How to put a table reading together for your film script
As screenwriters we are stuck in our heads. Ninety percent of screenwriting is sitting in a room and imagining what could happen in a world that doesn’t really exist. Even when you aren’t actually writing your script, it plays in the background as you go throughout your day.
Even when we send our scripts to other screenwriters for feedback, the script is a very conceptual thing. It isn’t the end product, it’s a blueprint. Novels leave it to a reader’s imagination to make the world of the story come alive. Screenplays leave it to the imagination of a director, actors, producers, and a film crew to make the world of the story come alive.
After a script has been thru several drafts, it can be helpful to put a table reading together to hear the script out loud. You still don’t know how it will play out on screen, but it can help with making sure the dialogue works, and you can get some audience feedback.
For any script longer than ten pages, I think it’s a good idea to get a table reading together. Because of the time and resources involved to get a table reading together, it’s best if you are able to put together a reading for 60 script pages or more. This could be a table reading for a feature film, or a table reading for several short films.
Earlier this year, we put together a table reading for three episodes of a web series and two short films about fifteen pages each.
Here are the basic steps for putting together a table reading:
1. Finalize the Script
Make sure you are happy with the script. You don’t want to share a first or second draft because chances are, it needs a fair amount of work. You want to make sure your screenplay is as good as you can get it before the table reading. The table reading can help expose issues you didn’t see before, but you want to make sure you’re confident with the work.
2. Find Actors
If you don’t know any actors, you can reach out to your friends. Craigslist and Facebook groups can help you find actors. If there is a theater where you live, it could be a good place to find local talent. In Chicago, we are lucky to have a thriving theater and film community and over the years I have gotten to meet a fair number of actors.
3. Book a location
You could hold a table reading in your home (if it’s big enough to accommodate your cast), a library, or a theater space. Sometimes we book rehearsal space at local theaters for our table readings.
4. Get snacks
Make sure to provide some snacks and water for your table reading. Everyone involved is volunteering their time, you want to make sure they have something to drink and something to snack on.
5. Print off scripts
You will need copies of the script for everyone involved in the table reading. You will need a script for each actor, as well as anyone responsible for reading action lines or taking notes during the reading.
Generally, we don’t invite people who aren’t directly involved in the film in some way.
The Table Reading
How does the script sound? What do you think worked? What didn’t work? Did the actors have trouble reading the script? Did anything sound different from what I intended?
If you are the screenwriter, you may want to bring someone else in to be moderator. If you are working with a director or a producer, they can help moderate the table reading.
The two reasons for a reading are 1. to hear the script out loud and 2. to receive audience feedback.
Oftentimes, the people involved in the table reading won’t be used to giving feedback on a script. While actors, directors, and producers read a lot of scripts it’s as common for them to give feedback on a script. Having a moderator will help keep feedback running smoothly.
I find that during feedback, it is best for the screenwriter receiving feedback to take notes on the feedback and to wait until after everyone has given their notes to ask any questions. If you defend your script, you won’t hear the criticisms of your script. If you repeatedly ask questions and interrupt the feedback, you won’t be able to listen. Defending your script or asking a lot of questions during feedback can also put everyone else at the table reading on the defensive and less willing to give you any notes. If you aren’t clear on a comment, ask a question for clarification.
Your job as screenwriter is to take a lot of notes. I generally try to take down everything everyone says during feedback and record the audio of the reading as well as the feedback.
Once everyone has given you their notes, if you have any questions about their feedback or need additional clarification to something anyone said, now is the time to ask them.
Take lots of notes, I usually mark up my script while it is being read. I listen for how the audience reacts. Do they laugh at a joke on the page? Are they engaged in the story?
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Next week I will talk about strategies to combat burnout.
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