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The Joys of Staged Readings

By: Sandy MacDonald
Date: Jul 05, 2016


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Why one theatre reviewer spends her free evenings and afternoons at readings


Remember story hour? As a child, I pretty much lived for it. And I think I suspected even then that my Minimum Daily Requirement when it came to hearing stories might be slightly abnormal. For decades, before I morphed into a theatre critic, I quelled my aural cravings with author appearances at libraries and bookstores. (Need I mention that such events make for a cheap -- as in free -- date?) These days, as a Drama Desk nominator, I commit to seeing a couple of hundred plays a year. Surely that glut ought to suffice, and yet I also take every opportunity to attend readings -- cold, staged, or anywhere in between -- because nothing beats the unmediated experience of hearing a writer's imaginary world take shape in the ether. This is authentic theatre-without-walls, freed of the exigencies of the material world.

Just listening, without benefit of blocking, costumes, or scenery, you get to step in for the director, imagining your own mise en scène. Among the peripheral perks, you might encounter a rising star still hovering at the horizon: At a reading of a musical based on the 2007 movie Teeth two years ago, I got to observe Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 lead Lucas Steele (sigh) and School of Rock Tony nominee Alex Brightman up close. With musicals, you can discern who really has the vocal goods sans tech support. If you enjoy playing scout, or dream of someday producing, you can even -- for a fraction of the price of a Broadway ticket -- vet promising shows coming down the pike at annual events like the New York Musical Festival in summer and the National Alliance for Musical Theatre's Festival of New Musicals in the fall.

Of course many readings aren't advertised to the general public -- but that doesn't mean you can't snag seats. Sign up for every theatre e-mail list you can think of, and build up a cadre of actor "friends" on Facebook. The announcements will soon pour in.

New York affords countless early workshop opportunities, even for those of us not in a financial position to play angel. Among my favored venues are New Dramatists (the company also lists alum readings occurring elsewhere across the country), Ars Nova, Ensemble Studio Theatre, and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Naked Angels, in addition to mounting pre-cast presentations of new work, hosts a series called Tuesdays@9: weekly, open-submission readings in season. Not only is the stage available (competitively) to all aspiring playwrights, the cast is drawn from the audience! Those chosen render the authors a real service in providing the invaluable experience of seeing their work "on its feet" (even if the readers remain seated).

From a participant's perspective, the benefits of readings extend even further. For a minimal commitment (time- and energy-wise), you get maximal payoff. Sign on to do a reading, even just informally among friends, and you get the full, if concentrated theatre experience -- connection, catharsis, community -- along with a potent reminder of why dramatic reenactments continue to fascinate us, countless millennia since our cave-dwelling days.


Sandy MacDonald writes about theatre for Time Out New York and She's looking forward to playing the role of Mrs. Hedges in a staged reading of Born Yesterday at the Theatre Workshop of Nantucket on July 29.

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Sandy MacDonald is a theatre critic and Drama Desk member currently contributing to New York Stage Review, among other outlets. Follow her at @sandymacdonald