Marissa Skudlarek talks about that moment in every aspiring playwright’s life when they realize the importance of passed appetizers in their journey to fame and fortune.
Last night, I invited some actors over to my living room so that I could hear how my new translation of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (Theater Pub’s April production!) sounds when read aloud. This is the second living-room reading I’ve hosted in the past few months, so I thought I’d use my column today to offer some advice about how to make your living-room reading a success.
- If you’re both playwright and host, you are probably feeling understandably nervous about hearing your work read aloud. What if the actors don’t get it or don’t like it? What if they think you’re a loser? (The hilarious What Should We Call Playwrights tumblr features many jokes based on the premise that playwrights always feel nerdy/gawky/uncool next to actors – well, it’s funny ‘cause it’s true.) Therefore, it is imperative to find ways of distracting yourself and channeling your nervous energy in a more productive direction. While you’re waiting for the actors to show up, clean your kitchen, your bathroom, your living room. Then clean them some more. Think so much about cleaning that you don’t have time to worry about hearing your work read aloud for the first time.
- When people show up, continue to distract yourself with trivia in order to avoid getting anxious and nervous. For me, this usually takes the form of bustling about, ensuring that my guests are comfortable, offering to get them drinks and food, etc. In trying to be the Perfect Hostess, I forget that I am also the Imperfect Playwright.
- Food, food, glorious food! I cannot stress this enough. Actors are easily bribed by the prospect of getting food for free. You’d be amazed at how many actors you can convince to show up at your house just by promising to feed them dinner – even if they hardly know you or they live far away. And if you are a great cook or live near a popular restaurant or deli, point that out! I serve Arizmendi pizza at my living-room readings, and I shamelessly highlight that fact in my email invites. (Unless my reading is on a day when Arizmendi is closed, in which case I serve frozen spanakopita.)
- So yes, there’s definite truth to the rumor that actors will do anything for a free meal. But don’t believe the rumors that actors are a bunch of boozer wastrels who’ll pitch a fit if alcohol isn’t available. Well, they’re not like that all the time, anyway. Most actors understand that a living-room reading is ultimately work, not fun, and that it doesn’t profit the playwright if people are tipsy. I never offer alcohol at my living-room readings, and no one seems to mind (though, when it’s over, there’s always a few people who ask if there are any good bars around where they can grab a nightcap before going home…)
- Force yourself to get rid of your preconceived notions about your writing, and pay attention to what the actors are actually doing with the script as they encounter your words for the first time. You may be tempted to bury your nose in the script out of nervousness or embarrassment, but that’s not the best way to learn whether your play works or not.
- Ask for feedback as honestly and genuinely as possible, and listen to what your actors have to say; it can be very helpful. I am perhaps guilty of a bit too much self-deprecation when asking for feedback (last night I kept talking about how my translation probably sounded very rough/stilted/awkward — it wasn’t actually that bad), but excessive arrogance is, of course, much worse than self-deprecation. I also often find it helpful to let my director lead the discussion of the script, rather than trying to lead the discussion myself.
- Little problems may crop up when you’re hosting a living-room reading, but they’re not usually insurmountable. Last night, a wasp was buzzing around my living room, and when I opened my oven, it somehow set off my hair-trigger kitchen fire alarm. Fortunately, I was able to solve both problems by opening a window. And surmounting small crises together can be a kind of bonding experience – I was meeting some of the actors for the first time last night, and apologizing for the wasp/discussing how to shoo him away gave me something to talk about before the reading started. Moreover, I think my favorite line from Orphée is “Look in a mirror and you will see Death at work like bees in a glass hive.” So, by the end of the evening, it felt oddly appropriate that the wasp had decided to join us that night.
We playwrights often comment on how odd our process is: lots of solitary work, followed by a brief but intense period of collaboration with other artists. I think that’s why the living-room reading can feel so fraught: it’s the moment when playwriting goes from solitary to collaborative. You’re coming out of your cave and dealing with real, live human beings, not just characters on a page. But take a deep breath and try to enjoy it. After all, you became a playwright because you love the complexity of human interaction, right? So follow the above tips and your living-room reading will be like one of those plays that begins with a vague uneasiness, but ends with a sense of happiness and hope.
Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Writing this column has made her realize that she has the same initials as Martha Stewart. For more, find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.