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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Table Read Follow-Up

Last evening, The Script Department hosted another of our monthly table reads at The Attic Theater. And this is what the writer, Seth Fortin, had to say about the experience:


I always feel, as a screenwriter, that my work happens in a kind of vacuum until the moment someone actually reads it out loud. I know how these lines are supposed to be delivered, and in my head I can hear, oh, William Hurt or Michael Gambon or Glenn Close inflecting them with exactly the right emotional notes, allowing the subtext to ring out sharp and clear like a fork against a wine glass in a crowded room. I know how it's supposed to sound, I know what's been left unsaid in each scene, I know when characters are bluffing or holding something back or on the verge of tears.

But is it on the page?

Have I actually written the scenes in such a way that all that stuff comes to the fore?

Do the act breaks really ramp up the tension, or are they over-subtle and meaningful only to the guy who's got the whole story in his head?

Do the characters have all the distinctive bumps and wrinkles that I think they have, or have I left some of that stuff sitting in storage boxes in the abandoned warehouse of my imagination?

Is my exposition faced-paced and clever, like a West Wing walk-and-talk, or is it frustrating and sleep-inducing, like my college calculus class?

In short: did I write what I think I wrote?

One way to answer that question is to give your script to someone in the business and get their very first, unvarnished opinion. Another way is to get a bunch of working actors together and have them do a read-through, cold, with no rehearsal. It's not that a first impression is always right; it's just that if a group of professionals understand where you're trying to go with a certain scene or a certain joke or a character arc, then it's probably on the page. If not, you may have left something in the brain.

Happily, Julie and The Script Department can help you with both of these. Last evening, Julie and her colleagues organized a table read for my original science fiction comedy pilot Just In Time. Six actors, all Guild members, all pros, sat down and performed the script in front of a small audience, while Julie and special guest Margaux Froley, a writer for the CW's Privileged, took notes and prepared to give feedback.

As the actors did their thing, I had a chance to hear, directly, what a first-time reader thought was happening in each line of dialogue. I had a chance to see where, on a first look, character interactions were confusing or unclear. It was a useful exercise. But for me, as the creator of the characters, it was also a little bit magical to see them brought to life. (This is the other, private benefit of the table read. Sure, it's great to wade into the technical needs of your script. But it's also a thrill to see your work become a physical reality, even if it's an unrehearsed, off-the-cuff reality. Especially for those of us who are still writing spec scripts, there's no guarantee that the thing you're pouring soul and sweat into will ever be filmed. So if you ever do a table read -- treasure the moment!)

After the read-through, the actors gave their immediate impressions and asked me the things they'd been wondering as they read. These ranged from "The characters were well-drawn" to "If you cut down on the sci-fi exposition, you'd have more time to spend on character" to "Do you envision this as a single-camera or multi-camera show?"

Then we turned to the writers in the room. Friend-of-the-blog and previous table read participant Christopher Bosley and web-series producer Mike Perri both chimed in with great insights - including one casually-dropped idea that made me want to jump up and go "Holy crap! That's it! That's the missing link! Goodbye, everybody; I have to go write now!" (I didn't; I'm polite. But I wanted to.)

Next Margaux and Julie gave notes. At first they asked where I saw the show going, what I thought motivated the main character, what kinds of things we hadn't seen on the page yet - the vision questions. These are the kinds of questions you would expect to be asked if you were in a meeting with someone who could actually produce your show. This reminded me of the most important thing about writing pilots - you have to know what comes next, what could be happening in a year or several seasons down the road.

Then we got into the deep and brutal questions that have to be asked about any script. Really, they all boil down to a single question: Can you get an audience to watch this? Under that general question, subquestions: Is there a clear genre? Does this really work as a half-hour show, or would you be better off making it an hour-long drama? Are your characters the kinds of characters that people would want to see week after week? Do your act breaks make people want to stick around through the commercials?

Finally, while everyone else noshed on cookies and fruit, Margaux and I had a quick conference where she gave me her point-by-point notes, which ran from the technical ("use an en dash instead of an em dash") to the practical ("What show is this like? What network do you see this on?") to the philosophical ("It's not 'comedy-specific'... doesn't fit into an easy mold.")

By the end I had dozens and dozens of useful suggestions, enough to take a script, premise, and characters I love and shape them - I hope - into a sharp, marketable piece of work. And I had seen what every screenwriter hopes to see - my work leave the page and become a real thing for half an hour. Awesome!

Seth Fortin is a Rouge Waver and Los Angeles newbie of six months. In his previous life, he worked in Military Intelligence as a translator.

If you live in the Los Angeles area (or would like an excuse to visit) and would like a table read of your material, please click HERE for details and arrangements of this free, fun and illuminating experience.

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Milli Thornton said...

Thanks, Seth! That was riveting. And very educational.

Congratulations on your table read. Sounds like you worked hard to make it a fruitful occasion. You must be psyched!

Seth said...

Thanks Milli! Yeah, I was pretty stoked. Now for the re-write!