The important (and often overlooked) middle step to getting your play produced.
It’s been quite the journey. From that germ of an idea you couldn’t stop thinking about, you now have a completed rough draft of your full-length script safely tucked away on your word processor. Your non-writer friends are never going to fully understand the arduous ordeal you’ve just been through. The long hours, the moments of despair, the flashes of pure inspiration, and the shear grit to push through and get it written. And now, you’ve finished the first major milestone. Congratulations! Just making it this far is an accomplishment! All of us at SPL hope you take some time to pat yourself on the back and celebrate!
Once the celebration is over, however, you are far from done. There are a number of steps that need to happen before your work can grace the stage for a live paying audience. In general, a script passes through three phases before it can make its world premier: 1) playwright review and revision 2.) peer review and workshopping 3.) Networking and submission. There are tips and trade secrets to be successful in each phase, but for the purpose of this article, we will be focusing on step 2. Why? Because while it might be the most critical step in determining your success, it is often skipped entirely. However, a solid commitment to reviewing and workshopping with trusted sources can give you that competitive edge you need to set your work apart.
One quick disclaimer
Before we dive into workshopping, SPL wants to remind you of one very important fact. Seriously, if you only take one piece of advice from this article, it’s this. YOU ARE THE ONLY PERSON WHO CAN WRITE YOUR SCRIPT. During the workshopping phase, you will be inundated with opinions from every direction. Some of those opinions may be helpful, some may be totally irrelevant to your work. However, at the end of the day, you are the only person who knows what is best for your story. You are never under any compulsion to follow a suggestion that doesn’t match your vision. The key to getting the most out of the workshopping phase is being able to leverage the useful feedback and filter out the rest. Remember, you are always in sole control of your story.
That being said, seeking feedback from trusted sources and workshopping your script is a critical step in developing your work into what you dreamed it could be. Why is it so important to workshop? Simple. A script is meant to be performed, not just read. No matter who skillful you are at writing rough drafts, you simply will not know if your piece “works” until it has been staged for an audience. Trust us, opening night is a terrible time to find out your jokes aren’t funny or your characters aren’t relatable. Thus, workshopping is a vital tool in working the kinks out and getting your script polished up.
Step 1: Peer Review
Once you’ve completed your own review of your script and tweaked it to a point you are satisfied with, it’s time to show it to someone else. However, you can’t just give your script to any old schmo willing to read it. Who you choose to review your script is important. Finding people you trust to be both honest and positive about your work is crucial.
Obviously, honesty in feedback is important. You are looking for ways to further develop your script. Flattery, while it may feel good, doesn’t help you at all. If something in your script is confusing or unclear, you need to know about it. You need to find people who respect you enough to tell you what they honestly experienced while reading your work.
That said, positivity is an equally important quality in a peer reviewer. Many people in the industry will say you need to develop a “thick skin” when it comes time to have your work reviewed. We at SPL disagree. Thick skin needs to come later. As an artist, showing a rough draft of your work is a vulnerable feeling for even the most seasoned veterans. By showing your work to someone, you are acknowledging it’s not done. Now is not the time for criticism. This is the time for positive creative energy. Stick with people who know how to motivate you. While it’s not easy to overcome the sense of vulnerability, feedback should be energizing and uplifting.
Also, it matters what kind of professional you engage for your feedback. A fellow playwright will read your script through a vastly different lens than a director. At SPL, the first three weeks of Lab Time are a period of review and revision. We pair the playwright with at least two reviewer/advisors. The first is a designated new-works director and the other is a literary advisor of their choosing (fellow playwright, dramaturg, etc). The director understands how shows get made. The literary advisor understands the writing process. The point is for the playwright to get a well-rounded perspective of how their work is interpreted.
Hearing your words
Among the most popular and easiest tools playwrights employ during the workshopping process is something called the “table read”. The concept is both simple and powerful. The playwright, or someone acting on the playwright’s behalf, gathers a group of actors and a narrator (for the stage directions). This group of people then sits at a table and reads the play without interruption in front of the playwright. For many playwrights, this table reading is the first time they’ve heard their words any way other than how they imagined them in their own mind. It’s a fast and surprisingly effective way to identify what does and does not work in your script.
The only real drawback to the table read is that you are at the mercy of the actor’s ability to cold read your script. The table read is almost always done without prior rehearsal, so the actors are often encountering your words for the first time as they are reading it for you. This sometimes impacts the quality of reading you receive. SPL provides all of its selected playwrights a table read with paid actors who typically have had at least a week to review the script prior to the table reading. In this way, you are more likely to hear a fair interpretation of your script.
The term “staged reading” is something of an open-ended term because staged readings come in all shapes and sizes. Before you agree to a staged reading of your work, be sure to clarify the production values of the reading. Each company approaches staged readings differently, but they can be roughly broken into two categories: 1.) music stand readings and 2.) fully acted readings.
Music stand readings are exactly what they sound like. The actors sit at music stands onstage and read your script in front of a live audience. This is a quick, cost effective improvement on the table reading listed above. Normally, the actors are rehearsed and there is sometimes an audience talk-back after the reading.
Fully acted staged readings are what we do at SPL. We conduct 20 hours of rehearsals with paid actors, a director, and a technical staff. The playwright is invited to all rehearsals. They are free to observe the work as it is being rehearsed and make edits as they see necessary. At the end of the rehearsal period, the script is performed for a live audience. It’s called a reading because the actors keep the script in their hands. Otherwise, it’s similar to a full performance. The actors fulfill the action of your script. It’s common for playwrights to make edits to the script all the way up to and sometimes during the reading. There is, of course, an audience talk-back after the reading.
Between the professional guidance from directors and literary advisors, rehearsals with actors, meetings with technical staff, a fully acted staged reading, and the audience talk-back session, you have had many opportunities to see and hear your work. You should have an exceptionally good idea of how fellow artists interpret your script, and how it is received by an audience. You know what elements of your story work, and what needs improvement. From here, you can decide if you want to continue workshopping your piece, or if you’re ready to start networking and submitting it to companies for your world premiere.
Now imagine two different playwrights. One has just finished their rough draft. The other has just completed a workshop experience. They both submit their scripts to a new-works company for a world premiere. You see the immense advantage the second playwright has over the first? Do you see the distinct competitive edge a proper review and workshop period gives a playwright? This is why it is so important not to skip this step. There are companies that specialize in new play review and workshopping. If you do not live in Spokane, contact SPL anyway. We will help you find a development company near you. If you do live in Spokane, we would love to hear from you. Click the button below to learn more about Lab-Time and how to be considered for one of our upcoming workshops.