Table Reads & Lessons Learned
Eight Lessons Learned From Four Online Table Reads
In February 2020, I began planning for a table read of my feature script Common Ground. It was going to be at an outdoor restaurant with a live audience in May 2020. Then, the world changed. While there are articles about general table reads, at the time of my first online read, I couldn’t find any guidance on what to expect or how to prepare for a virtual read. Since April 2020, I had four online table reads of four different scripts and made many mistakes. Here's what I learned so far, and I hope you will find it useful.
- Know your purpose.
- Things will go wrong.
- Actors are awesome.
- Communicate clearly and often.
- Get help.
- Clarify the audience experience.
- Troubleshoot tech and time management issues.
- Embrace the process.
1. Know your purpose.
While knowing your purpose is important for any table read, it particularly informs the structure and choices of an online read. My first read was of a short script I wrote called “Twenty Minute Rom Com.” I didn’t have any questions about the script, just the technology. I had a small cast of three non-actors, and we just practiced the technology and had a lot of fun. For two scripts, I had new characters and plot lines that I wanted to try out, so I had full casts and a small audience including those who had never heard the story before and those familiar with an earlier draft . For Common Ground, the short version had just been a finalist in a competition and a director friend had used scenes for a master class, but I had never heard the script read. I wondered if the story was too local, so I sought a national audience (60+ people and 10 states). I also wanted to hear all the parts, and I had a cast of 12, plus a director, and narrator.
2. Things will go wrong.
During one of my reads, an actor, who podcasts daily, lost their audio a few times. Another actor, a novice with the platform, who had been worried something would go wrong, was just fine. Sometimes, a happy tech accident may occur. For one of my reads, a comedy, the actor playing the protagonist accidentally kept his microphone on, throughout every scene. His natural laughter came through, even in scenes he wasn't in. This gave the effect of being filmed before a live audience. Comedy is particularly tricky in table reads, because unless people tell you later that they were laughing, you don’t know what they found funny, and timing delays. Comic monologues seem to work better than banter and dialogues for which the timing will be off.
3. Actors are awesome.
If you’re just trying out the platform, consider having a “just for fun” read with friends and fellow writers. If your script is ready for actors, to the best of your ability, try to support them as professionals, particularly now, as most actors are not working these days. Actors will give meaning, expression, and voice to your work, and their interpretation will spark reflections. In making casting choices, combining parts is fine, and can be a lot of fun. In normal reads, you might hand out the scripts and a highlighter, with last minute changes to parts. At a seated table, a dropped line from a one-line part, just like a dropped pencil, would be picked up quickly by another actor or the narrator. Since they can’t see each other, they’re not picking up lines quickly, so I would suggest assigning all the small, as well as the major parts, ahead of time.
4. Communicate clearly and often.
Try to send messages to the cast about the technology, scripts, and process that keep in mind differing levels of technology familiarity. Try to make it easy for your actors with clear reminders too. Some tech platforms automatically send out very incoherent invitations, and you may need to explain that to the actors as well. Screenwriting software allows you to make a PDF of your script highlighted by character, and some actors want highlighted scripts. Ask them what they prefer or provide them with both. If you make last minute edits, which, unfortunately, I have been known to do, ask if they want a new mailed printed copy before the read. Many actors print up pages a well as reading them on screen. Some actors will bring small props (glasses, books, hats) and mime actions. These things are not often done in traditional table reads. but work well online, and that kind of preparation can only happen if they get their scripts in a timely fashion.
5. Get help.
Even in an online reading with no rehearsals, consider having a director. They can introduce, start, pause, stop, and re-set the reading as needed. They will set the tone, and likely elevate the experience for all involved. Technology support is also a useful role. Tech support can set up the appropriate platform settings before the event (for both audience and actors); help with anything that emerges during the event; and audio tape it. If you don’t have a director, consider a host to introduce and close the read. I have done that and it really helped me to relax during the read. I also attended an online one-woman show that had a host that sent out the emails to the audience beforehand; introduced the event; led audience introductions; and conducted the post-event debrief.
6. Clarify the audience experience.
If you choose to have an audience, you might want to determine the following: Will they be visible to the actors at any time? Will you let them be able to chat before, during, or after? Perhaps you want to stop in the middle and have an intermission. After the read, you might want to write the questions you would like addressed in the chat box. Expect, however, that the audience will provide you with more information than you ask for and that you can’t control the conversation topics. If you are going to have any kind of audience, even just your partner or writing friend, make sure that the actors know in advance.
7. Troubleshoot tech and time management issues.
Always try out the technology platform and determine guidelines for microphones, video displays, and recording in advance of your read. If you are going to record for your use, let everyone know early on. If your event is formal, you might want a tech rehearsal before with as much of the cast as possible. If you don’t have a tech rehearsal, add 20 minutes before you start, to be sure that everyone is using similar systems. Online reads seem to take about 20% longer than in-person reads. So, a 100 page script takes 120 minutes. If it takes less, great, but, if not, at least you have that buffer.
8. Embrace the process.
During the read, try to be as present as you can. If you have friends in the audience you might ask them not to text you during the event, unless it’s a technology concern, as their text will take you out of the moment. Provide enough time to support a brief checkout with the actors once it’s done. Once, because I felt bad because of technical delays, I closed out a reading without a proper goodbye. I felt terrible. Some actors may leave right away, but others may want to talk about their character or the story or life these days. It should be organic to the moment. As a writer, a few days later, watch the live event and start to process it. Don’t expect that even the most spectacular online table read, will have the same energy as you watch it afterwards. It will be useful, but nothing like the live event, with its joys, frustrations, and magical moments.