Live Reads Benefit Screenwriters
It’s not a pivotal scene. Just a bit of comic relief in an otherwise appropriately grim zombie movie set in the Middle Ages.
“AAAAaaahhh. You wound me,” a knight says after being struck with a boy’s wooden sword. “Mortally so. I’ve been bested by moppets.”
The actor delivers the lines perfectly. The bit draws laughs from the audience. I glance at my writing partner sitting next to me. He is smiling like a jack-o’-lantern. A quick thumbs-up and our focus is back to the stage.
The live read of our period action-horror screenplay would provide several similar jolts of joy—talented actors bringing life to characters we created on the page, sounding on stage exactly how they’ve sounded in our heads for ages. But it wasn’t all thumbs-up and discreet fist-bumps. Some of the dialogue was bumpy. At times, the action lines and scene description ran too long—a point made clear when the narrator had to pause to catch her breath.
I learned a lot during the live read, and the critique session that followed, but the main lesson is that you should make a live read part of your writing process.
And don’t wait until you have a polished, seventeenth draft, says Tim Schildberger, director of LiveRead/LA.
“Run an early draft up the flagpole,” suggests Schildberger. “If you can suck other people into your story, you know you’ve got something.”
A live read offers writers many benefits, and chief among them is the opportunity to get the script out of your head. To make it alive.
“It’s a great feeling,” says Schildberger. “When it’s going well, you sit there thinking: This is flying.”
Schildberger is right. It is a rush to hear good actors breathe life into your characters, to hear a skilled narrator bring energy to your action lines.
Screenwriting is lonely, frustrating and, often, discouraging work. There is value, Schildberger says, in the boost that comes from hearing your words come to life.
You want to be excited heading into a live read, but try to keep your expectations modest. Actors may stumble. What you think works on the page may not work on the stage.
“But, you get to see what an actor sees in the script,” says Schildberger.
Once the performance starts, set aside the screenplay. Sit and listen. Watch the audience and the actors. Soak it all in.
Damn. I wish I had talked to Schildberger more before the read of Deliver Us From Evil, written by Taylor Williams and I. My nose was buried in my script, red pen busy, while the actors worked. A mistake, and one I regretted as soon as the read ended. The LiveRead/LA events are live streamed and available on YouTube, so you can stay in the moment during the performances and be analytical by breaking down the video later.
Notes follow the live read and it’s important to “leave your ego at the door,” advises Schildberger. Millions of words have been written about how to take criticism and they all apply here: Take notes, don’t be defensive, and nod thoughtfully.
Schildberger says writers also benefit from being in the audience of a live read—hearing what works, what doesn’t, and offering suggestions how to fix things.
And another benefit for writers in the audience at LiveRead/LA events … free homemade cookies. Damn fine ones, too.
Now, time for the work to move the performances from on stage to on screen.
Clint Williams recently won the period/historical/war category of the Final Draft Big Break screenwriting contest with Freedom Fort, an Underground meets The Alamo retelling of historic events following the War of 1812. You can follow him on Twitter @ClintW3.