands, reading
lines without any preparation. It’s
here that the actor learns to make decisions quickly and to commit to
them. If they’re sometimes more
rewarding for the actor than for the audience, it’s because cold
certain requirements on the dialogue.
Noel Coward is perfect, and Shaw does well. Chekhov does not.
Then the form moves through a
continuum of sophistication in terms of the analysis of the script, the
directorial concept, blocking, costume, and sometimes set.
They take the name of “parlor readings”,
“concert readings”, or “workshop readings”.
The reading at its most developed –
the “staged reading” – comes very close to being a
production. We saw this on Broadway a
few years ago in Estelle Parsons’ Broadway reading of Salome
minimal set and blocking, and no costume demanding attention. The actors were obviously on intimate terms
with the lines. If they hadn’t kept
scripts in their hands, the show would have been accepted as a full
with the choices of minimalism. And
after all, only a minimalist design could have met the demands of
Different scripts lend themselves
to different reading conventions. Some beg for movement; others need a
stools. Some scripts allow actors to
improvise blocking; others demand more formal and preplanned movement. The director, of course, will choose the
conventions that suit the material.
It’s precisely this protean quality
that makes readings difficult. The
audience doesn’t know what to expect. They don’t know what
the conventions are,
because they keep changing from one reading to another. Even as they
sit at a
reading, many audiences don’t know what to make of it. It’s very difficult to get an audience
give up their preconceptions; they insist on seeing nothing they
The actors themselves are
responsible for this when they haven’t decided what conventions
to use. As a result, an actor may stand
holding the script formally to one side, while the actress in the scene
around the stage physicalizing the character.
Few stage errors are more dreadful. The audience will, of
gravitate to the mobile actress, saying “she put her whole body
into it”; this
is so only because they’re attracted to the familiar.
In the wise acting company, the
director will set the conventions of the reading. If
there is no director, the actors will
decide among themselves. But the
decision must be made; if the audience can see you, you’re
responsible for what
they see. Radio, of course is another
If the reading is particularly
challenging, the company will educate the audience to the form. An
speech or program notes will explain what the stage areas represent,
standing or sitting represents, etc…
As it is with movement, so is it
true with analysis. If one actor on
stage is playing the beats with objective and particularization, then
partner must do so as well. Alternately,
they could both simply read the lines, and let the audience enjoy the
itself. On radio, actors universally act the roles, and they
Of course, there are educated
audiences who can learn forms as they watch, and it’s a lucky
serves them. But we must address the
audience we have, not the audience we wish we had.
If the reading is being produced
for the edification of the playwright, then his needs must be
considered. He presumably remembers what
is on the page;
he needs to hear how it translates into acting.
The second difficulty in getting
audiences to accept readings is that readings of any type ask the
use their imagination. This blight of realism that’s been upon us
for the last
century or so has made them lazy; the stage has been doing all the work
them. We can only offer them something
new and encourage them develop a taste for it.
But there’s no reason to be timid
or routine in our readings. The director
can relish subtlety and diversity that the form offers; he needs only
remember to be clear and consistent, and to ensure that the audience
We have so far been discussing the
reading of scripts, but what of non-dramatic material – stories
or verse? It used to be called
“reader’s theater”, and
it’s an enormously rich field, enormously neglected. We're
grateful for radio programs like Selected
Shorts [see below], broadcast on NPR, usually from Symphony
Space in New
is less complex than reading drama, it’s more accessible to the
course, many of the same rules apply, but the most important issue here
the words are actually to be read.
The approach generally taken in
American work is to use the voice as a musical instrument. Its quality
the intent of the writer. We evoke a sensory response to imagery
coloring the voice. We express the
emotion of the character; we use tone to create suspense; we vary the
melody. In short, the reader and the
material become one. Aesthetic distance
between them and the listener.
It’s a rich, sumptuous approach –
but it is not the only approach.
Prunella Scales, one of the BBC Radio’s foremost readers,
to a more reserved style of reading that puts the aesthetic distance
reader and the listener on one side, and the material on the other.
In this style of reading, we stress
only one word in each sentence. We use
no color; words and images speak for themselves. Negatives, as well are
unstressed. We read subordinate clauses with no emphasis, perhaps
syllable on the same pitch.
The result is a more literary style
of reading that puts greater demands on the listener’s attention
imagination. He processes the material
in a way closer to the way he would if he were reading the material
himself. The actor is less involved, and
it’s enormously absorbing for the listener.
To hear a reading in this style, I
refer the actor to the BBC Radio website, with its many audio files. Not all of its readers observe
rules – but many do, to varying degrees, and the listener will
immediately upon hearing them.
The creative actor, then, will
remember that reading aloud offers us a range of challenges and
and that our theater will be richer and stronger if we explore them
- Steve Capra
Review: Selected Shorts