I had a staged reading last night. My friend Davey Morrison-Dillard contacted me and asked if I had a play I’d like to have a reading for. I suggested my play Mess of Pottage. It’s hardly a new play–I wrote the first draft something like eight years ago–but it’s had a checkered production history, I’d done a new draft, and I thought it might be a time to dust it off. Twice, local theatre companies have wanted to do the play, and both times, the company folded shortly thereafter; the play’s a little cursed. So maybe it was time for an exorcism.
Mess of Pottage is about three young married couples, students at BYU, living in adjacent apartments. The Carmacks, Craig and Chandra are really young, newlyweds, both freshmen in college, and pregnant. The Alverareses, Mike and Greta, are a little older, married two years–he’s an English major, looking to Law School; she’s pre-med, and intends to become a cardiologist. Finally, the Hansons, Stuart and Melissa; the funniest, the cutest, with the amusing stories; the party couple, with a dark secret underneath.
Davey and his wife Bianca set the whole reading up, at Orem Library, and help me cast it. We ended up with a cast of three BYU actors and three from UVU. I was glad for that–love it when the two local universities work together, as indeed we should. The UVU Theatre program is, in my opinion, the most exciting and innovative in the state. Our casting process was basically Davey calling people he knew, but we ended up with a splendid cast, each part exactly as I envisioned them, and with real talent in every role. If anyone wants to do the play, I know how I’d cast it.
I like staged readings as a playwriting tool. I think it’s immensely valuable for a writer to hear his/her words spoken aloud. You really get a sense of what’s working, and what isn’t. I especially like it to hear the rhythm of the language. Plays should have a kind of flow and pace, like good poems should. A staged reading is good for that. And although the audience doesn’t always get this, you do also get sense of staging, and what might work visually in production. The character of Craig Carmack has probably the fewest lines in a play that’s very much an ensemble piece, but watching the reading, I thought that wouldn’t matter–that his silent presence in a scene might make a strong statement in production.
But too many theatre companies nation-wide use staged readings, not as a useful tool for new play development, but as their entire commitment to new plays. Too many national regional theatres believe that new plays are box office death, and that committing to producing new work is risky beyond what’s sensible. So instead, they go the cheap route, and stage readings. The Utah Shakespearean Festival, for example, probably the most prominent professional company in the state, does have what they call ‘a commitment to new plays,’ but they never produce anything. Their commitment tops out at the staged reading level. And that’s a shame. The lifeblood of any new art form is new work, and the lifeblood of American theatre is new play development.
But tomorrow night, I’m going to see Plan B Theatre’s production of my former student Matthew Greene’s Adam and Steve and the Empty Sea, a wonderful two actor play about Mormonism and Prop 8 and friendship and loyalty. The entire run of the production has sold out, as is often the case for Plan B plays. Here you have an entire professional theatre company that does nothing but new work by local playwrights, and every show they do sells out.
How can that be? Well, in part because on Monday, I’m going to a staged reading of a new play by a local playwright, sponsored by Plan B. They do it right. They use staged readings sensibly, as part of an all-encompassing new play development process. And they produce the plays they’ve been involved in creating.
Plays aren’t written, they’re developed. At my reading the other night, I noticed really stupid, quite egregious mistakes in the play. Fixable, to be sure, but things I had never noticed, and feel completely stupid because of. I learned a lot about my play, good things and also things I still need to fix. And this is for a play I’ve been working on for eight years. If anyone decides to do Mess of Pottage, it will be a significantly better play because of this staged reading. That’s what staged readings are about, and that’s what they can accomplish.