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Virtual Play Readings: A Model for Theatre Practitioners

Posted on: September 16, 2020

By Rob Urbinati, Freelance Director and Playwright, and Director of New Play Development at Queens Theatre, USA

Since the coronavirus pandemic closed theatres in March 2020, Virtual Play Readings have become increasingly prevalent. Live-streamed or Recorded Readings on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Vimeo or on theatres’ websites play an important role for Theatre Artists in this transitional time. Significantly, they provide opportunities for theatre companies, Playwrights, Directors, Actors and the Technical Staff to practice their craft and maintain a public presence until in-person performances resume. Additionally, theatres can select work for Virtual Play Readings that they might have avoided due to casting considerations. With Virtual Readings, a diverse casting pool is wide open, and Theatre Artists can have their work seen by audiences across the country and around the world, some of whom may not have access to live theatre.

 Public Play Readings

Public Play Readings

In my book, Play Readings: A Complete Guide for Theatre Practitioners, I examined the role public Play Readings serve in New Play Development, and offered a model for In-person Play Readings. Acknowledging that there is no “right way,” I interviewed many theatre professionals whose opinions contradicted mine. The main concepts covered in this book still apply to Virtual Play Readings - submission policies, Playwright discussions with Producers and Directors, casting, editing stage directions, talkbacks and more.

 Virtual Play Readings

Technical Considerations for Virtual Play Readings

There are however certain challenges that apply to Virtual Readings which are distinct from In-person Readings, mostly involving technical issues such as:

• Internet connections can be insecure.
• Sound can be tinny.
• Backgrounds can be distracting.
• Lighting can make the Actors look as if they’re in “The Blair Witch Project”.

Current platforms are primitive and were not created for Online Readings. Addressing and overcoming these challenges is the responsibility of the Artists who work on them.

 Live-streamed or Recorded Play Readings

Live-streamed or Recorded Readings?

Virtual Play Readings can be live-streamed, where the audience is watching in real-time. Alternatively, it can be recorded while it is being live-streamed, then edited and archived to extend opportunities for viewing.

While Virtual Play Readings can capture the essence of a once-in-a-lifetime theatrical experience for audiences, including mistakes and all, they are fraught with challenges. Any technical glitches resulting from unstable internet connections, problems with sound and lights, as well misread lines and long pauses can adversely impact the experience for audiences. With Recorded Readings, some of these errors can be addressed during the recording or fixed by the Video Editor in post-production. As they are less of a gamble and more widely preferred, Recorded Play Readings are the focus of this article.

Interactive Guide to Virtual Play Readings

This user-friendly guide on managing Virtual Play Readings provides step-by-step guidance on the preliminaries before rehearsals, managing audiences and talkbacks, setting up Virtual Play Readings, and the recording and post-production stages.

Virtual Play Readings Interactive Guide
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A Model for Virtual Play Readings

The Proposed Model 

1) GOALS: The purpose of the Reading must be clearly identified for all the Artists involved. The Playwright should discuss the work with the Actors at the first Rehearsal, and answer any questions. Pronunciation of names and uncommon words should be clarified.

2) REHEARSALS: Unless it is a “cold” or “in-house” Reading, and not for the general public, a Virtual Play Reading must be rehearsed in advance of Live-streaming or Recording. Producers, Playwrights and Directors should be sensitive to the Actors’ time. That said, many Actors are eager to rehearse if their time is used purposefully - and travel is not an issue.

3) INTERNET CONNECTIONS: All Artists involved should find a place with a secure Internet connection, eliminate as much network activity as possible, and turn off any Notifications.

4) TECHNICAL CONSIDERATIONS: Rehearsals begin by addressing the technical equipment and capabilities of each Actor. Consider all ways to achieve quality and consistency with sound, lights, focus, distance from the camera, and backgrounds. Allow time to troubleshoot technical considerations. When options are available, the advantages and disadvantages of smart-phones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers should be examined. Actors using hand-held devices may need phone mounts.

5) LIGHTING: Actors should be lit from the front, evenly, with clear, neutral lighting. They should avoid back-lighting, including windows, which create silhouettes, and take caution with side-lighting, which can create harsh shadows. Actors should allow enough distance between themselves and the wall behind them so they don’t blend into the background.

6) SOUND: Actors should Rehearse and Record in a quiet space to reduce the possibility of background noise, and to create an intimate sound. They should know where the microphones on their devices are located, and position themselves as close to the microphone as possible, without leaning into it. There is no need to shout. Also, be sure that computers and smart phones do not accidentally pick up sound from air-pods or other Bluetooth-connected devices, or from anywhere but the intended microphone,

7) DISTANCE: Generally speaking, all of the Actors should be the same distance from the camera. They should position themselves so that they are in the center of the screen, with their head and shoulders visible. If the Actors are using smart phones, experiment with portrait and landscape orientation. Avoid extreme close-ups, except for effect.

8) FOCUS: Virtual Play Readings work best when Actors look directly into the camera, giving the appearance that they are looking out at the Audience. Various models of public Play Readings where Actors look directly out, rather than at each other, have been in practice for years. This approach works well for most Virtual Readings, and engages the Audience directly.

9) BACKGROUNDS: Neutral backgrounds are preferred, and should be as consistent as possible. Furniture, bookshelves, wall art, lamps etc. should not be captured by the camera. The Audience’s focus should be on the Actors, and not on their living spaces. If an Actor cannot find a neutral background, it may be possible to locate a consistent background for all the Actors that responds thematically to the play, for example, a door or a curtained window. For some plays, home settings are effective, but this can pose challenges with consistency. Virtual backgrounds are not recommended, and can complicate Recording.

10) SCRIPT: The downloaded Script can be placed on the same device as the other Artists, top and bottom or side by side. Or Actors can place the script on one device, and the other Participants on another device - whichever is easiest, and allows them to look directly at the camera.

11) ENTRANCES AND EXITS: Whoever is responsible for Entrances and Exits should perform this function at every Rehearsal so they become adept at turning the videos on and off. If the Actors assume this responsibility, they can also mute their sound when they are off-screen - so long as they remember to unmute themselves when returning. Since Actors are used to being quiet when they are offstage, muting may not be necessary, as it involves an extra step. Whoever is in charge should also perform this function during the Recording. The Host can hide an Actor’s black box when they are not in a scene, in both Rehearsal and Recording by using “Hide Non-Video Participants,” which creates a Virtual backstage, where Actors can still hear the Reading. Determining Entrances and Exits in post-production is not advised.

12) STAGE DIRECTIONS: Preferably, the Stage Directions Reader should be on-screen when they introduce the play, but in voice-over for the remainder of the Reading, as they are not a Character. Actors can introduce themselves and the Character they will be playing, or this can be done by the Stage Directions Reader, in which case, the Actors can momentarily appear on-screen when they are introduced. While it is not necessary for the Actors’ names to remain on-screen throughout the Reading, Characters’ names can stay, especially if the Actors are playing multiple roles. When double-cast Actors assume a new role, they should rename their Character.

13) COSTUMES: Costuming is not required, and if done at all, it’s best to keep it simple. The Director can suggest and review appropriate clothing from the Actors’ wardrobes for contemporary plays. For period plays, compatible contemporary clothing for the Cast is sufficient. Actors should not be asked to purchase Costumes for a Reading, and whatever they wear should not fight the background. Generally, it’s best to avoid logos and brand names.

14) PACING: Technical considerations regarding Pacing and Timing should be rehearsed. It may be necessary for Actors to “jump their cues” so there are no unnecessary pauses between lines. Actors should not hold for laughs.

15) CURTAIN CALL: The Playwright, the Director and all of the Actors should all be on-screen for some sort of “curtain call” at the end of the play.

16) TECHNICAL CONSIDERATIONS: Be conscientious of all technical considerations, but do not be subsumed by them. Allow time to work on script and character interpretation. Virtual Play Readings of new works can be an effective play development tool when Rehearsal time is well-used. Playwrights should feel free to rewrite. Actors should be encouraged to physicalize their performances, but be mindful that they are not playing to a big house. All Artists involved should take advantage of the intimacy that the medium allows.

17) ACCESSIBILITY: Virtual Play Readings should be fully Accessible for disabled Audiences, and include Open Captioning, Audio Description, and if possible, ASL interpreters. The Stage Directions Reader can easily serve as Audio Describer. To this end, descriptions of the Actors and Settings can be read before the Reading begins, and Stage Directions can be revised or added to include more visual information. YouTube provides voice-transcribed Captioning, but these need to be carefully proof-read and revised before the Reading is broadcast.

Read the Complete Guide to Virtual Play Readings

Further Insights into Play Readings

Play Readings for Theatre Practitioners

Learn more about this increasingly prevalent production form in the book, Play Readings: A Complete Guide for Theatre Practitioners by Rob Urbinati. It demystifies the standards and protocols of a play reading, demonstrating how to create effective and evocative readings of musicals, operas, and period plays.

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