The Naked Play

The Power of Play Readings

Imagine a stage production in which there are no limitations whatever on the size of the set, the finery of the costumes, the brilliance of the lighting. Imagine a theatrical production in which the words sound sharper, crisper than usual, in which the acting choices are bolder, more daring. Now, imagine yourself as one of the first beings on the planet, in all of history, to experience this drama rendered so expansively. Well, guess what? You can enjoy this kind of theatrical experience in Austin all the time. Hey, there are four this week alone. They're called play readings. If you've only considered the play reading as a pale shadow of the full theatrical production - no set, no costumes, actors with scripts in their hands - then it's time to give it a bit more thought. Play readings are becoming increasingly popular in Austin, and playgoers who dismiss them are missing a chance to savor drama in a special way, not to mention make vital contributions to a new generation of theatrical work.

"It's theatre all in your head," says Ann Ciccolella of the appeal of play readings. Though perhaps best known locally as the Austin Circle of Theatres' executive director, Ciccolella is also a playwright, and her new work The Last Best Hope will be given a read-ing at Hyde Park Theatre Sunday. With readings, she says, "your imagination is filling in all of the spaces. It's akin to storytelling in that regard. It's all happening in your mind." Emily Cicchini, another Austin playwright (Becoming Brontë), who is literary manager for Capitol City Playhouse and guiding light for its New Voices reading series, agrees. "In terms of the pure form of drama, play readings really tune you in to that. You can create the perfect production in your mind." No more distractions from slapdash sets or make-do outfits; you take care of all of that mentally. It's just you and the words.

And in readings, the words seem to come through more clearly, more crisply, than in full productions. It's much like when you tune out one sense, and the others sharpen to compensate for the loss. In the absence of a production's visual elements, we focus on those things which come to us aurally, the words and the things that they form: images, metaphors, themes. It's our chance to experience the play in its most naked form, a house without walls, the structure apparent. As the house seen as raw beams helps you grasp its basic form, the play heard as raw words does the same.

That's one reason readings are so vital for playwrights working on new dramas. They show the author whether a play's structure is sound. "It's a very valuable part of the process for the playwright to hear the play out loud," says Cicchini. Ciccolella is even firmer about readings: "My basic feeling is that the words always have to hit the air."

This week, the words hit the air in four separate readings around town, and the four do a pretty good job of representing different steps of the development process for new plays and the different constituencies for whom readings can be valuable.

Play Ground Zero, the group producing the reading of The Last Best Hope, represents the earliest part of the development process. "We want work that's not finished," says Colin Swanson of the company's interests. "What we're really about is being a catalyst for the final writing phase of the play." Swanson and Nina LeNoir founded the company last year from a desire to assist theatre artists in the creation of new work. After meeting with local writers and directors, they decided to start reading new works as a way to meet their needs. Since August, the group has been reading one new play each month, first at Flipnotics Coffeehouse, and now at their current home, Hyde Park.

Play Ground Zero works exclusively with Austin writers and invests close to 20 hours in each project. "We spend between eight and 10 hours of rehearsal before each reading, and the directors spend additional time in preparation," says Swanson. "Plus we spend a lot of time conversing with the playwright, trying to find out what he or she wants to get out of the reading. The process is mostly playwright-driven, and we aim to get out of it what the playwright wants."

The New Voices program generally aims to serve the playwright whose new work is closer to being ready for production. Part of the reason is that the program's sponsor, Capitol City Playhouse, uses New Voices to identify works it can produce in its season. It does, however, still involve the writer in the process and conducts post-reading discussions to give the playwright feedback. Cicchini notes that New Voices splits its focus between Austin writers and writers outside the city. Their reading this week of Sherry Kramer's And the Law Makes Evening Fall is a real coup, the first public reading of a new drama by a playwright with a rising national profile - she just won a $10,000 McKnight Fellowship from the Playwrights Center of Minneapolis - and one which could make a significant contribution to an important new stage work.

The other readings are not affiliated with ongoing play development programs but they address other levels of the play development process. First Stage Productions' reading of Marc Bockman's Aunt Rose is being held in conjunction with auditions for the play's July production, a move which benefits the company and actors interested in auditioning for the full production. Steven Phenix's reading of his Texans and Their Guns follows a full production of the play at the Electric Lounge in 1993. At that time, the play was a one-act; Phenix has since expanded the work to two acts. A reading can help a playwright who has made substantial revisions following a full production to gauge how the new material works.

In most instances, the playwright depends on an audience to give him or her a sense of how sound the work is, what connects and what doesn't. "In terms of what the audience can bring to the process, just being there as a presence is important," insists Cicchini. "And when we get into talk-back and response, it's helpful for the audience to provide their experience." To Ciccolella, the responses of the playgoers are essential: "I really like the give-and-take with the audience. And I'm more sensitive to the audience response during the reading. What they say during the discussion afterward is not as important to me as the feel of the room while the play is being read. That becomes a barometer for what works in the play."

So far, attendance at local play readings has been modest. Both New Voices and Play Ground Zero report an average of 15-25 people at each reading. But both companies are actively building their programs and they see audience interest building, too. Cicchini believes the lure of the new will help bring larger audiences to play readings. She sees many playwrights now "experimenting with structure and form. New plays are really a place to be at the forefront of a literary form." They also seem to be tapping the collective unconscious, revealing the latest about the state of modern society. If play readings are the place to catch our first peeks at who we are and where we're going, you can bet it won't be long before the audience is listening.

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