The Spontaneous Joy of Play Reading

How is it that sight reading a play can produce the most authentic, surprising and hilarious performances? It makes you wonder sometimes why rehearsals are necessary.

We run monthly play reading evenings bringing together people with or without acting experience who want to have a go at play reading and acting in the instant. This does not involve sitting round in a circle, heads down plodding through the script of a whole play, but selected scenes chosen both to represent the essence of it and those which are most suitable for the evening (no lengthy monologues or scenes involving 12 parts for example!).

After warm ups the participants are up on their feet acting the scenes, and frequent changes mean the scenes are fresh. Actors can be changed in the middle of a scene, even the middle of a sentence and freeze framed while the next set take over. The baton is passed and new invention takes place.

Abigail’s Party

Our last play reading of 2015 was the classic Abigail’s Party. Devised through improvisation by Mike Leigh, first performed in 1977, it was shown on the BBC in that year using most of the original cast and its performances have become iconic. We had 16 participants and were curious as to whether the legendary accents and intonations of the originals would find their way into this evening’s readings.

The play was divided into eight scenes each involving three to five actors, about five to eight minutes long. Giving the actors numbers meant they couldn’t opt out or just work with their favourites! All the Number Ones we’re called and we got started.

Very quickly the brilliance of the writing (or devising) revealed itself. It also became clear that the actors were going to do exactly what came from the page and through them personally. Some channelled elements of the original cast’s performances; other actors did something completely their own; either because they hadn’t seen the original or were not influenced by it. I tried Beverley and found it almost impossible not to bring out an inner Alison Steadman – for me the writing and my awareness did that, and like some of the other actors we just let ourselves go and enjoy the experience.

The results of both approaches were electrifying and hilarious. I have seen the play on stage and the TV version a number of times and have never laughed so much. The freshness of the innocent approaches, the sheer enjoyment of the knowing approaches and deft skills of those who trod in between were brilliant.

When you know established performances of a play and have your own familiar way of saying things in your mind, there is nothing more refreshing and stirring hearing those words with a completely new voice. It applied to all the parts but as an example, Beverly’s needy and waspish, banal and vicious words were a more delicious treat spoken by females with different vocal textures and accents. It was then even more of a treat to hear Beverly and other female parts spoken by men; and of course the male parts spoken by women. There was both absolute logic to this and marvellous incongruity.

The timing of the lines and impromptu pauses (sometimes intentional, sometimes accidental) were incredibly effective and funny. This freshness can be lost in rehearsal and the immediate responses to an unfamiliar script are ingrained becoming less spontaneous. It was incredibly satisfying watching people tackle and respond to a challenging situation (sight reading can be scary) allowing their natural instinct (with all its roughness) and their skills to combine beautifully.

We read scenes representing the play’s great themes: the desirability of olives, suburban social and sexual repression, Demis Roussos, interior tiling, teenage alienation, excess alcohol consumption, art and pornography. Together with suitable nibbles – cheese and pineapple sticks, crisps and nuts – a bit of Donna Summer and Demis, a cracking group of people up for a challenge, the evening was a joy.

Rehearsals – who needs them?

As with most things we do, the key is a combination of good organisation and flexibility, freedom and compulsion. The scenes were selected very carefully to capture the best parts of the play and to be of roughly equal length. The actors were then allocated a time by numbering, removing the worry of volunteering. Flexibility allowed the groups of actors on stage to negotiate and choose their parts and for men to play female parts and women to play male parts. It also allowed them to interpret the part exactly as they wanted to and most importantly to grow in confidence with their interpretation, to listen to the other actors and really to enjoy it.

It was brilliant and does make you wonder, is it really necessary to rehearse? If an audience would accept scripts being read why not let them in to see a play reading? During a conventional rehearsal process the read-through in theory should produce the same spontaneous authenticity. However actors prepare for read-throughs and are anxious about them. In fact we sometime dispense with them because of the anticipatory tension and the feeling of life being sucked out of a play! The moment when such authenticity can occur is in an audition where the actor has not prepared and reads a section of script out for the first time.

The challenge is then trying to re-create that authenticity. But that is the actor’s craft – to speak the words as if they are being spoken by the character for the first time, as they think them. So the process is from authenticity through awkwardness and unreality as the words are familiarised and internalised in rehearsal, back to authenticity again. And that requires rehearsal: not too much - enough to make the words your own and deliver them at the moment you are just ready for the audience.

However an audience for a play reading could work very well as long as the actors were as confident and up for it as ours were.

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