The Story of Making a Play: The Readings

Plus 5 Tips on producing your own play reading.

I’ve written a play. Called Confidence (and The Speech). I think it’s cool. Now I’m gonna get it produced a few times and hopefully, published. Follow along.

Confidence (and The Speech) coming to the Duke Energy Theater in Charlotte, NC.

This about how I got my play to the point where we’re about to do the first workshop production. We’re gonna put it on it’s feet, September 6–15 at the Duke Energy Theater at Spirit Square in Charlotte, North Carolina. That’s a very exciting place to be as a playwright! And as a producer and writer, I thought it would be interesting to open up the process a bit for writers and producers who might be curious how to get a #newplay off the ground.

First, write (or find) something you like. Actually, write a lot of things you like. I’m producing and writing many projects at once. This can be very difficult, because you have to multi-task. So find friends to help you if you can. And like Dori in Finding Nemo. “Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming, swimming...” Seriously, just keep going.

It takes a LONG time to get a new play or musical out into the world. And you have to do it over and over and over again.

Tip #1: When you’re starting a project, find a cheerleader.

I’ve got my sister, Anne Lambert, who produces theater in North Carolina. She has great taste. 😉 Seriously, I already knew she’d like the idea. I’ve known her a while. So I mentioned my idea to her for Confidence (and The Speech) and she was Very Excited. Once I got the first 18 pages together, I sent it to her. I was just starting to get to the hard part for me — the sticky, historical detail part — and I was afraid I was going to get stuck. I was also afraid, since it was such an unusual piece, that I was going to talk myself out of writing it and move on to something else and I didn’t want to do that. I prepped her and asked her to be nice. And she was. Like super nice.

I’m not saying I printed up her email and posted it next to my computer…

It was the inspiration I needed to keep going. You don’t need someone to critique at the early stages. You need someone who gets what you’re trying to do and tells you to keep going.

So, then you have to finish the play. I finished a very, very rough draft. Like with some notes in the middle that still read “President Carter scene/Skylab falls/calls Middle East”. But 90% done.

Then something unexpected happened: November 8, 2016.

Confidence (and The Speech) is not your daddy’s political play. At one point, my sister and I jokingly named it, That Play Where President Carter is Played by a Woman. This is a play that in some ways was built on the idea that we could imagine a female president.

And then we couldn’t.

I put the play aside. I literally couldn’t work on it for two months. Then I picked it back up again. And I changed the ending. Then I changed it again. Then I finished all of it — even the “President Carter scene/Skylab falls/calls Middle East.”

Then I set it aside for two weeks. I like to do this with my writing. I have several projects going at once — as producer, writer, director or consultant — and so I always have something else to work on. It gives me a bit of perspective. Then I went back and did a quick re-write. I like deadlines — so I used the Austin Film Festival Playwright Contest deadline to get it done.

And I did. Now it was time to hear it out loud. The first reading!

It’s important to hear your script out loud. I think writers sometimes think they need permission, or someone else to say yes, to make a reading happen. You don’t. Let me repeat that for those in the back.

Tip #2: You. Don’t. Need. Permission. Just do it.

Still think you need permission? Here ya go:

“You have my permission to produce your reading. It’ll be awesome.”

I did my first reading at Boston Court in Pasadena. It’s no relation to Boston at all. It’s a beautiful 99-seat theater in the arts district area of Pasadena, CA and one of my favorite theaters in all of Los Angeles.

I had gotten to know Boston Court’s co-Artistic Director Jessica Kubzansky when she was on the short list of directors for a new musical I was producing. She’s good people and I’m a fan of her and the work she does. I asked if I could do a reading in their music room. I got a great deal, because I got the friends and family rate. It was such a great deal, that I made sure I tipped the actual person who worked that night and helped us on our reading. They were great. Shout out to Boston Court!

Boston Court is doing a New Play Festival RIGHT NOW. Go see it. Photo: “How The Light Gets In” by EM Lewis.

But you don’t have to know someone. Reach out to your local small theater. Or your big theater, which may have a small space. See if you can rent the space. It depends on your area, but assume it will cost between $25 to $100 to rent a space for a reading. You can google your area to find places to rent, but here are a few in Los Angeles: Fractured Atlas LA. LA Stage Alliance. PeerSpace.

Tip #3: You don’t actually need a theater.

You can use your house, your apartment, a conference room at work, a friend’s house. Make sure it’s quiet, with relatively good acoustics, so you can hear the work clearly. I like to have a space that will comfortably fit everyone plus a few select audience. And yes, even for this first read-thru I want people to hear it with me. The first reading is for the author. In this case, me. But there are a lot of moving parts to Confidence (and The Speech) — it’s a layered piece about a specific historical moment, but it’s also about gender, politics, climate change and equal rights. I selected friends of mine who had a specific, unique perspective on those elements that I felt I needed to hear.

Tip #4: Make sure you’re not asking for trouble. aka — Invite your lawyer.

My play is about a real event, involving real people. But I also made up many elements of the play. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t causing legal trouble for myself. So I invited my lawyer, Gordon Firemark. He’s not only a lawyer and a very good guy, but he’s a theater fan. So I wanted his insight on the play itself. But I also wanted him to advise me on any legal issues I would face. Don’t have a lawyer? Call one. Email one. They don’t bite. Most of them, anyway.

It’s often a lot easier and faster to get feedback from a reading than it is to ask people to read your script. I selected the first round of actors not just for their acting ability, but because I also wanted their feedback — most were close friends. At this first reading, there were 11 actors! They were not paid. But I provided snacks and water.

This first reading is exciting. And hard. It’s easier to not have other people there. It can be very tough to have people read this “first draft.” To hear the clunky parts. But keep in mind, this was not a first draft/first draft. This was pretty much my third draft. And yet, it was still overwritten, too long and sometimes clunky.

It was a small, smart group, so it made for a great and impassioned discussion after the reading. I got amazing, intelligent feedback. There were ideas everyone agreed on — Yes, it was too long! But other places where people completely disagreed. “Keep it one act.” “No. Break it into two acts.” “I love the gender switch.” “I hate the gender switch.” Afterward, a few people wrote me more detailed feedback that was invaluable as I moved forward.

After that reading, I cut out one character and 10 pages. Then I submitted it to 30 places: readings, contests and conferences. FYI — The nice thing about plays over screenplays is that it COSTS A LOT LESS to submit plays. Of course, you really don’t get much if you get accepted. A reading is usually the prize, if you’re lucky. My favorite places for finding where to submit a play: NYC Playwrights (Great blog! Totally free. And you don’t have to be in NYC), Play Submissions Helper (some free listings, $7 monthly fee for full list) and Dramatists Guild (requires membership).

Out of the 30 submissions, I got “awards” from two. But they were big ones!

Those two are cool. Very cool. I felt very lucky to have made it into their top… 20%? But I didn’t make the next round. I basically came in third. But those notices were super encouraging. And I got nice notes back from a few others.

My play is about President Carter and Rosalynn Carter. I have a woman play President Carter. Out of context, it could sound a bit weird. But in context, I’m trying to say something important about women in politics, Presidents and history. The play is a not-exactly-true perspective of a very true story. I didn’t want the Carters to hear about this play from somewhere else.

I know. I should be so lucky.

The draft of the play, printed nicely for the Carters. That blue pamphlet behind it, is a copy of a real government document I found which is featured in the play.

So I sent my play to the Carters. I printed up a nice version of it and I sent a copy to each of them via the Carter Center. I wrote a nice note to them, giving the play context. And I thought if nothing else happened with the play, the Carter Center may keep it for posterity. Which I tell you, felt kinda cool.

Okay, so at this point, you can just wait for feedback. Submit to agents. Keep submitting to festivals and contests. Submit to former presidents and whoever. Wait and see what happens. Turns out I was a Second Rounder for Austin Film Festival Playwriting Competition! That was very exciting. What was even better was the very nice note I got about the play. They don’t typically give feedback, but I got some handwritten encouragement. They liked the ending! And they liked the audience participation part of the play (yes, I have a LOT going on this play). 😃

But I didn’t want to wait and see if someone else will produce a 2nd reading for me.

I had work to do.

From our second reading — a benefit for Emily’s List and She Should Run.

The 1st anniversary of November 8, 2016 was coming up. So I produced a 2nd reading — and I wanted to do something worthwhile, so I made it a benefit reading. Confidence (and The Speech) is a feminist play about 1979 and 2019 politics. And it is written to inspire women to get involved in politics, in activism. So I raised money for Emily’s List and She Should Run. We raised over $500 from that night!

This reading was at the Son of Semele. It didn’t actually go as well as the first one. It was still technically a cold reading. I changed up some actors. I had some last minute drop-outs. Traffic in Los Angeles was particularly bad and the theater — which is charming — felt cramped because we had to work around an existing set on a very small stage.

But other parts of the reading went great. I had audience show up! They heard of the play through our press release and just thought the play sounded interesting. 😃👍 Not all, but most of the changes I made totally worked. That is always a big sigh of relief. And I got another round of great feedback.

November 2017. L to R: Celia Finkelstein, Jolene Hjerleid, Mary Eileen O’Donnell, Jordan Mitchell-Love, Tristan Waldron, John Goodwin, Graham, Norris, Dan Povenmire, David August, Matthew Henerson and Kellen Law

I felt the script was pretty solid by this point. Quite honestly, what I wanted to do was put it up on it’s feet.

Meanwhile, my sister Anne said she wanted to do a reading in Charlotte. She was producing a Page to Stage series of readings — six plays — and she wanted to include Confidence! I was so excited that she wanted to read it in this series. While we’ve supported each others projects as sisters, Confidence (and The Speech) was her jam creatively. She totally understood this play.

Charlotte’s Off-Broadway Page-to-Stage reading was awesome. Over the course of three months, they read six plays. The then audience voted on the most popular. The winner was to be produced by Charlotte’s Off-Broadway. The hilarious and outrageous comedy, Barbecue Apocalypse won.

My play got third. I felt… bad. 😳

But two things happened: My sister really wanted Charlotte’s Off-Broadway to help develop a new work. It was part of their mission and they had never developed a new work before. And we had a backer in the room who wanted to donate money to help make the play take the next step! In the end, Anne ended up producing the top three vote-getters. Charlotte’s Off-Broadway 2018–2019 season grew directly out of that reading series.

I created a feedback form for the March 2018 Page to Stage reading. Feedback forms are a great tool to send your audience after a reading. You can check out the one we made for Confidence (and The Speech) HERE.

Charlotte’s Off-Broadway produced Barbecue Apocalypse in May. Next spring they’ll produce Exit, Pursued By a Bear. And this September, the first workshop production of Confidence (and The Speech)! Come join us September 6–15 at Duke Energy Theater at Spirit Square.

[voice in my head] “Maybe it’s not good enough. You came in third.”
Then I was like, “Who cares? Let’s get to work.”

Tip #5: Doesn’t matter if you’re third. Take the next step.

Quite honestly, there are more projects than there are theaters. There is more content there there are people to consume it all. But I think everyone has a story in them and I think people are immensely interesting.

Your voice is important. Let your voice be heard.

There are still gatekeepers. But technology has changed things. The walls to the great City of Making Stuff are lower than they have ever been. Go through the gate if you can — the pay is better. But sometimes just climb the wall and create your stuff. It always leads to something — a fresh collaborator. A new fan. Your next project.

Susan and Anne: The Lambert Sisters are gonna make a play! Join us!

So, we’re going to put Confidence (and The Speech) up on it’s feet in North Carolina. My sister is directing. We’re pulling together a wonderful cast and team of talented theatre-makers to help us do it well. The budget is now close to $24,000 — big for a workshop production, small for an ambitious political play with TEN actors. We’ve raised some of the money through private donations and grants. And, like all good new works, we’re throwing a Kickstarter party to help Kick up our Confidence. To raise enough money that we can produce the play at the level it deserves. 👏

I get it. It’s weird to ask for money. But people do it all the time. Studios do it. Giant theaters do it. Broadway producers do it. Politicians do it. And there are plenty of great and necessary causes out there. But art is important, too.

So, if you want to help us out, please do: Kickstart our Confidence!

I can’t think of a better time to be making art that talks about leadership, facing important moments in history and women in politics.

I want to produced this show in Charlotte, NC. Then I want to do this play in Los Angeles, Atlanta, GA and finally Washington DC. Then get it published.

Simple, right? Follow along and let’s see how it goes.

We are at a turning point in our history.”
  • ~Susan Lambert Hatem, July 2018

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