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Play readings — the long and short of it

By richard moeschl

Mail Tribune

There's something about going to a play reading that captivates audiences. It's a different experience from seeing a fully realized production, complete with costumes, sets, lighting, memorized dialogue and directed movements.

What you don't see in a reading is what you get. Everything happens in your own imagination. You are the director, scenic and lighting designer. You come up with the costumes, and if you want, you can decide what the characters look like, too.

Lately, there have been a number of play readings in our area. Most recently there was a reading of "Treed," a new play by Dori Appel. It was held for two evenings at Oregon Stage Works in Ashland. Following the usual format, the seven actors stood behind music stands and read their parts. When they were not "on stage," they sat down in chairs lined up behind the music stands.

Most directors prefer that the actors face the audience and not each other when they are reading. This further reenforces the experience of the play's dynamics taking place in your mind. It's kind of like listening to the old radio dramas only without the music and sound effects.

In the case of "Treed," where there were a number of scene changes, the audience was able to move in and out of locations probably easier than it would have been for actors to do so on stage. We simply listened to the stage directions being read and went wherever we were meant to go, right on cue.

"Treed" also made use of another quality that makes theater — staged or read — so compelling. It explored magical worlds. Places where the usual laws of physics and rational thought don't apply. Again, that's much easier to see in your mind's eye than to depict on stage.

Besides providing an enjoyable evening for audiences, play readings have other tasks to perform. Their chief intended audience is not the folks sitting in the rows of seats. Listeners have an important role, but the reading is really meant for the benefit of the playwright.

It's often the first time a play gets a public airing. The writer needs to hear aloud what he or she has written in the quiet space of their desk at home. What do the words sound like when someone actually speaks them? Is the dialogue of each character distinctive enough so that everyone doesn't sound the same? Is the course of the action clear? Is there too much talking? And so on.

That is why it's important to have good actors reading a script. Conventional wisdom says that if you have good actors and the words and the flow of the play still come out sounding poorly, chances are the problem is with the writing.

It's a gift to a playwright to come to the realization that his or her play "needs work." And that's where the audience steps in.

At the end of the reading, the playwright comes out on stage, sits down and listens as audience members comment on the play. They ask questions, find problems and make observations. If the playwright is smart, he or she will listen more than talk and take all the comments in without defending or explaining the script.

What a gift — audiences responding directly to the playwright with their impressions of what worked and what didn't in the play. Then it's back to the proverbial drawing board for the playwright.

Sometimes the reading process features more than one play in an evening. In the case of shorter plays, there can be as many as eight readings in one sitting.

That's the plan for two evenings of one-act plays produced by Ashland Community Theatre scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday, April 27, and Saturday, April 28, at Paschal Winery, 1122 Suncrest Road, Talent. Three different Rogue Valley playwriting groups will have readings of their members' short plays — most of them 10 minutes long.

Another evening of eight 10-minute plays is scheduled for July 7, 8 and 9. Artwork Enterprises, the local non-profit organization which produces the Ashland New Plays Festival in October, is hosting the event. The readings will be produced by the Public Domain Players, senior theater students at Southern Oregon University.

Ten-minute plays have their own set of challenges. You have 10 minutes to accomplish what usually takes two hours. It is not a fragment, it is an entire play with all the arcs, conflicts and resolution that constitute a full-length play.

Imagine that.