What exactly is "Play Reading"?
It sounds kind of dry and boring, like the English 101 torture experiment where everyone in the class passed around the roles of Hamlet, and the one obnoxious drama major begged to read Claudio and spoke in a fake baritone with an inconsistent British accent (maybe that was just my college experience).
Or an exercise in theatre insiders feeling even more insider-y.
Or, at best, a cozy, safe "story time" kind of thing.
I know, from the amount of times I've tried to explain what a "Play Reading" is to my non-theatre friends, it's a title that doesn't exactly inspire excitement. If anyone wants to shoot me a new name, by all means give it a whirl! In the meantime, here's my take:
I actually think play (or musical) readings are one of the more exciting performance events one can attend. The Magic is similar to how a good radio broadcast can transport the listener's imagination to where one can actually see what's happening - even if only in their mind's eye.
Take "Prairie Home Companion". How many times have we tuned into hear Garrison Keillor's familiar dulcet tones as we scan through radio channels on a cross-country drive? And how many of us knows exactly what Lake Wobegone looks like in our head? How many of us were shocked when we saw what Garrison Kiellor actually looks like in real life...
Theatre magic in readings is similar - with the exception being that one can see the actors.
Yes, everyone has a script in their hand. Yes, the "set" is music stands and chairs. Yes, the lighting design is "up" or "down".
But all that is forgotten immdiately once an audience is pulled in by actors fully committing to a script. It's uncanny, but one actually stops seeing the actors flipping pages; one actually stops noticing "Property of CDA High School" on the back of the music stands.
And a lot of that is the actors have the luxury of worrying about so much less. They can just focus on character. No staging, no costumes, no memorization - just pure acting. And I can say, as an actor, it's a RUSH. Some of the best work I've ever done as an actor has been in readings. It's where I've felt the least encumbered.
The major reason plays are presented in reading form is to provide an entertainment option when there is no bandwidth for greater production value - whether in the form of money or time. The Odd Couple, for instance, if staged, requires a HUGE amount of specific energy to be focused on period-appropriate costumes and props, and a set that realistically represents a NYC apartment - and The Odd Couple is rather uncomplicated comparatively. So by producing the show as a reading, the audience is able to enjoy the story, which is masterfully written by playwright Neil Simon, the theatre is able to provide a platform for the story to be told - and everyone enjoys the unique thrill that comes with the heightened focus of the cast.
I should speak briefly to casting: another major benefit of producing readings is the fact that with such a short rehearsal period (a week or less), the availability of optimal actors being available is greatly increased. Particularly for actors for whom performing is a hobby rather than a profession, a 5-week or greater commitment can be difficult to manage - but nearly anyone can find availability to participate in a reading. Thus, the theatre has a far greater talent pool from which to cast.
I hate to say things like "just give it a chance", because that sounds like trying to get someone to eat lima beans, but in the case of play readings, there is something pretty fantastic to experience and it's fully worth checking out!
CST is presenting readings of Around the World in 80 Days and The Odd Couple this summer - and more throughout the calendar year, so you've got plenty of opportunities coming up to experience theatre in a new way!