When (and when not) to hear your work read aloud

As part of the launch of our new membership scheme, we’re celebrating writers that LPW has worked with in the course of the past year.

In the final blog from our Dark Horse Festival writers, John Murray shares his thoughts on the importance – and difficulty – of hearing your work read aloud.

It’s important to hear your work read aloud; I say ‘important’, rather than ‘enjoyable.’ Listening to your work is crucial to the playwriting process but it can be a difficult procedure to manage.

I studied creative writing at university, so I feel fairly comfortable reading my work aloud; poetry, prose, non-fiction and some pretty awful and unnecessary hybrids of the above. My first full piece of writing for performance was a monologue which I went on to direct and perform myself, so I felt confident in reading that aloud, to anyone who would listen, during the development stages.

But when it came to work for more than one voice, I was stuck. I just about managed to get away with a radio drama I wrote a few years ago; there were twenty characters in the play and a friend and I read and recorded the whole thing, with long pauses between lines as we tried to slip back and forth between elaborate accents.

That recording was just about enough for me to imagine what the piece could sound like with different actors playing each role. I needed to know how that slew of voices would mesh together and if any of them stood out for the wrong reasons.

My first pieces for the stage with multiple characters were a different kettle of fish. As a writer, I tend to place too much emphasis on the aural quality of the work and ignore moments of more complex physicality. As each piece slowly formed, I found it impossible to feel satisfied with what I was writing because I was not able to hear distinct voices coming through.

After a few false starts with readings, I’ve realised that who is reading your piece is crucial in making the experience useful and can ultimately make the difference between hearing the voices of your characters emerge and hearing nothing at all.

I think that it’s important to hear different groups of people read your work. In the early stages of development, one of the most useful groups you could turn to is a group of writers. I’m sure most people know the general benefits of writers groups, but in this instance I suggest using the writers as actors.

A writer, especially one who is also working on a piece, is often sensitive to the way in which lines of dialogue are being constructed. They look out for pauses, they pay attention to punctuation and they never assume they’ve read a line correctly; they will invariably go back and look at the line again and try and work out if you intended something different with a comma, or a ‘long pause’ or a repetition.

What’s more, it’s likely that most of the writers in the group will not have much acting experience. If you can’t find a group of writers that you feel happy working with, gather a few friends who you trust and ask them to read. Try to avoid any professional performers at this stage and just listen to the lines that people trip over. Listen to them laugh or gasp and stay alert to the moments where they lose concentration. Hearing people make mistakes as they read can be so useful; it can signal awkward phrasing, overworked language or moments of lag in the dialogue.

I get so much out of these readings. After they’ve read, the writers can help you unpack certain choices you’ve made, big or small. They can question your technique and highlight the moments where you’ve really achieved your goals. Their feedback is so useful in developing style and structure.

A group of friends can offer a similar kind of critique: they can point you to moments where you might need to focus when redrafting, moments where the scenes drag or speed along too quickly. They’re a ready-made audience with no professional tint to their feedback; they’ll ignore formatting issues and won’t confuse you with comments about pieces at the Fringe they saw two years ago that “might really help you” but can’t remember what it was called or who wrote it. I’m particularly guilty of that.

After you’ve finished this and redrafted, I’d suggest you take your piece to a director. Ask if they have an hour or two to read your work and comment on it from a directorial perspective. You won’t hear them reading it but their feedback will give an insight into what you might expect from a reading with actors.

They’ll know which scenes might challenge a group of actors and which they’d have less trouble with; this might not actually lead you to make any changes to those scenes, but it’ll give you an insight into what you might face when working with actors and arm you with suggestions you might be able to make to them as they perform.

After these first two stages, you’re ready to hear a group of professionals read. It’s easier said than done assembling a group of actors; I’ll leave it to an advice columnist with more chutzpah than me to explain the process. However you manage to assemble your actors, be ready for that reading to be unlike any of the readings you’ve had up until that point.

On the one hand, the actors will be able to bring a wealth of training, experience and excitement to the roles. They should be used to quickly mining a scene for useful details which they can draw from and they’ll be happy to stop and start and try sections out differently in order to allow you to hear how a different tone could work. You should even be able to make quick edits which won’t faze them and allow you to hear scenes constructed differently.

On the other hand, once a piece is with an actor, writers can often feel like they lose control. They might feel certain words or phrases are being skipped over in favour of something more exciting to that particular actor. This can either be fruitful or excruciating. You might find yourself being asked to justify why a character behaves in a certain way; actors will look for objectives that you might not feel are appropriate which leaves you flailing about trying to correct them.

However, if you’ve gone through the first two stages and really taken as much as you can from those readings, you’ll feel much better equipped to deal with whatever is thrown at you. I don’t want to sound like I’m downplaying the talent and commitment actors can bring to a reading: they can help you transform a piece and give voice to characters that you have desperately wanted to hear from, and once you reach the rehearsal room they are your greatest ally. But, if you take a piece to actors too early in your process, you will be faced with a plethora of issues which might set back your drafting process and distract you from the early tasks of assembling your work and crafting the tone and themes of a piece.

Listen to your work as often as possible. It’s the only way you can be sure that you’re ready to let a piece get up on to its feet and walk about. Which is a third and even more complicated kettle of fish…

John Murray’s latest project is Celebrate The Mountains, an online writing project with Thom Kofoed. Subscribe at: http://celebratethemountains.co.uk/

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