Behind the Scenes at a Screenplay Reading

Now in it’s sixth year, DC Shorts has been named by MovieMaker Magazine as “one of the nation’s leading short film festivals.” The festival features 100 films from across the country and around the world. What’s unique about DC Shorts is its focus on the filmmaker, many of whom will be in attendance this year.

I’ve been involved in DC Shorts almost since the beginning. I volunteered with Jon Gann, founder of the festival, and  was a film judge for a couple years. Me and other volunteers watched and rated the hundreds of submissions that came in. We used a clever online system to do so. One key trait about DC Shorts is how professional and well organized it is, from top to bottom.

The next year, I was a screenplay contest judge, where I read short scripts that were submitted to the festival. We then did a live reading of the finalists at E Street Cinema; the winner got money to turn their script into a film.

In 2008, I was the DC Shorts Screenplay Competition Manager. In addition to reading lots of scripts, I got to work with writers, actors and a theater director to put on a show at the Navy Memorial. The finalists had their scripts read, with various degrees of acting and blocking. Jon appointed me to be “bad cop,” to make sure that the writers followed the rules, to keep it fair. We said no props or music to focus on the words in the script.

The six finalists of the DC Shorts 2008 Screenplay Competition were:

  • The Note
  • Shiva
  • Two Lines and a Stick
  • Taco Mary
  • Geronimo’s Last Ride
  • Last Drag

Dealing with bunches of actors in a theater is not something I ever really wanted to do. I’m more comfortable writing, hidden behind a laptop. I honestly considered breaking my own leg to get out of it! Or at least faking an injury. Despite this, it was really a wonderful experience, one of those challenges that you really learn from.

How it worked was that the writers all got to select actors from a pool that Jon provided. The actors were local, pulled from people Jon knew and Stonehenge, the open casting session held annually in DC. Some of the writers (most of whom were from out of town) talked to the actors beforehand. Others just selected people based upon a packet of headshots that they got to select from. Some of the actors appeared  in more than one script reading.

The writer and their cast first met the day of the reading. We provided them a meeting room at the Navy Memorial for them to rehearse in. We held rehearsals all day long,  so each group had time of their own. Tables were pushed aside in the conference room as we watched, American Idol style. They would generally read out the script first, then the writer would offer their feedback. Certain lines would need to be stressed; the delivery was wrong on others; tone it down on this part. Writers who had made short films or plays were more comfortable in giving direction to the actors.

A very talented theater director, Linda Murray from Solas Nua, was there to help them stage the reading. She provided advice on choreography, how to arrange the actors on stage to highlight what was happening in the script. The actors also pantomimed actions in the script, like eating and smoking. I learned a lot from watching her, about how move people around on a stage to make things more interesting. Lots of simple old theater tricks.

I was there as timekeeper, rules enforcer and DC Shorts problem-solver.

No props, no music, no costumes. Questions about props came up frequently. I was strict on this point. People asked about costumes – I said they had dress in normal clothes. The only thing that slipped by me was one woman’s red wig – I honestly thought it was her real hair. Additionally, there was a lot of concern over the microphones and microphone stands in the auditorium. It turned out not to be an issue, for the acoustics were good enough (or the actors loud enough) that mikes weren’t needed for the most part. Several of the actors came from the theater and could really project.

Jon wanted a simple reading. But, inevitably, if you bring actors, they will act. They performed the scripts, as if they were doing a play. Some of the performances that seemed rather broad in the rehearsal room really worked on stage.

One writer and their group seemed to be heading toward failure, at least in the rehearsal room. They weren’t listening to their inexperienced writer. Evidently, they continued to rehearse all afternoon and got it together, putting on the funniest performances of the night.

Like I said before, I’m not a theater person. I’m a writer and was unprepared for the inevitable drama of opening night, even if it’s just for a reading of short screenplays. The group that had the theater before us ran late. One of the writers lost their scripts. They had to be retrieved from the garbage at the last moment. An usher got stuck on the Metro. She burst into tears before instantly recovering as I said not to worry about it. The folks at the Navy Memorial were extremely helpful but they couldn’t figure out how to play the video introduction to the reading.

I was most concerned about having it run on time, without long breaks. We had all the actors and writers sit in the front row of the theater, so they could easily get up when their turn came. Stands and stools were quickly rearranged as each group performed. The theater was about mostly full and the audience seemed to really enjoy the show.

And, afterwards, they got to pick the winner. Using a telephone voting system (again, like American Idol), they chose Taco Mary by Mary Novak.

With money from DC Shorts, she then went off and made her movie. You can see Taco Mary at DC Shorts on Sept 10 at 10 PM, Sept 12 at 9 PM and Sept 13 at 1 PM.

And come see the drama of writers and actors at the DC Shorts Screenplay Competition Reading on Oct 17 at 7 PM.

Author: Joe Flood

Joe Flood is a writer, photographer and web person from Washington, DC. The author of several novels, Joe won the City Paper Fiction Competition in 2020. In his free time, he enjoys wandering about the city taking photos.

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