Table Reading of Your Script or Play

Tuesday, July 19 we are doing a table reading of my screenplay Seventy Times Seven with a group of highly experienced actors and some potential investors.

Synopsis: As a young man, Ian Campbell killed his opponent in a prize fighting ring. For the past 40 years Ian has sought absolution as a preacher. Now Ian’s son Robert is murdered on his way home to raise funds for the children’s hospital he runs in Honduras–Is this God’s retribution?  Ian has focussed on love and forgiveness, but how does he forgive his son’s murderer?  And what was wrong with Ian’s relationship with Robert that his only child didn’t tell him of his marriage in Honduras or explain the unusual circumstances? Ian faces losing not only his son, but his wife, his son’s family, and everything he told himself he believed in. What is the worst thing that could happen to a man? For his son to be murdered–and then to realize he never trusted you?

Setting up a Table Reading

A table read is a great opportunity for a writer to hear others read aloud a play or screenplay. (It is also sometimes done with novels, which do not always make effective table reads unless they contain a lot of dialogue.) Although you don’t have to have actors, it is more effective to have actors read the parts as they would if they were acting out the roles. With a table read, generally everyone is sitting and there isn’t any physical activity taking place. In a staged reading, the actors walk through their roles as though acting them out, sometimes with props, sometimes without them. (Sometimes a novel can have a staged reading even without dialogue if the actions of the characters make sense.)

For our table read my friend, actor and producer Kevin Sizemore, is pulling the reading together to show the project to potential investors and to give the actors he is interested in casting in various roles a chance to interpret the character.

When arranging a table read, you want to make sure you have a narrator who reads the action lines and stage directions as well as enough participants to read the major character roles. It is better not to ask actors or readers to take on a role that only has a few lines, as that could be a waste of time for them, unless you have a large group and some participants don’t mind only attending to read a couple of lines. Go through your script or play and double up roles that have limited lines, making sure that you don’t assign two roles in the same scene to the same person. Also be sure that you do assign every character with lines so that the reading goes smoothly and there aren’t delays where everyone is stalled waiting for someone to read unassigned lines. (Some characters are seen and do not have lines, you can ignore those.)

You want the reading to go smoothly and continue without stopping. Interruptions distract from the effectiveness of the reading. Make sure that phones are off and post a sign on the door advising people to come back later if doing the reading from home. This won’t be as big a problem if the reading takes place on a soundstage or at a theatre or in an office after hours.

It is better if the writer doesn’t read the narration or any of the characters, unless planning to play that role in the film or play. The writer should be listening, paying attention to lines that don’t come across as the writer wrote them, and for the actor’s interpretation of the line. When the tension or emotional level is meant to go up, is the story written in a way that the actor can build to that dramatic moment? Do the words used or the way they are put together cause the actor difficulty in reading the line? Where does the story fall flat? What doesn’t make sense when you hear it read aloud?

Make sure that every reader has their own copy of the script or play. Sometimes it is helpful to go through and highlight the character’s dialogue in each script for that reader. It is also a good idea to give the characters the script in advance so that they have time to read through it and understand the story and the character. When a reader doesn’t get the script in advance it is called a “cold” read, which means the actor is interpreting the character as they go along, much like your audience will be doing. This can also be informative to the writer to hear whether there is surprise or misinterpretations.

Make sure everyone arrives early and then start as soon as possible, especially if you have potential investors, producers, agents, etc. attending. Provide snacks and water for everyone, making sure that each actor has a bottle or two of water beside them during the reading.

It is also a good idea to do a debriefing after the reading. Ask the readers to tell you what they liked? What didn’t make sense? What confused them? Did they get the premise of your story? Was it hard to emotionally reach the highs and lows in the story? Were there areas they felt they stumbled through the wording? Were there areas that seemed repetitive or unnecessary? Were there scenes they would have like to see included?

Table and Staged Readings can be great fun and very enlightening about your manuscript. Make sure you do enough preparation so that you get true reactions to the script and not confusion due to stalled lines or interruptions or confusion over who is reading what.


7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Vanessa
    Nov 28, 2011 @ 23:29:31

    Hi Nancy~

    My write friend and I are dong a table read of his script to eventually produce. Many of the things you mention here I had thought of, but it s great to have all the ideas in one place to draw from to get prepared for this as we want the time to be productive for all.(As an actor I have participated in them but I have never hosted one and now as a new producer I felt like I needed a resource.) Thanks so much for providing this information. ~Vanessa


  2. artisticfreedom
    Jan 30, 2012 @ 20:35:22

    This had some great questions to ask for a table reading/staged reading, and I’m so glad you shared this! Thank you.


  3. Vincent Durham
    Sep 13, 2012 @ 18:22:49

    Great advice. My first table read is Sept. 22.


  4. Sheila Nuness
    Aug 23, 2013 @ 21:24:06

    Thank you for posting this information. I was searching for structure on how to do a table read. What you have shared has been extremely helpful to me. Our first table read is Aug 31, 2013.


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