Directing a Live Screenplay Reading

Actors face off in a reading of Mirror Image.

Actors face off in a reading of Mirror Image.

A live screenplay reading offers the writer a chance to hear how their work sounds read aloud. It’s a great way to get feedback on your story. You can learn a lot from an audience – did they laugh at that joke? – as well as discovering whether your cleverly crafted dialogue sounds witty or clunky.

Every year, the DC Shorts Screenwriting Competition performs a live reading of short scripts. We read five short screenplays – the finalists from our competition –  before an audience who votes for the winner. It’s a theater-in-the-round setting, with actors sitting around a table and the audience surrounding them. You’re encouraged to just listen to the words, like a radio play, and imagine the story.

I’ve been a judge for the competition (selecting the finalists) and have directed a couple of the scripts in the past. Here’s how it works:

Casting – Finding the right performers for a screenplay reading is different than casting for a movie or a play. You don’t need a bombastic Shakespearian nor a twinkly-eyed movie star. What an actor looks like isn’t important for a screenplay reading. Instead, you want an actor who can communicate emotion solely with their voice. Casting is the most important decision you will make when directing a reading.

In the DC Shorts Screenwriting Competition, we held an open casting call for actors. Our finalist writers listened to 90-second monologues by the assembled performers, trying to figure out if they would make good fits for the parts in their scripts.

I was filling in for Matthew Ogosi, the writer of the Desdemona, a romantic comedy set in high school. I cast Carrie Daniels, Patricia Mizen, Alexis Graves, Bill Blumenauer and Jonathan Lee Taylor. Why them? I was guided by Matthew’s thumbnail descriptions of the characters in his script. Casting is subjective but the actors I selected all had the light touch necessary for comedy. And, as it turns out, they had excellent chemistry together.

marked-up copy of Desdemona

Marked-up copy of Desdemona

Directing – As Kelley Baker once told me, if the director is shouting then he’s failed. That’s certainly not me. I viewed my role as to get out of the way of the actors. It’s up to them to make the words on the page seem like real human emotion. We had two hours of rehearsals. We read the script (it was only a dozen pages), discussed it, and I answered any questions the actors had about how lines should be said, pronunciations, references made in the script. We then put our chairs together in a circle like we would in the reading, and read the script aloud over and over again as the actors grew comfortable with the material.

In a screenplay, there’s a lot of description as you paint the scene for the reader. That can be hard to follow when read aloud, so I cut out as much of that description as possible, to keep the focus on the story. I wanted to hear the actors, not me (I was the narrator for the piece).

Staging – Honestly, I didn’t think much about where we would sit around the table until Carrie brought it up. We decided that she, as Desdemona, would sit at the corner of the table with her love interest, Jonathan, and her best friend in the script, Alexis. Her hot rival Patricia faced her across the table. I was between them, as narrator, while Bill the villain sat across from me.

In an interesting bit of staging, the winner of the competition, Mirror Image, had the two actors sitting across from each other, representing a man and his reflection (see photo above).

Performance – Don’t look up! Maybe actors are different but it’s hard not to be nervous when you’re surrounded by a hundred people listening to your every word. In between my bits of narration, I glanced up from the page – wow, that’s a lot of people – and nearly lost my place in the script.

Our reading of Desdemona turned out really well. Everyone laughed and applauded at the end, which was gratifying. We didn’t win but the actors and the audience all had a good time. It’s a cute script that would make an excellent short film.

About Joe Flood

Joe Flood is a writer and photographer from Washington, DC. He is the author of the mystery novel Murder on U Street, as well as articles, short stories and screenplays. In his spare time, he likes wandering about the city with a camera.