Hester Schell, M.F.A. is an award-winning director, veteran acting teacher and recovering academic. Her screenplays focus on social good and environmental stewardship with roles for middle-aged women and seniors. Schell is the author of the critically acclaimed volume, CASTING REVEALED: A Guide for Film Directors, 2nd edition, Focal Press. She’s a member of SAG-AFTRA and Harvard Square Script Writers. Follow Hester on IMDb, Facebook and LinkedIn.
Congratulations. You’ve got a first draft! Go for a short walk, come back and start rewriting. You know what to do… or do you?
SLIDE: A Month Later!
Now you have a 2nd draft.
SLIDE: Another Month Later.
Have you thought about having a table read? Hosting a table read with qualified readers will help you get through to the next draft. A table read can help you feel confident in sending your script out for professional coverage. That “consider” or “recommend” by a script coverage service can ensure your script is ready for a contest, pitch fest, or to place in the hand of your A-list director friend: when it is truly ready. Aye! There’s the rub.
Let’s take a look at what is a table read, where to do it and where to find actors.
Script readings fall into several categories.
Formal Table Read:
When we start in on a new project, episode or feature we gather the staff, crew and talent for a table read before jumping into production. This script is in production, as finished as possible, has been green-lit, funded, and has the perfect cast assembled.
Congratulations, you’re attending the reading and even managed to hold on to your solo screen credit. And you’ve been paid. That’s not what we’re about here today. You’re launched. Go write another one.
Informal Table Read:
Gathered around a table in an informal setting, your screenplay is read aloud by actors. You want actors who can read well, have good instincts, who won’t “over read” and try to act it out across the table. Well, maybe, if you’ve got a farce.
An informal table read is a natural part of the writing process, a feedback loop in your process. You need not fear it. A table read can break through defenses so you can share the work-in-progress. Allow others to help trim and chisel. After all, this is a collaborative art form and the script really is only a blueprint for production: It’s not the movie; it’s the script. Therefore it is in your best interest to begin the “let go” while in progress and hear what people have to say.
It just doesn’t make much sense to wait to get all that feedback after another month has gone by and the fifth draft still isn’t working, and now you are feeling horrible about how bad you think it is. That is a writer’s block trigger. So don’t go there. Get the script out of your head! A table reading can save you a lot of misery later.
The focus in a table read is on word choice: how can scene headers and action lines be shortened? Are they consistent? (Run your scene report.) How can dialog be trimmed? Where can scenes be cut or moved? A table read should focus on the language, the words, and not on actors’ interpretation of character. Ask your actors to stick to a simple delivery. Listen for the character action, emotional content, transitions and beat changes in the words. Remember how an actor delivers a line (tone, volume, tempo, inflection, emotional content, verb action) is variable. If the guts are there, the words and actions work and speak for themselves.
An informal table read is not on its feet script-in-hand acting it out. Forget that completely. This is not a rehearsal. Forget about inviting the public. Forget about inviting anyone. A table read is not for public or professional consumption. That would be a staged reading and is something you might want to do to attract investors when you have a polished final draft.
A staged reading is lightly rehearsed, usually with a director and presented for an audience. Your audience might include investors or the public attending for enjoyment.
The space might have stools and music stands, or actors might carry their scripts. Sometimes actors make entrances and exits. Some stage readings go so far as to have lighting cues and projections of story-boards or photos to set locations. Actors might know some of their lines yet carry the script to remind the audience this is a reading, not a produced play.
A staged reading is something you do after you have a final draft and you are secure the script doesn’t need many more changes. It’s ready for market, or it’s ready to start pre-production. Invite that audience of potential investors to stick around afterwards, as you would love their feedback. Be ready to put a hard copy in their hands, with card stock cover and two brads, please.
Now that we know what it is, let’s talk about why and how to do it.
You’ve read it over and over and you hear it in your head just fine, so why do it? Quite simply you need to hear it outside your head, in someone else’s voice. Listen for where the action descriptions get wordy, and get in the way of the dialog. Listen for where the dialog gets in the way of the action. If we can see it happening, we don’t need to hear a line. Listen for the arc of the plot. Listen for character arc, and especially for rhythm and choice of words. Are characters speaking from their own vocabulary? Where can you make the characters more individual in their word choices? Try your best to separate character choice from actor interpretation.
Have enough readers so you don’t have to give yourself a part to read – not even the action and slug lines. Just listen. And take notes.
When to do it:
Do a table read when you think it is almost solid, when you have a third or fourth draft which you are confident every scene has purpose, serves the plot, is in the best sequence of events; when it’s time to find the hidden holes; when it’s time to polish the dialog; when it’s time to hear if the punch lines really zing and pop.
Where to find actors to read:
Actors love table reads. Always start with whom you know and have worked with before. If you’re short on qualified connections, reach out to your community. There are many ways to do so. Use social media. Post a short announcement on Facebook to local film and actor groups and pages you’re following. Check your personal contacts and ask your director friends if they’ll come and read. Send an email to a few local theater companies announcing your need for actors for a table read. Double up on parts and cover more characters with fewer actors. For help on what to include in your short announcement, see the basic submission requirements at Bay Area Casting. Some of the information categories won’t apply to you, but this is a great template easily adjusted for a writer. For example, instead of PROJECT, put TITLE. Swap out PRODUCER for WRITER, and SHOOT DATES for date of the reading. If you do have a budget, offering a nominal reading fee is the right thing to do. Otherwise, instead of PAY/PERKS, you might list tasty snacks and treats. Make your disclaimer clear: the reading does not guarantee a role in the movie and that no producers or directors will be attending, that this is strictly for the writer’s benefit to get to a final draft.
Because this is an informal private table read don’t worry about matching gender or age range. You are not casting the production. It’s just to listen. If you can’t find a seventy year old for the grandmother have someone else read the role.
Where to do it:
Many people could be uncomfortable coming to a private home, unless you already know these actors. You probably have a few friends in the industry that would love to come over, sit around the dining room table and help you. This isn’t always the case, so a more neutral public place might be necessary.
Check your local public library for free meeting rooms and online sign up. Check the local colleges and community centers for classroom rentals. Houses of worship also rent space. Be sure to review the particulars in all usage requirements. Book early to get the date you need. Check online for local rehearsal space at local theaters. The rates vary and tend to fall under $30 an hour.
A three or four-hour block of time is sufficient: allow two hours for a feature reading with an hour or more after for discussion and feedback. Include time for socializing. Do expect a lively discussion as the actors may have great suggestions. Everyone is going to want to chime in and be heard. Try an egg timer or a 3-minute sand glass to avoid getting bogged down going too deep on one line change. Some people get long-winded and as others want to participate you can tactfully turn the hourglass over and politely say, “We need to move on, so I can hear from everyone.”
Further Notes for Discussion:
To launch the discussion try a “Pop Up Round.’ After you’ve come to the last page and the person reading action lines says, “fade out,” ask for initial one-word responses and just listen for those zingers that are the instinctual gut responses. Then take a break.
Come back with refreshed beverages and dig in to deep comments. Review the Pop-Ups and add a few more. Move on to “what worked.” Write it down, or record the comments. Then move on to “what didn’t work (for you).” Be prepared for a wide reach. Everyone responds differently and you don’t need to worry about the ones you don’t agree with. Just say “thank you” and use what does resonate. Listen for common themes in the comments, what holds true for many, which opinions are in agreement. If everyone hates the ending, then you probably need to rework it. If no one likes your villain, that’s a good thing.
In addition to noting where dialog, action and scene headers need tightening, keep an eye out for those straggling typos. Check punctuation. As you hear the actions, listen for the needed comma.
Comments that don’t make sense or you don’t agree with, it’s easy to let those go. You’ll know what suggestions are best. Stay neutral and avoid getting defensive. Say as little as possible. Just listen. Avoid justifying anything. If you’re the one doing most of the talking, you’re not listening.
Great! After these revisions, you might want to do another table read, or you might be confident to send this third or fourth draft out to a coverage service. Professional feedback is a breath of fresh air to get you unstuck. It will force yet another draft – which is good. A professional “recommend” coverage can propel your script into a boardroom. If a reader likes it, they’re likely to mention it to someone who is looking for their next fresh project. Some coverage review services build this into the service fee, so do read the fine print.
Another reason you want professional coverage is because you want readers who know more than you do about what helps a script sell. Okay, so maybe you’re not selling this one but plan to start fundraising and make it yourself. Either way, you still need a better script to attract financing for one thing, and to attract actors for another.
My writing partner and I had a private table read where she chimed in via video chat (we live on a different coasts). She was “in the room” remotely, but definitely could participate. So don’t let that be any hindrance. Technology is your friend!
We incorporated more changes, found more proofing edits and were ready to use one of the big well-known coverage services, which was impressive. By the time we finished our fourth draft, it was time to get it out there. Stay tuned. We’ll be letting the world know when we make the sale.
- More articles by Hester Schell
- Selling Your Screenplay Podcast: Screenwriting Jared Frieder on Black List Table Read and More!
- Write, Direct, Repeat: Hosting a Table Read for Your Script
Get tips on casting in Hester Schell’s book
CASTING REVEALED: A Guide for Film Directors