How (and why) to Organise a Table Read for your Screenplay
So You’ve Begun Organising a Screenplay Table Read?
Firstly - great idea. Stepping away from your laptop-induced solitude and connecting with people is good for you in general. And you want to share your work with peers, get valuable feedback and highlight weaknesses and hearing it read aloud will do that in a way that simply reading it in your head can’t.
My table read journey
On the February 21st, the International Moving Image Society, whose Screenwriting Community I am the Leader for, hosted the winners of their Screenplay Table Read Competition “Out Loud” in London. It brought together stunning writing and acting talent for a magical night of varied writing styles and genres and the feedback we had from the audience and participants was very positive.
This event was also the culmination of my own journey as a Screenwriter and using table reads as a development tool. Some of my own table reads have been phenomenal and some have been what they call “learning experiences.”
So, based on this, here are some of my thoughts before you begin, to help you get the most out of the exercise:
What is your objective?
If you want to showcase it to the industry, then what you may need is something closer to a Rehearsed Reading – that’s a different thing to what we discuss here. If it is purely a development exercise, then a Table Read is indeed what you need, read on!
What is it?
Some types of writing do better than others in a Table Read format – if it’s lighthearted, certainly comedy, snappy dialogue-driven, light on the action description, then this will fare the best. Similarly, character-based drama will get actors really enthused.
However, if your script is not that type of writing, if it is a heavy tone, or contains lengthier action description - as in a thriller, or a fantasy world, or is mind-bendingly high concept, it might feel turgid no matter how good it actually is - simply because the Table Read format does not suit it. Don’t let that deter you from this exercise, just understand that Table Reads lend themselves more to some types of writing and not others.
Set the tone
Even if your writing is clearly of a darker nature, sometimes the energy of the occasion will kind of force it into a lighter, sometimes even silly tone, because when people gather, they naturally want to have a good time. Nothing wrong with people having a good time, but the focus needs to be primarily on work and highlighting flaws in the script with a forensic accuracy.
Therefore, make sure you give a good introduction to the Actors that includes the tone of the piece, and make sure you give each actor a good steer on the character.
I’ve made this mistake before – giving the actors as little possible because I felt that the type of material should really leap off the page and guide them. Maybe this was my ego. And sometimes I was right, they didn’t need guidance, but sometimes they really did. One time an Actor went off on such a wrong tack, that it undermined the whole exercise.
Is it part of a Writing Group?
An advantage of a writing group is it can give you access to a ready network of people who give great feedback. Unfortunately, it can also give you access to - *real talk now* - fellow writers who give derailing, self-indulgent or inaccurate feedback, including those who are actually working TV or film writers. In a group, you can’t decide who turns up to give this feedback, so if you have a group in mind, but they haven’t seemed sufficiently constructive in previous sessions, my advice is to move on to a different group or organise it yourself.
The other advantage of a writing group is that they have a ready set up location, which of course means the disadvantage is you don’t get to choose it. If it’s in a pub or restaurant, it puts it in a social occasion feeling and you may have to contend with all sorts of distractions and interruptions, such as people drinking or having the food they ordered delivered, or barman changing keg, (all of these have happened to me, best thing to do is laugh it off).
You might be better off organising it in a classroom-type venue, or even at someone’s house, if they can accommodate it.
Even if part of a group - so presumably no need to pay for the venue - the cost can be quite high. Even if you have people read the script from a tablet, you will have to have printed scripts on hand as back up. It also may be an unwritten rule you buy the Actors a drink. Last time I did this I spent £80, which starts getting very high. Factor this in from the beginning.
Obviously you’re going to cast those who can play the role the best, however, two things to consider:
The Narrator – many Actors won’t want to do this thankless role, or may be tempted to bring a “performance” to what should be a neutral-ish reading. You might better off with a non-Actor who is a good sight-reader. I had this experience with a Vampire script of mine where the Narrator happened to have a great, rich, Donald Sutherland-esque voice. This happy accident transformed what could have been an awkward Skype-read into a really positive experience.
Don’t read anything yourself, including the narrator, if you can possibly avoid it. You need to be sitting, listening, taking notes, making sure your iPhone is still recording it.
Some final suggestions
Read it straight through with no break – it is useful to note if people become restless and if it holds attention till the end, this will help demonstrate if the script has been “built” well. It can be gruelling, but is ultimately, very helpful.
And don’t trim the narrative for the purpose of the table read. Again, if there are editing opportunities, then a table read is a good way of highlighting these, don’t pre-empt where any cuts could be made because you want people to have a good time. This is about your script.
Take control. At one Table Read of one of my scripts, the only bad performance was from an actor who asked me to be in it. All of the other actors were ones I approached and they all gave great performances. That taught me that I have to take complete control of the whole process to get the most out of it, because if one element is wrong, performance, venue or whatever, then it can undermine the entire process.
And if you do have a negative experience with a table read, don’t let it, as a tool, deter you. Learn from it for next time, as I did in the lead up to the Table Read event I hosted for the International Moving Image Society.
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