Wednesday 23 November 2011

The Big Readthrough

Yesterday was weird day. But readthroughs are weird.

Just to clarify our terms, a readthrough is when a cast sit and read a script aloud to a bunch of TV execs to see if there's a show there. They can be hastily assembled, rough-and-ready affairs to see if the script is up to much. Or they can be more polished, semi-rehearsed events in which the show is being essentially pitched as a possible contender for a pilot or TV series. Yesterday was more the latter than the former, which was fairly exciting.

The exact details don't much matter for the purposes of this blog post. But it's worth noting one or two things that the sitcom writer has to deal with on such an occasion - and I'd be interested to hear the experiences of others in the comments section below.

So, I showed up at 10am for a day with the actors - and a director - building up to a formal readthrough in front of the powers that be at 4.15pm. It sounds like a long time, but in no time at all, it was 3.30 and the hour was nearly upon us. And so, it sounds daft, but the script really needs to be as tight as possible because there simply isn't time to make all that many changes on the day, or 'find it in rehearsal'. There is no time to rewrite sections or pages. Only time to tweak lines, cut bits out or throw in extra jokes.

We read the script once at the start, and there were some notes, and tweaks, nips and tucks - and questions from the cast about certain lines that weren't clear. Your job as the writer is to listen, not be defensive and focus on making the show as good as it can be. This may mean sacrificing your favourite joke because it's in the way of some other jokes that have plot attached to them. Remember that the shorter, sharpier and snappier the readthrough is, the funnier it will appear to be. It's better to be 26 minutes and really funny, than 32 minutes with fog patches.

After reading the script once and feeding back, we then marched through the script more slowly, stopping and starting and trying to fix other bits that don't quite fly. I did my best to ensure I was making suggestions via the director, who is in charge of all this stuff on the day.

The temptation is to change things again and again and again - right up until the final moment. It's best to avoid this. By the readthrough moment, the actors' scripts will be covered in crossings out, new lines and changes. Too many will be confusing, create errors in the readthrough and completely ruin the atmosphere you've been trying to create. As the hour approaches, it's better to commit to what you have and be done with it. Endless changes 'til the very end will undermine confidence and that might create unease in the cast - who might start to panic. I've seen panic (not yesterday, mind) and it ends in either actors starting to get louder and bigger; or going faster and faster; or going quieter; or inserting swearing that wasn't there before. It's not pretty, and usually not funny.

And then, it starts. And it ends. And there's nothing else to be said.

If you've written the script as well as you could, and stuck to your guns and offered the show that you want to write, you've done well. And it's now out of your hands. The show will be commissioned or turned down for a boatload of reasons that will never be explained to you. The official line may be 'Well, it was just so funny, we simply had to have it'. The actual reason may be that something fell out of the schedules and one of your cast is flavour of the month. It really doesn't matter. And you can't control this bit, so go home, have a curry, sleep well, lie in, wake up - and think of a brand new show.

1 comment:

  1. Read throughs ARE weird. Exciting and adrenaline fuelled, but weird and stressful too.

    Stressful in a good way before the execs arrive when you, the writer (and everyone else) still has time to solve problems/improve the final product.

    But horrendously stressy after the actual read begins. Because during the read, the writer just has to sit there watching without ANY way of affecting what is happening (at least the actors can adjust their performances, work the audience, vary the pacing etc) - which in the worst case scenario can feel like a form of torture.

    All you can do during the read is try to look suave and confident and definitely not needy or sweaty (an attractive combination).

    And you're not even much use as an 'audience'. You can try laughing out loud at everything but that makes you look like an idiot ('sure he's laughing - he wrote it!') or you can try just smiling wryly/nodding positively at the jokes...which also makes you look like an idiot ('even he didn't laugh - and he wrote it!').

    I once had one where the lead actor decided halfway through the read that he didn't want to be in the show - oops! - and modulated his performance accordingly.

    And yet - you wouldn't miss it for the world (actors! Speaking words you thunk up! That never stops being awesome).

    Weird indeed...