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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

How To Have a Playreading at Your Home and Turn Your Friends Into Actors

Since I was in high school I’ve always used playreadings as my primary social event when gathering friends together.  Many people would love to try their hands at acting, and if they can easily read out loud and have a sense of fun, then I suggest you invite them over for a playreading in your house at a scheduled time and date.

Here are the steps I go through when I invite you for one of my playreadings:

1. Choose a Play.  The first time you do this, and for most of the subsequent times, choose a light comedy.  These playreadings are for fun only, and no one pretends that high art is expected to occur.  Instead the goal is lots of laughter.  After all, at my playreadings alcohol is served.  Years ago there was a great older woman named Kitty who was one of the regulars at what came to be called performances by “The Whaley Players.”  She was very good at playing her various parts even though she drank quite a bit.  As the reading reached near the end she’d start having trouble getting the lines right or even reading them at all, but Kitty handled that with aplomb—she simply made up what seemed appropriate, and frequently came up with lines better than the playwright’s. 

What play should you choose to start with?  Most can be found at the library either as a lone volume or in collections of plays.  Others will have to be ordered online—Amazon has a large collection at usually very cheap prices, just search by title—and then duplicate.  Here is a list of proven successes at playreadings:

“The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde.  Very funny, and with eight good roles (four men, four women—the actor playing the butler Lane can double and also play the servant in Act Two).  The text is available online at  

Act Three of "The Importance of Being Earnest"

“Arsenic and Old Lace” by Joseph Kesselring (3 women, six men—with some doubling in the small male roles).  Two elderly women compassionately murder their houseguests.

“The Foreigner” by Larry Shue (2 women, five men).  When an Englishman pretends not to speak English at all while staying at a Georgia Bed and Breakfast chaos ensues.

“Visit To a Small Planet” by Gore Vidal (2 women, four men).  An elegant visitor from outer space means to land in Manassas, Virgina, during the Civil War and witness the battle there, but accidentally ends up in 1951 and nearly causes total destruction of the planet.

“Mary, Mary” by Jean Kerr (2 women, 3 men).  When a man about to remarry is forced to work through tax returns with his ex-wife their old romance is rekindled, causing major complications.

Once you get into these affairs your friends will begin to suggest other plays.  As you move beyond comedies, you can try more serious fare such as plays that became famous movies (for example, “Doubt” or “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”—and with the friends who are very good at this the Whaley Players have done Shakespeare), or even musicals (letting the original cast album perform the songs while guest read the dialogue).
I should note that while some of these plays are English I tell my guests that no one is expected to perform with an English accent (though some do—my husband, David Vargo, is a former professional actor and he can do more or less any accent he needs to assume). 

2.  Assigning Roles.  Read the play yourself before you decide to have the playreading, and as you do so start casting it in your mind.  Remember that the guests are not going to be on the stage, but just reading the parts, so old people can play young ones, men can play women and vice versa, etc.  Some guests might want to read the play ahead of time, but I discourage that.  As I said above, this isn’t high art and I don’t want people working at their roles.  Often I don’t tell them what parts they’ll be reading until I hand them the scripts.  If someone refuses to come without knowing, then fine, let them read it ahead of time, but make sure they know this is will all be quite casual and the others reading it cold. 

3.  Other Issues. 

Royalties?  For these casual in-home fun events no royalties need be paid, though technically copying the plays on a copying machine for handing out to guests would violate the copyright laws. 
Timing?  Most plays can be read in two hours if the host gets right to it shortly after the guests arrive and doesn’t permit too long a break between acts.  After the play is done the evening can last for a good long time, as plot and other matters are rehashed.  
Food and Drink?  I always offer snacks to nibble on during the reading and make sure my guests are well-beveraged (featuring the Whaley martini and a full bar, plus soft drinks, coffee, etc.). 

Through the decades The Whaley Players have read hundreds of plays (for a description of one I organized at the home of now Senator Elizabeth Warren and her husband in 2000 where Elena Kagan was also a member of the cast, see Related Posts below).  At the end of each reading we applaud the performance and then I remind my guests that if there’s a part they’ve always wanted to play, let me know and we’ll try and set up another playreading starring them in that role.  After you’ve had a number of these playreadings you start to develop a stable of reliable people you can call on when you need cast members for the next one.

So, if this sounds like your sort of thing, I highly recommend you give playreadings a trial.  It can lead to hours and hours of great fun with good friends, many of whom will uncover talents they didn’t know they had.

Related Post:
“Elena Kagan and Me,” May 23, 2010

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