The reading of Fire on Earth at the Huntington went quite well yesterday. We had rehearsal from 12-5, which gave us time to read through the script once, and then go back through to look at a few important moments, figure out which stage directions should be read, and think about transitions. We also cut a few pages, taking out some sections that were remnants of an earlier draft, that probably never quite fit in there either. Rachel, my director (with some help from Lisa Timmel, the Huntington's Director of New Plays), was very good at helping me figure out whether the pages should stay or go.
For the reading itself, we had about 30 people in the audience, mostly people I knew. The heavy rain kept people away--we'd cut off reservations last week (we only could seat 50) when we'd reached capacity, so we ended up less than full. But they were a good, attentive crowd.
The cast, of Will LeBow, Gabriel Kuttner, Ben Evett, and Grant McDermott, were fantastic. There's a special joy that comes from seeing your work read at its maximum capacity. There's a lot less room for excuses that way ("oh, if only we'd had a different actor for that part. He couldn't quite get it.")
We chose not to have an audience talkback, which I know disappointed some people. I'm mixed on the value of talkbacks. They certainly can be fun, especially for an audience eager to talk about what they've just heard. When I helped run Colorado Dramatists (ages ago), I led a lot of reading discussions. Over the years, I've probably facilitated at least 50, probably close to 70 or 100. Having an experienced moderator helps (a lot). But even then, the discussion sometimes veers into odd territory, into weird feedback, or unwanted rewriting of the playwright's work.
Still, sometimes it's helpful. But I'm less and less likely to use them these days. I find it more important to make sure there is a critical mass of bodies in the seats to watch the reading, so there's an actual audience there to respond. (20-30 people will do the trick in a small space. For a comedy, I think 20 is the minimum. With less, you shouldn't even bother having a reading. I make a point of sending a lot of person invites to people, to try to get them to attend.) Part of my job as a playwright is to be able to watch my play, judge it on my own terms, while at the same time being in tune with the people sitting in the seats around me and noticing whether they're paying attention, laughing, sighing, etc. I get better at this all the time, with practice.
If I was in a strange city, I might actually still want a talkback, because I wouldn't know the people or how else to solicit their feedback. Though, at the same time, too much of the wrong feedback can be very unhelpful (possibly even harmful.).
Since I was in Boston, though, I knew most of the people in attendance, and I'd made it a point to invite people whose opinions and feedback I valued highly. Instead of trying to get their instantaneous impressions, I e-mailed all of them today and asked for them to send me any thoughts they had. The advantage of this is that the responses are more likely to be to the play as a whole. And one-on-one feedback doesn't favor people who are the most outgoing--the louder voices don't end up taking over the public conversation. I've already received several detailed e-mails from audience members that are very helpful indeed.
One of the other ways I like to do feedback, which isn't what we did last night, is a millabout--where there is plenty of food and drink and we encourage people to linger and to come up and talk to me and each other. This easier for some people than sitting in chairs waiting to be called on. And a few drinks loosen people up. Plus, I can eavesdrop on people, too.
The other advantage of not having a talkback right after a reading is that right when the reading is over, I haven't had time to digest my own thoughts about the play yet. It's important for the playwright to take a little time after a reading to just sit with his or her own response and own notes, before hearing from a horde of people with other agendas. It helps me to be better able to respond to outside feedback in a more useful manner.
And lastly (and this might seem trivial or stupid, and actually didn't occur to me before this reading, but rather afterwards), in a situation like last night, where the artistic director of a major theatre is hearing my play for the first time, I'm interesting in him taking away the experience of the play and thinking about it on his own, without that experience being stirred up and around by a discussion. And discussions will often take a little journey and build momentum on certain topics, that after a while have more to do with the people commenting, that the script itself. Now, of course, Peter Dubois probably isn't as likely to be as affected by this as I am myself (I imagine he's sat through many hundreds of talkbacks in his career), but still, I want to be able to talk with him about it first.
Anyway, that's my thinking about talkbacks these days. I had a great time last night and am full of questions about what I need to do to continue to improve the script.