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The Three R's of Playreading -- Part I

Reading Between the Lines of the Catalog

The first thing to do before you even pick up a script is to evaluate your group's resources, as these will come into play for every single show. How many actors do your auditions usually pull in? Do you have more men than women at your auditions? More women than men? Do you have your own building, or do you hold rehearsals where you can and then move onto your stage during tech week? How big is your stage? Is it large enough to support area lighting, or is the whole stage illuminated no matter how you set the lights? What can your sound system deliver? Do you have a costumer? What kind of special effects can you do?

Keep all of this in mind when you check out catalog descriptions of shows that you think you'd like to read. (For information on where to order scripts or script catalogs, check out our Play Publishers link). The catalog descriptions will offer some basic information that will help you narrow down which plays your group can do.

Check out the title and the author. Is this a well-known title, or a playwright whose name alone will sell the show? Do you know whether your audience already likes his or her stuff? (Keep in mind, though, that a name show or playwright is no guarantee of a show's success -- it has to be done well for that to happen!). If you've never heard of it, chances are your audience hasn't either, and you'll have to work a little harder both to evaluate it and to sell it.

Move on to the number of actors required - the catalog will tell you how many men, women and children you need for the cast. If the show requires 18 men and one woman, and you've currently got only four actors and ten actresses that you can depend on to show up for auditions, you probably don't want to order it no matter how great the plot synopsis may be, especially if it's something that you've never heard of. You may be able to attract enough men to your audition if it's a really hot title, but if you don't, you'll be stuck with a show you can't cast.

Next check out the set requirements. If your stage is small and you have no fly space and limited wing space (like at our home theater), or if you know you can only get three people to work stage crew, you may not want to order a show that requires 6 interiors and 8 exteriors. For those who may be reading a play catalog for the first time, an interior is a set meant to represent a room or other enclosed space, whereas an exterior represents an outside scene - a street corner, a field, the racetrack at Ascot, whatever. So a "6 interiors, 8 exteriors" show will require 14 different sets - can you realistically build and move all that? Many small theaters try to stick with "unit sets," meaning you build only one set that's used for the whole show. Other simple options are "bare stage," or "bare stage with set pieces," meaning you don't really have to build a set except to mask the backstage area, because settings are suggested by the action or by a few simple pieces of furniture.

On to the synopsis. Does the plot synopsis make sense, or does it sound really far-fetched? Does it sound like something you'd like to go see as an audience member? Do there seem to be any special costuming, set piece, prop or decor requirements that might be difficult for your group? Does the play explore issues that your actors and audience will be able to deal with? This brings up the "community standards" test - you have to know your audience and your community to know how far you can push the envelope in dealing with controversial issues (Unless, of course, you're totally reliant on grant funding to keep you afloat and don't have to worry at all about ticket sales.)

Finally, I'll pass on to you a caveat from our own playreading committee - we have a knee-jerk reaction to any play whose synopsis includes the words "wacky" or "zany." It seems that most of the time, this description accompanies a farce or comedy whose plot is so far out in left field it wouldn't hang together if you welded it shut. This isn't always true -- on occasion we've been pleasantly surprised to read a "wacky" show that was truly good, but we tend to approach such shows somewhat gingerly.



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