Celebrate the living room critique

Playwrights should get readings at all costs.  Without them, you’re blind; you simply don’t know what you have until an audience responds to it.  It’s even been said that if you can’t get a reading in a theater or a school or a writing circle, you should invite people into your living room, pass out scripts, and go to town.  All playwrights agree with the sentiment, it’s just…nobody actually does this.  You write a play, you show it to some people, you submit, you pray, and, in the best of all possible worlds, you score a well-directed, well-cast, well-publicized, and well-attended reading.  But, if that doesn’t happen, you usually say “screw it” and move on to the next script.

Well, slap my ass and call me Susan, because I’ve been dead wrong in my apathy, and after having three scripts read in this environment, I can honestly recommend the “living room reading” to anyone with a pen or a laptop.  Mind you, it’s a different experience, and you should adjust your expectations appropriately.  No one, for instance, is going to pull you aside and try to negotiate a contract.  The acting might be less than ideal.  And the quality of feedback will obviously depend upon who’s in the room.  But…

The stress levels are way down.  A professional reading rarely leads to a production, but it does happen, so you treat every handshake like an opportunity.  With that particular pressure removed, you can actually breathe, have a few drinks, focus on the play, and maybe—God forfend—enjoy yourself.  I’ve even blown the dust off an old script or two, just to do them.

My friend calls her get-togethers “salons.”  She holds them maybe four times a year, and we make a potluck out of them.  There are cocktails for an hour or two, followed by dishing up dinner from a variety of bowls, trays, and crockpots, and eventually we mosey into the living room, where we refill our glasses and settle into the script.  Two hours later, we refill again, and launch into the critique.  It should be said, the room contains writers, actors, and directors, all of whom know what they’re talking about and can speak to the point, but there are civilians, too, and it’s valuable to hear what they’re thinking.  This past weekend, we read a play by Lindsay Harris Friel, a friend and colleague of mine, and I had a blast.  Also, I cooked chicken risotto.

When we aren’t writing, we’re working the professional angles, and we forget that theater is supposed to be communal.  I’m not saying to eschew the professional reading; often, that’s the only way to get a theater to seriously consider your work.  But the living room reading has an important function, where you can experiment, free from the constraints of “putting our best foot forward,” and just enjoy yourself.

My latest play is being read at the next salon at the end of April.  I haven’t decided what to cook, yet, but I’m leaning toward some kind of stew.

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