The New York Critic: Essays

On Readings
 
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 production, without 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 the 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 readings place 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 fully mounted production.  We saw this on Broadway a few years ago in Estelle Parsons’ Broadway reading of Salome [see below]. It used minimal set and blocking, and no costume demanding attention.  The actors were obviously on intimate terms with the lines.  If they hadn’t kept the scripts in their hands, the show would have been accepted as a full production with the choices of minimalism.  And after all, only a minimalist design could have met the demands of Wilde’s hyperbolic script.
 
Different scripts lend themselves to different reading conventions. Some beg for movement; others need a row of 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 to give up their preconceptions; they insist on seeing nothing they don’t expect.
 
The actors themselves are responsible for this when they haven’t decided what conventions to use.  As a result, an actor may stand still, holding the script formally to one side, while the actress in the scene runs around the stage physicalizing the character.  Few stage errors are more dreadful. The audience will, of course, 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 matter.
 
If the reading is particularly challenging, the company will educate the audience to the form. An opening speech or program notes will explain what the stage areas represent, what 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 his scene partner must do so as well.  Alternately, they could both simply read the lines, and let the audience enjoy the writing itself. On radio, actors universally act the roles, and they must prepare.
 
Of course, there are educated audiences who can learn forms as they watch, and it’s a lucky director who 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 audience to 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 for 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 to remember to be clear and consistent, and to ensure that the audience knows what he’s doing.
_________
 
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 York.

Because reading literature is less complex than reading drama, it’s more accessible to the audience. Of course, many of the same rules apply, but the most important issue here is how 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 reflects the intent of the writer. We evoke a sensory response to imagery through 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 exists 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, introduced me to a more reserved style of reading that puts the aesthetic distance between the 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 speaking each syllable on the same pitch.
 
The result is a more literary style of reading that puts greater demands on the listener’s attention and imagination.  He processes the material in a way closer to the way he would if he were reading the material silently 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 Prunella’s rules – but many do, to varying degrees, and the listener will recognize them immediately upon hearing them. 
 
The creative actor, then, will remember that reading aloud offers us a range of challenges and opportunities, and that our theater will be richer and stronger if we explore them all.
 
- Steve Capra

Review: Salome

Review: Selected Shorts