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Table Read
by Patrick Storck

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Around the time you've finished the first solid draft of your script, which may even be the eighth overall draft, you should consider having a table read. It's not an awful idea to have them earlier and later as well, but at this stage it's not just not awful, it's actually a good idea. You'll be getting a lot of things together at that point, and it may seem like one more thing that doesn't need to happen just yet, but it's a good way to catch early problems, get some helpful information, and if nothing else is a chance to get some friends together.

In case anyone out there is unfamiliar with the idea of a table read, it's where a bunch of people sit around a table and read the script. No effects, blocking, costumes, music, locations, or shoes are required. People and scripts are the only must-haves. Even the table is completely optional. I've had table reads around a coffee table, which is the runt of the table family, as well as outdoor reads when the weather was nice. Really, you want to concentrate on the “read” part.

Chances are, you have some friends in mind for at least a few parts. Get those friends, as well as a few non-actors, some note pads, some pizza, some soda, and get together for a couple of hours. Make sure the people you invite aren't afraid of discussing the script openly and honestly. Order the pizza (or other food, but it's less to organize) right before you start the table read so it shows up part-way through. It'll allow for a nice break, plus people don't get as antsy to leave if there are still slices left. Somebody should research why that is. Leave alcohol out of it if you want to really accomplish anything. It will make people tired, add bathroom breaks, and get you less thought-out opinions.

As far as how much time, take the “One page equals one minute” rule and at least double it. You'll be reading stage directions so people know what is going on, you'll need to stop for questions, breaks, notes, and enough other things that it isn't going to be a quick night. Plan on the commitment. This is essentially going to be your extremely early rough cut. It will be bloated, poorly paced, and make you want to start trimming down the fat, which isn't a bad thing. Set a break pattern at the beginning. Every half-hour, every twenty pages, whatever. Set the length as well. Five minutes, ten minutes. Enough to stretch, smoke, check voice mail, but not enough to really waste time or kill the momentum.

After each scene, have a question and answer session. Also allow for notes and comments. Instead of jumping in to defend or explain your script, let everyone else discuss it. This is where you should really take notes. See what gets mentioned first, and if it's positive or negative. Are there more questions first, or comments?

If everyone has questions, are they answered by the script? Have they already been answered, and how many people at the read picked up on it? Do they get answered later, meaning people are picking up the right clues you've left? People will instinctively ask you, and you need to see what everyone else thinks before you reveal anything. If it's a reveal for later, but somebody guesses the reveal quickly, it may be too predictable or cliché. If the questions are not answered by the script, consider whether they should be, or if it's an inconsequential detail. If nobody seems to care you can ignore it, but if it's something that got everyone's attention it could be worth exploring. Overall, get a feeling for how much people are able to follow your story, and see if through discussion they work out any problems in ways you hadn't considered. Then feel free to give your side, if needed.

While people are reading, see how many people are reading along, watching the person reading, or just staring off into space. If somebody keeps missing cues or forgetting who they are, that means they're bored. See who gets into the role and maybe asks for back-story or other character questions. You might get some casting done at the table read if they like the part and you like their take on it.

For people you already had in mind and for happy accidents, note how they deliver lines. See where people snap through dialogue, play with tone, and can even go off book as they go through the scene for the first time. That means the dialogue clicks with them. It feels natural, flowing, in tune with their idea of the character. On the other side, when people have to go over lines word for word, slowly, awkwardly, that means either the dialogue is bad, doesn't make sense, they aren't proficient readers, or it's time for a break. See how consistent the trouble is with them and with others. If need be, swap out roles periodically. Maybe it's a chemistry issue.

As you find actors who fit into certain roles well, don't be afraid to keep trying them as other parts. Maybe there's another one they're better for, or they are versatile, or somebody else was born to play the part they're doing just pretty good with now. For key scenes with a character, have your top pick step in if you can. Let them know to dive into the scene, that it's that character's moment in the spotlight. Instead of sitting back and enjoying the scene come to life, try to take as much of a snapshot as you can of this person's version of the character. Outside of your head, each of these creations can become a real person. If you can get what they see as the character, you can develop that into the next draft of the script. Give them words that follow their cadence, their emotions, their subtleties. Maybe you'll find lines they don't need because their face says it all. Maybe a bit part becomes a scene stealer. Anything's possible.

A video camera is not a bad idea, just to catch the looks people give when they forget they're being recorded but know they aren't being watched. You can see who chuckles quietly, who rolls their eyes, who flips ahead to see what happens next, and other honest indicators of what they think of the story. An audio-only recording is worth having as well if you can make one. One idea I've been meaning to try is editing out the breaks and comments, then listening to the script in my car as if it were a radio drama. After three or four tries, I'm sure there will be scenes I look forward to and scenes I hate.

When you get to your second draft, whether it be an overhaul or just a polish, you'll have a much better idea of where to concentrate to make the best possible story. Also, in the long run it will show a lot of your collaborators that you can listen and consider ideas. Of course, if you can't accept criticism or consider the ideas of others, a table read may not be a very good idea. In fact, try not to have people over your place for pizza at all.

I have stopped with the Digg links. It was a little sad.

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Other columns by Patrick Storck:

That Should Be In a Movie

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Patrick Storck
Patrick hails from Baltimore, MD, where playing by the rules is frowned upon. Only average things come from playing it safe.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Patrick Storck by clicking here.

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