My first 'by request' post. A new writer who has finished the third draft (a good sign) of their first feature screenplay asked me to write about the pros and cons of script readings.
My main experience in this regard has been with PAC Script Lab, an initiative I am an ardent supporter of as one of the few writer-centric events in the local film industry. I have written about Script Lab before but let’s do a quick recap of the pros before looking at a few cons:
Profile: The evening puts screenwriters and scripts front and centre, now with local media publicity and a presence in social media. Anything that shines a light on and celebrates the craft of screenwriting is a good thing. Audience numbers are consistently strong with a nice cross section of industry members and the general public.
Support: Never underestimate the impact on a writer who has slaved away on a script for months, fielding the inevitable questions asking what it’s about and explaining their anti-social behaviour (especially when deadlines loom). Having family, friends and colleagues at a reading is good for the writer’s soul! So THAT is what you’ve been doing…
Feedback: This comes in various forms and is absolutely invaluable. Firstly from the actors who are doing the reading. You have a chance to hear the script twice – the initial read through and the evening itself. Actors, being very perceptive creatures, will offer thoughts on their characters and story points.
Script Lab uses feedback forms and asks the audience, in exchange for free wine and nibbles, to fill these out. Questions usually revolve around characters and development of the plot but you can add specific questions if there are certain areas you want to focus on. At my last reading I had about 30 of these forms – makes for very interesting reading, especially when trends appear. One off comments are harder to process.
Then there is the post reading feedback. People will come up and talk to you about the script, ask questions, outline what they enjoyed, what they didn’t. These conversations are perhaps best of all as you get the opportunity to probe for the real reason for ‘negative’ reactions to aspects of the script. By that I mean, people may not like something but not know why.
Intangibles: You get to hear the script AND the audience. At my first reading I was so traumatised I wasn’t relaxed enough to just listen. The second one, I had a producer and director attached so I could chill out, sit up the back, drink my wine and listen. To when people laughed, when they shuffled their feet, when the room went quiet, when actors stumbled over dialogue, when the pace flagged, when the tone shifted, when plot mechanics took over from character etc.
I see now the readings are recorded which didn’t occur when mine were read. That would be fascinating to listen back to – for pace and tone in particular.
While the readings are overwhelmingly a positive experience there are some cons to be mindful of. As Ross Hutchens, one of the original co-founders of PAC, explained to me once, a reading is, in many ways, live theatre. What may work well in that context may not be a good film script and a good script may not work well as a performance piece. For example, for my second script, I was asked to trim the big print to make for an “easier read”. But that was a very visual story.
Very good actors are invariably used and charismatic and engaging “performances” may mask deficiencies, most notably in structure.
You also have people giving feedback who aren’t necessarily conversant with structure and the myriad other aspects of screenwriting. They will have an intuitive feel for story but I’ve seen many a time effusive praise given for poorly structured and badly written scripts that were carried by engaging performances. Of course, the writer has to filter the useful from the irrelevant, the same as any notes. The danger is the inexperienced writer who takes such praise as gospel.
It’s always good to see though, that quite a few of the notable writing talent in Perth regularly attend. I always try to, to support my colleagues but it’s also a good way to keep up your own craft skills by analysing other people’s work.
So, on balance, if you have a script that you believe is at a standard to withstand public scrutiny then I would recommend you organise a reading. Script Lab is one avenue but you always have the option of getting together actors who are prepared to donate their time and do it yourself. The feedback is priceless for the rewrite process.