How to read plays and scripts?
June 11, 2022 6:42 PM   Subscribe

I've inherited a lot (100+) of plays and scripts. I'm trying to read them, but am having trouble getting through them. They're not my usual fare. Do you have any tips on how to digest this form of literature?

Can they even be properly read by one person? Soliloquies aside. It's weird. I read a lot of other things, but the play/script format is just not flowing for me.
posted by shoesfullofdust to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Way back at the beginning of my radio career, I stumbled into a job producing radio dramas. I always loved theatre as an experience, but at first I found that I just couldn't flesh out the characters in my mind until the actors came in for table read. The process of hearing actors inhabit those roles over countless performances eventually helped me learn that kind of character development in my own way. So I might suggest diving into some radio or audio productions and reading along with them.

(This comes with the caveat that audio productions always require adaptation, oftentimes extensive, to make them work ... but you can still develop those imaginative translation skills even if the material isn't line-for-line accurate.)

I think it takes practice for the (necessarily) schematic feel of scripts to become second nature. It's a bit like watching films with subtitles: There comes a point where you learn to be present in the performances without also having to consciously 'read' the film. I think the same kind of thing happens with a printed script. Those awkward conventions vanish into the background once you become sufficiently exposed to them.
posted by mykescipark at 7:42 PM on June 11 [5 favorites]

Instead of reading them cold, can you look up a synopsis/overview first to get an idea of the big picture?

Lines in a script aren’t meant to be interpreted by members of the audience, they are meant to be interpreted by an actor *who knows the full arc* before being delivered to the audience for consumption.

Actors know what inflection and emphasis and body language and tone to use moment by moment because they’ve spent countless hours imagining their own specific part in the plot. In a novel, the author gives many more clues about this in a linear way, but plays and scripts know that individual humans will be working on and enriching each separate part. (And delivery can change or even improve a scene beyond what the playwright imagined/intended)

Reading summaries before diving into scripts can help you frame what you read more “correctly”, or at least give you a starting point. Like training wheels.
posted by itesser at 8:44 PM on June 11 [6 favorites]

It helps me to "cast" the script with real actors who I'm quite familiar with. Doesn't need to be perfect casting, just people with really distinct voices so you can keep them straight in your head. Use iconic actors - if it's a serious older man, Patrick Stewart. If it's a goofy heartfelt guy, Will Smith. If it's a competent lawyer, Queen Latifah. Etc. It can even help to assemble a little photo grid of the characters on your laptop and glance at it while you read.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 9:05 PM on June 11 [3 favorites]

Get a friend to read with! Even over Zoom. I always found that immensely helpful when studying dramas. Plus, cheap, fun social activity.
posted by praemunire at 10:32 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]

Sometimes it helps me to read them out loud.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:04 PM on June 11

Also, what kind of scripts are they? I mean, are they good plays? I find bad plays impossible to read.
posted by miles1972 at 11:54 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'd say they are on the good side.

Le jeu de l'amour et du hasard Marivaux. Baal / A Man's Man / The Elephant Calf Brecht. on ne badine pas avec l'amoour Alfred de Musset. Desire Under the Elms Eugine O'Neill. L'Aventura Michaelangelo Antonio. Lea Mains Sales Sartre. 15 American One Act Plays.
Lorca 3 Tragedies. Esker Mike & His Wife Agiluk Herschel Hardin.

just a sampling.
posted by shoesfullofdust at 4:25 AM on June 12

Had the same problem and appreciate the prev answers. One thought, be the director, plan the entire play, in your mind or with a notebook with sketches and notes for casting and how to inspire each actor with blocking on the stage and even costume and lighting ideas. A very active read.
posted by sammyo at 4:50 AM on June 12 [1 favorite]

(...also, since Desire Under the Elms is one of your scripts, here's our audio production of it.)
posted by mykescipark at 6:41 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]

I have an online theater company where we ask for 10 minute play scripts. I found myself not liking most of them until they were being acted out. I'm not sure what the disconnect is.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:24 AM on June 12

Definitely read them out loud with others...I mean Hollywood script readers must have this ability ingrained or they are looking at other aspects that the pure dialog/plot.

I have an acquaintance that teaches playwrighting and I am often called on to act in readings of her students work. Much like jenfullmoon, they are almost always better performed than read. And don't get me started on sketch comedy scripts...there is an even bigger disconnect between the solo reading experience and the staged/acted version.
posted by mmascolino at 11:10 AM on June 12

Thank you for the examples. Very illuminating.

I work in theatre, and reading any of those plays would be really hard. I would have to be a super fan of one of those playwrights for some of those deep cuts, or I was reading because someone was thinking of wanting to produce one, and wanted me to direct. In other words, possibly paying me to read them. Desire Under the Elms and a couple of the Lorcas probably the exception. What you're probably looking at is a bunch of museum pieces, most of which don't get produced any more, for various reasons.

The Marivaux, if you are a fan of stock characters and commedia, and the comedic sensibilities of 1730, go for it.

If you want to read Brecht, start with Mother Courage. See how you like it. Do not start with those three.

L'Aventura. I think this is a film? Better to watch the film.

If your'e going to tackle this Sartre, better to start with No Exit. Again, if you like that and want more, then you've got this more obscure, rarely produced one to tackle.

Blood Wedding and House of Bernard Alba in the Lorca collection are worth your time.

Esker Mike is dark dark, and would be considered racist cultural appropriation if anyone tried to do it today.

It's not you. Those are some damn hard plays to read.
posted by miles1972 at 12:28 PM on June 12 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I've been directing plays for nearly 40 years, so I don't have a casual relationship with scripts. I'm going to suggest some "thinking like a director" activities you can try which may help you enjoy them, but if you're looking for ways to casually enjoy them, I don't have advice besides what's already been stated: read them out loud; read them with friends, etc. To me, a script is not a short story. It's an interactive document, like a crossword puzzle.

(You could try an of the following with an entire script or with just part of a script: a single scene or page of a scene.)

1. Determine what each character's goal (or objective) is in each moment, what they're doing to achieve their goals (what tactics they're using), and what obstacles stand in their way. This is the way most actors are trained to work, and when they're in the script-analysis stage, it's a big part of what they focus on. Note that the characters may or may not understand their own goals, but the actors playing them must. (For many actors, that's what acting is: trying to achieve a character's goals in real-time, on stage, in front of an audience. Not pretending to try to achieve it. Really trying!) When I work through a play as a director, I too think in terms of goals, often marking up my scripts by listing them in the margin.

Most of the time, a character has a single overarching goal in a scene, though, at times, some event causes him to switch goals midway (he may start trying to get a girl to go on a date with him and then, after Godzilla arrives, switch his goal to finding a safe place to hide).

This sort of script analysis lies somewhere between an art and a science. It's a "science" in the sense that you'll determine goals by using clues that are objectively in the script; it's an art because all scripts are open to interpretation. Two actors playing the same character in two productions of the same play might pick different goals--one deciding it's to raise money for a charity while the other that it's to impress the owner of the charity (by raising money).

Some actors express their goals as infinitive verbs: to flee, to bribe, to persuade, to seduce, to thwart ... And there has to be a specific way an actor knows whether or not her character has achieved her goal. In other words, a goal can't just be "to make her love me." How will you know when that's happened? It must be something like "to make her embrace me" Or "to make her proclaim her love for me." In scientific terms, it must be falsifiable.

When coming up with goals, think about stakes. What will happen to the character if she fails to achieve her goal. It can't be "nothing too terrible" (from her point of view) or it's a bad goal. Jane wants to seduce Mark. What will happen to her if he rejects her embrace? Well, obviously she won't die. But maybe she'll be so humiliated, she won't be able to look her sister--who is always able to get any man she wants--in the eye again. That needn't be literally true. The important question is whether or not those dire stakes would plausibly seem real to Jane.

A scene (or key moment in a scene) usually ends when a character wins or loses his attempt to achieve his goal. At that point, if there's more of that character in the story, he switches to having a new goal. And the fact that other agents in the play (usually other characters, but it could be some situation, like the ocean liner hitting an iceberg or some internal state, like a sudden attack of cowardliness) work against the goal--creating obstacles--generates dramatic conflict. In many cases, the goal of character A conflicts with the goal of character B, and both create obstacles for each other.

Those are external obstacles. Other ones can be internal. Maybe Sally's goal is to start her own business, but, then she gets cold feet, thinking, "What if I fail?" When a character seems to be of two minds or be standing in her own way, it's fun to think about what's the goal and what's the obstacle? Maybe's Sally's goal is actually to avoid having to start a company. Her obstacle to that is her ambition. Or the expectations of her parents.

The "crossword puzzle" is to work out how each line a character says feeds into this system. How is it helping (or if it's a manifestation of an internal obstacle) thwarting the character from achieving her goal. I usually start (before even knowing what the goal is) by looking for patterns. "Why does she keep saying such-and-such?" or "Why is he so defensive about such-and-such?" I then ask, "What could be his goal be?"

If you're interested in learning more about this sort of script analysis (which is great for fiction writers to learn about, too), I recommend these three books:

A Practical Handbook for the Actor. (Really short and to the point.)
The Actor and the Target. (More in-depth and my all-time favorite acting book.)
Working on the Play and the Role. (Which goes through an entire script and shows you how the authors analyze it.)

2. Figure out the main rhythm structure of each scene. By which I mean look for where there's some sort of switch. There's usually a key moment of change, when a character learns something--or has something happen to her--that turns everything around. It can be huge or subtle. "What's the turning point?" Then look back before it and work out, structurally, how the playwright built up to that moment. Look at its aftermath, too.

Often, there are multiple moments like this--maybe one for each character--but there's also usually one for the scene itself. It's (in terms of plot) the scene's reason for being in the play. It's the mechanism by which it moves the story forward.

And, usually, if this structure is not made (emotionally, viscerally--sometimes intellectually) clear to the audience, the scene falls flat. Ask yourself what you'd do, as a director, to make that turning point stand out. You have all the tools of the theatre at your disposal. Maybe it's the actor saying a certain line in a whisper. Or yelling it. Maybe it's a lighting change. Maybe it's a sound. Maybe it's some kind of movement. (If the turning point is an actor entering, would it strengthen that moment to move all the other characters to the opposite side of the room from the door prior to the entrance. That will make the entering character stand out.)

I often pick a super-subtle way to indicate (enhance, showcase) the turning point and, also, a super-insane, over-the-top way to do it, which might not even be possible to stage. That's okay. It's a way to loosen up my thinking so I can approach the scene artistically.

I'm currently in pre-production for Shakespeare's King Lear, and there's a famous turning point in the first scene in which the king's daughter refuses to proclaim her love for him. The entire scene changes after that, as if some malicious god had thrown a switch. (In fact, that might be the over-the-top thing that happens--a god appearing on stage, throwing a giant switch--except, in this particular play, the gods (if they even exist) seem indifferent to human affairs.)

The twist doesn't come when she refuses. It comes when Lear realizes she's refused. In a few short moments, he morphs from the adoring father to the raging tyrant. What could mark that moment of realization? (A totally acceptable answer is "It doesn't need to be marked. It's all there in the language." But we're playing right now. We're limbering up artistically and trying to understand the play's possibilities and limits. Remember, a play is a recipe. A recipe calls for a cup of chocolate chips. What happens if I add two cups? Will that still be in keeping with the intended result? Will it be a perversion? What if I add just half a cup?)

A subtle idea is an almost imperceptible lighting change. Maybe when Lear realizes what's happening, it's like a dark cloud passes over the stage--a metaphor for the dark cloud in his head. A "louder" idea is that, at the moment of realization, there's an earthquake. That's probably too over-the-top (not to mention unrealizable), but it helps me view the dramatic moment as the internal earthquake that it is.

I find that wrestling with (e.g. artistically interpreting) a script is about constantly asking what's not enough and what's too much--and flirting as close to possible with both boundaries. Like a jazz musician playing a variation of My Funny Valentine. When is it so far from the melody that it's not recognizable? When is it so close to it, there's no jazz. Can you find the scene's jazz?

3. Block the scene on paper. In the theatre, "blocking" refers to when, where, and how the actors move. Start by drawing a picture of the stage. You can just make a rectangle if you want. Decided where the audience is. The closest point to them is "downstage." The other direction is "upstage." Add some furniture if it's appropriate and whatever else you think should be onstage. Then mark where each actor is at the top of the scene.

Then make a little comic book or storyboard (or football-play chart), using stick figures, Xes, or circles for the actors, with a comic-book frame for each movement.

There are three main kinds of moments: the ones are indicated by the script (e.g. when it says a character goes to the fridge to get a beer), ones used to showcase a dramatic moment (e.g. my earlier suggestion to get all the on-stage characters away from the door to make an entering character draw focus), and the ones use to illustrate psychology. Often, two or three of these get combined in a single move.

Let's say that to showcase a particular speech on page 10, you'd like the actor making it to arrive at center stage sometime shortly before that, so he'll be in a dominant position. How are you going to get her there? From the actor's point of view, all movement must be related to the goal system outlined above. What's the character's reason for the moment? What if there's another actor already standing there? When and how are you going to get him to move away. Why would he move?

Okay, you flip back to page 8 and realize that his goal is to humiliate his mother in public and, on that page, she's standing way over on stage right, staring out the window. His line is about how inattentive she is. What if he strolls over to her and makes funny faces behind her back, which she doesn't notice. That will (1) be in keeping with his goal, and (2) get him out of that center spot.

On page 9, the character you want to get into the center chastises him, saying, "I'm tired of you mocking everyone!" Could she charge towards him and then stop and throw up her hands when he replies, "Oh, shut up! You're a fine one to talk!" Leaving her conveniently in the center.

As for psychological movement, it's generally about advancing, retreating, and standing one's ground. It's useful to, in each moment, ask "Which of those three things would the character do if he was totally uninhibited?" Charlies, who wants to prove he's mature enough to run the family business, sees his father barreling towards him. He plants his feet on the floor, determined not to be bullied. Then his mother enters, and he knows he can't stand up to both of them, so he flees to the other side of the room, behind the sofa, which creates a boundary between him and them.

It's important to note that, unless the situation is super dire (e.g. life threatening), most of us don't want to give ourselves away. Charles is not likely to literally flee the moment his mother enters. That will be too obvious and humiliating for him. He'll maybe wait a couple of lines and then find an excuse to move, e.g. to get an ashtray.

These psychological movements can be as broad as pursuing someone to the other side of the room or as subtle as inching slightly closer to them on the sofa. Or they could just be eye movements. Or mental movements. The trick as always is to be artistically flexible and see what the options the play can hold.

If you ever get a chance to actually work on a play--or to observe rehearsals--I urge you to do it. I come prepared with all the above sorts of analysis (and more), and then the actors enter the mix, and they've done their own analyses. Collaboration is when things really come to life. There are some amazing moments of accord; there are some amazing insights that could come from anyone involved. There are some disagreements. ("I would not flee at that moment!") and there are some arguments. And the production grows out of all of this soil.
posted by grumblebee at 1:44 PM on June 12 [47 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you, all. Some truly useful insights! And grumblebee, thank you for the clinic!
posted by shoesfullofdust at 2:23 PM on June 12

(As it happens, I wrote a blog post about the exact sort of "find the switch" scene analysis I mention above in point #2, using a specific scene in "King Lear" as an example: self link.)
posted by grumblebee at 4:07 PM on June 14 [2 favorites]

Wow grumblebee! You've explained acting and directing and writing in ways that I've never thought of before. Thank you!
posted by ashbury at 6:41 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: (grumblebee exits stage right)

shoesfullofdust: STOP!!!

(grumblebee hesitates)

grumblebee: Have I not said enough?

shoesfullofdust: Enough? No, it's too much! It's everything! I asked a simple question and you gave me so many answers. Like fucking everything!

(shoesfullofdust moves toward the fire escape, stage left. hesitates, turns right)

shoesfullofdust: You helped me so much! I don't know how to thank you. I've been able to connect with some of these plays. And with Billie's marginalia. It all makes so much more sense now.

Preface: shoesfullofdust inherited a bunch of books from his mum (Billie). He didn't know how to deal with them until he asked a simple question. There was a lot of writing in the margins, which made no sense. Until now.

It all makes more sense now. OK? Let's run through it one more time!
posted by shoesfullofdust at 7:04 PM on June 15 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: now reading, Improvisation for the Theater, Viola Spolin.
posted by shoesfullofdust at 7:07 PM on June 15

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