Get Thee to a Table Read - An Instant Screenwriter Gratification Primer | Script Revolution

Get Thee to a Table Read - An Instant Screenwriter Gratification Primer

Introduction: 

Last month, Kelly Hughes, host of the fantastic 2-Bit Horror Podcast, blessed us with a brilliant guide detailing 10 Ways to be a Perfect & Productive Podcast Guest and now he's back to talk about the art of capturing the best possible table read as this becomes an increasingly popular method for screenwriters to both develop and market their scripts. This is a great guide broken down into seven sections which is a must read for writers, producers, and actors - CJ

Last Saturday, I directed a table read of my latest screenplay Lady Lucifer.

And yes, that’s a shameless plug for my work. If you want to be a screenwriter, you better check your shame at the door. Promote yourself relentlessly.

My actors and I sat around a kitchen table. We exchanged minimal pleasantries. We drank coffee. Coconut macaroons were offered, but barely touched. We were there to work.

1. What’s Your End Game?

Before organizing the gathering, I had to be clear why I was doing it.

Did I want to hear my dialogue come alive with real voices?
Did I want to get an idea of the overall pacing of the script?
Did I want to see if the story made sense to people who hadn’t yet read it?

I wanted all these things.

But the best benefit was that the reading gave me a deadline. I had to have a finished coherent script for people to read. The urgency helped me flesh out underwritten scenes and to tweak my ending. I used the fear of public ridicule to help me refine the lazy parts.

2. Guest List

For this first read, I wanted to keep it small. This meant that I had three actors read all the parts. I pitched in on a few characters as well, including the titular villain Lady Lucifer (who has a really dirty mouth in the script.)

Keeping the gathering small helped cut down on the logistics. It was easy to schedule. When everyone was gathered, there was less chit-chat. Fewer scripts had to be printed.

I invited actors that I had in mind for major roles, so that was a priority. But it was also nice to hear them fill in for minor characters. It gave me a chance to hear their range.

One of the actors asked me if they could bring a friend. To me, that’s a big no-no. At a reading (or a film shoot), I only want cast and crew present. I only want people there who are assigned a specific task. I don’t want anyone to be distracted by a third party. I don’t want to be cheap entertainment for someone’s significant other. Think of it this way: Would your dentist let a friend hang out with him while he’s drilling your tooth? Of course not. You must treat your table read with the intensity of a medical professional.

The actor was very understanding when I told him not to bring his friend.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t get referrals for cast and crew, but let your people know when and where it is appropriate to bring outsiders into the fold.

3. Format

Before we started the read, I laid down some ground rules:

Phones would be turned off.
We would be reading through the entire script without interruption.
Actors would discover their characters as we went along.

I didn’t want to explain each character in detail beforehand. I wanted to see if the information was all in the screenplay, that everything was clear to the actors without me coaching them as we read.

We did discuss the characters after the reading.

One of the actors had little dialogue for his part (even though he played the main character), so to keep him occupied, I had him read the scene headings and descriptions. That helped me see if they were clear to other people. It also freed me up to take notes.

4. Notes

When you hear other people read your words, it’s much easier to pinpoint your glaring errors:

Words to omit
Descriptions that aren’t clear
Redundant dialogue
Telling moments that could be showing
moments
Lack of nuance; being too literal
Plot inconsistencies
The realization your movie will require a million dollars’ worth of blood and gore special effects

Be ready to jot everything down on the pages of the script. But don’t let your note taking slow down the read. It’s still all about hearing the overall flow of your script.

5. Good Actors Can Be Mediocre Table Readers

Don’t freak out if your actors don’t sound perfect during this initial reading.

When a musician plays a piece of music for the first time, they aren’t perfect either. They must learn the music and practice. So, unless you have an actor who is a Mozart-level creative prodigy, they will muddle through, absorbing the story as well as their character. They are receiving lots of new information all at once.

You will also find that some actors have better reading skills than others. Some might even be dyslexic. Don’t automatically correct an actor if they stumble over words here and there. But if they are struggling, jump in and help them out to keep the flow of the table read going. Don’t dwell on it and embarrass them. Help them. Then move along.

My 113-page script took over two hours for us to read. It tested my actors’ stamina. It showed whether they could concentrate for long periods of time. It showed whether they could sound as energetic near the end of the reading as they did at the beginning.

6. Should your actors read their lines in full voice?

Yes.

A lot of table reads seem to be subdued. The actors say their lines cautiously, softly.

Maybe it’s because I write stories that contain a lot of brutality, suffering, and screaming, but I want to hear all that commotion at the table read. I want to hear the primal scream of my script burst through.

I only want that volume where it is appropriate, though. I still want to hear the subtle parts played with nuance.

So find a place to read where people won’t call the cops when they hear the actors screaming bloody murder. And give your actors permission to show a full range of emotions.

Also, don’t have your actors stand up and act out the parts. (Some might attempt to do this.)  Just have them read. You’re not blocking a scene.

7. Final Advice: Practical Concerns

Now that you know you need a police-proof setting, here are a few random rules to flesh out the rest of your table read:

LOCATION – Your home is fine. But a neutral location such as a conference room at a local library or community center will make it a bit less casual and set a more professional tone.

TABLE – If you’re doing this at someone’s home, don’t sit in the living room on the sofa. You’re not there to spread out and binge watch Netflix. Go into the kitchen and gather ‘round the table. Preferably one with hard edges and stiff upright chairs.

REFRESHMENTS – Don’t serve pizza. The scent will dominate the room. It’s messy. People will get grease stains on their scripts. They will get sleepy. Lazy. Instead, give them lots of coffee. And maybe some nuts. And especially don’t serve anything fancy. If your screenplay gets made into a movie with these actors, you don’t want them to assume you’ll be serving fine food at the film shoots.

SCRIPT – If you print your script at home, it will drain your printer’s ink cartridge. But it won’t be any cheaper to do it at Kinko’s. So be prepared to shell out some money. And print only on one side, and three-hole punch the pages and put them in three-ring binders. Make sure everyone gets their own script (sharing is a pain in the ass.) Should you let the actors take their scripts home with them? At this point, I wouldn’t. You haven’t necessarily made permanent casting decisions. And you are going to make some revisions based on your notes. So keep the scripts, and re-use the binders.

AFTER TALK – It’s a good idea to discuss the script afterward. But keep the conversation focused on the characters. Ask your actors if the character motivations were clear. And ask them whether they understood the story and if it made sense to them. But don’t open up the conversation for them to tell you how to change anything. Don’t let your actors become armchair screenwriters. You know your vision. So just ask the actors if that vision was clear to them.

VIDEO – Don’t make everyone self-conscious by having a video camera set up to record the table read. But I think it’s fine to take some brief footage on your smart phone. A shot of everyone gathering around the table with their scripts. Maybe get a minute or two of footage midway through the reading, and a few more minutes during the post-read discussion. You can use this on social media to show people what’s going on, and even include it in your crowdfunding videos, or for the behind-the-scenes footage for DVD extras after your screenplay is produced and released on home video.

About The Author

Kelly Hughes's picture
Real name: 

Kelly Hughes is a filmmaker from Seattle who got his start during the Grunge Rock era of the early ‘90s when he created the weekly anthology series Heart Attack Theatre for public access TV. His creative process has been explored in two documentaries (Heart Attack! and ...Read more

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Comments

Kelly Hughes's picture

Thanks, Bamutiire. Happy holidays to you too. :)

Al Moreno's picture

Due to COVID have you or anyone you know done a Table Read virtually? Do you think it will be just as good? Cheers, AM

Kelly Hughes's picture

You could try a virtual table read. But I would only do it with a small number of actors. And I would make sure they all have a handle on the technical part of virtual meetings. You don't want to be interrupted throughout the read with people having technical difficulties. I would also make sure everyone is using a decent microphone because it would be frustrating for everyone if they can't hear certain actors very well.

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