Friday, January 21, 2011

NYT Misses The Point Of Staged Readings

New York Times writer Erik Piepenburg enthuses on the topic of staged readings of plays and while not exactly missing the point that staged readings are primarily for play development, seems to regard play development as an afterthought:

NEW Yorkers love nothing more than to boast, “I was there first,” whether it’s getting a reservation at a buzzworthy restaurant, snatching up the latest handbag or seeing a new film before the rest of the country.


One way to catch the next potential It play or musical is to attend a reading. Before a show gets a full-fledged production, it has to start somewhere.

So the whole point of a staged reading is to give bragging rights to the audience members? Piepenburg actually spends the first three paragraphs making this argument.

[...] they allow playwrights, directors and troupes to put a work in front of an audience and gauge the reaction with little expense and relatively few risks. (Critics aren’t invited to weigh in.)

Actually, I do invite critics. Should any attend, I do expect them to keep to ethical standards of not publishing a review, but the feedback of a critic (or indeed any professional or semi-professional) who is only motivated by their personal standard of good theatre is invaluable. Actors, playwrights, directors, designers, techies, critics, and audience members all want the same thing: good theatre. So if the aim is to identify flaws within the script so that they can be corrected in a later draft, why would I not invite a critic? Not only have I invited critics but after they come I have invited them back when I'm ready to present a subsequent draft.

Although readings don’t promise quality, in some cases they guarantee star sightings. The actor Philip Seymour Hoffman and the playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis were both in the audience last month at the LAByrinth Theater Company’s reading of Mr. Guirgis’s new work, directed by Mr. Hoffman.

Why would anyone be remotely surprised that the playwright should be in attendance at a reading of his own play, especially when he is co-artistic director of the presenting organization, or for that matter, at the presence of the play's director who also happens to be on the board of directors for LAByrinth. This is not a "star-sighting" because Messrs Guirgis and Hoffman are at work, and whatever past arguments I have had with Mr. Guirgis, I have no doubt he takes his work seriously. It simply is not a "star-sighting" when one views a notable individual precisely where one should expect them, doing their job.

This is like somebody being amazed not by the artistry of Marcel Marceau, but Marcel Marceau showing up for his own gig.

It is only thirteen paragraphs into the article that Piepenburg actually has a playwright discuss the value of a staged reading to the writer who is serious about doing his or her job:

Andrew Hinderaker [...] whose play has been produced in Chicago, said readings give him a chance to see his own words with fresh eyes. “Part of what you’re looking for is the audience response,” he said. “I’ll probably tweak things a little bit to some degree. What’s great about a reading is that it’s an opportunity to really hear your work again and focus on any changes.”

Now to be fair, Piepenburg does eventually describe the value that a staged-reading might have to a dedicated theatre goer: the excitement of seeing a work-in-progress, but to sensationalize this experience into being one of bragging rights does not contribute much to theatre journalism.

(Thanks to Matthew Freeman for bringing this to my attention!)

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