The Table Read

It’s a really simple concept, and you’d think it would be more widely done.

You’ve written your spec. It’s as good as you can make it. You’ve been through a dozen drafts, stripped back the action paragraphs and deflowered the prose. The characters have objectives that they’re working towards, and problems that they need to overcome. Things get worse before they get better.

You’ve sent it out to your trusted readers and rewritten again based on the notes that they sent.

Twice.

And finally, finally, you’re ready to start the cold-calling to see who wants it.

Not so fast, buddy.

There’s one more thing to ensure your script is in tip-top condition before you send it out.

The Table Read.

What it is

The final test of whether or not your script works is going to be hearing it read aloud.

Before production, they’ll have a table read just like this to find out what’s right and what still needs fixing.

Why not have one yourself and fix it before then? That way the agents, actors, and directors you send it to will think that you’re so good you got it right the first time. They need never know the truth.

How it works

It’s quite simple really. You get some actors round and they read the script. You take notes and make it better.

It’s only one more draft. The last push…

You will need:

– Some actors
– A place to read
– Copies of your script
– Pen and paper

Actors

If you’re in LA, you know actors already. Take a look around your apartment block until you find one.

You’ll also need to produce a character list, together with (roughly) the number of lines each character has. This’ll help you to allocate the strongest actors to the main characters. Screenwriting software will do this for you automatically; otherwise get out a pen and paper.

Unemployed actors are happy to read for you. It keeps them in practice. And every actor is unemployed for a large part of their career.

If you buy them a crate of beer to share and some food to eat after the reading’s finished, they’re even happier. A big communal bowl of pasta and pesto with some garlic bread will work fine.

Trained actors are ideal, but really don’t stress too much about it, or casting. All you actually need is people to read the dialogue aloud.

If you really honestly can’t find any actors, use your friends. Acting ability is just a bonus.

A place to read

You’ll need a space big enough for you and the actors. A garden, or a village hall, or a rehearsal room, or a garage, or your own front room. Enough chairs for everyone to sit down on and a table to sit at would be a bonus.

It can be helpful to have an audience who aren’t performing. If you can fit ’em in, great. If not, don’t stress about it.

Scripts

Email a copy of your script to all the actors a few days in advance, so they can read it beforehand. If you let them know what part they’re playing, they’ll even have a chance to do some character work.

Nevertheless, some people won’t have received it, will forget to print a copy, or just won’t have read it. Have plenty of spare scripts photocopied that you can give to them on the day.

Pen and Paper

You’ll be needing this to take notes.

How it all works

Get everyone to arrive about half an hour before you want to start. This’ll give people a chance to settle down and say hello to each other.

Start by assigning parts to actors, if you haven’t already. You’ll probably need to double some roles – try to avoid having an actor playing two characters in the same scene. While funny, it’s not as helpful as it could be.

Don’t forget that you’ll need someone to read the stage directions. While you might think that people will be able to read along and follow their scripts, it never works out that way.

As the reading progresses, you’ll be able to see where the actors stumble over words, and in which speech you’ve accidentally placed a filthy double entendre. If you’re lucky, you might get laughs or gasps in the right places.

Take notes as you go.

When it’s done, have a quick comfort break. Tea and/or beer can be brought out for actors and audience (if any) at this point, cos the hard part’s over.

You’ve still got one more job to do though – going round the table and asking for notes. And writing them down.

This is where you find out if the characters’ motivations are clear. If the plot was gripping and understandable. And if the audience actually liked it.

As ever, just say “Thanks for that” and move on when you’re taking the note. This is not the place to explain or defend your work.

And when everyone’s had their say, serve up some food for everyone and pour a drink for yourself.

Job done.

6 thoughts on “The Table Read”

  1. Thanks for posting this Piers. Think I’m a little way off having a draft of anything that’s ready for a table read for a while, but it’s certainly something I plan to organise when I do have a decent draft ready.

  2. O-kay, I’ve been thinking about this and I’m Going To Disagree.

    Them’s fighting talk, I know, and I don’t in any way want to suggest I think what you do here is anything but useful. But it isn’t a table read and I think the difference is a semantic one now that can and maybe has lead to problems.

    Follow. The term table read comes from US sitcoms, agreed? It’s certainly used in drama, maybe it started there, but we’re talking US television production. And they don’t do it like you.

    What you’ve got is a group of actors doing a semi-rehearsed reading and a real table read will have actors at the table itself and surrounded by writers, producers, directors.

    There’s a nice description in one of the Frasier script moments of these meetings and while I can’t remember the detail, it was something about how there are five funny, confident, talented people at the table – the regular cast – and thirty fingernail-biting people around them – the writers and producers and so on.

    All respect to actors – and I know that kind of sentence opening invariably makes you expect an insult to follow rapidly, but no, seriously, all respect to actors – the thing with actors is that they are all… actors.

    Assuming they’re all good, what you will hopefully get is a quite brilliant analysis of their character from someone who potentially knows that role even better than the writer does. You’ll definitely get a performance, they will surely punch your lines home with every ounce of strength they’ve got.

    But if everybody’s an actor, then no matter how many people you’ve got at the table, you’re really only getting one type of response. And I would argue that as useful as that one is, it’s not everything and it’s also the type of analysis that disguises the most.

    For another writer might well be so jealous of your best line that he disses your plot to distract you. A director may lie that she’s read the script at all and could say it’s strangely lacking that indefinable something.

    But an actor will have taken your worst line and given it his or her best shot: if there’s a gag to be had, he or she or they will nail it if they possibly can. Whereas a cold reader, like a producer you’re pitching to, will want to like it, will want to be amused, but won’t put their back into making it sound funnier than it reads to them at first sight.

    I did this, I hired a room and got a reading from some actors. I don’t think I’ve ever been so impressed with my own writing than when they read it. And it was deeply fascinating – er, to me, anyway – to have them drill down into issues I hadn’t even considered.

    But it wasn’t a table read and we didn’t talk once about structure, about even dialogue, it was all character.

    Of course, I think character is all, and I think that dialogue is character, yet still that wasn’t enough and if the night didn’t leave me with a slightly warped view of my material, then I think that was luck more than anything else.

    It was also a frankly terrifying experience, but there you go. No writers were harmed in the process.

    William

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