One of the best ways to test and solicit fresh perspectives on new work is hosting a table read. They’re immediate (no awkward weeks in between sending someone a script and actually hearing back), they’re higher-energy than any other feedback opportunity, plus they’re a great way to get all your favorite actors and writers in a room together without having to commit everyone to losing their weekends for two months! Read on to make your table read both useful and a heck of a good time.
The Set Up
Location. If your house or apartment doesn’t have the same number of baseline comfortable seating for everyone in attendance, you need to find somewhere else to host. If you don’t have access to an empty classroom or library study room or even an office conference room after-hours, in big cities there are often relatively cheap audition spaces you can rent with tables and chairs aplenty. Or, ask a friend with a bigger place to host and promise them food.
Cast. When possible, actually get actors (the more experienced, the better) to read the parts. Be clear it’s not a promise of a part if the thing eventually gets made, but no one can offer dialog and characterization advice like actors, who are the ones forced to say that dialog in believable ways. They’ll often catch things non-actors won’t, like how the cadence of a line feels off or why they’re having trouble embodying a particular role. Sidenote: if you’re planning on eventually portraying one of these roles yourself, don’t actually cast yourself in the first table read. You’re going to want to be able to pay attention to the reading as a whole, and hear from someone who isn’t you what it feels like to say those character’s lines.
Stage directions. Make sure to “cast” a person to read stage directions! And again, make sure it isn’t you. This person doesn’t need to be an actor, but it does need to be someone who’s comfortable reading more than everyone else, and reading for long, uninterrupted periods of time.
Give as little context as possible. You want people to give you their unfiltered, unprompted responses, so try not to preemptively bias them by telling them the points you’re most worried about or that it’s “not very good yet.” Just let them react as they’ll naturally react: you’ll learn a lot more this way.
Questions. That said, make sure you have a list of questions ready for the post-read. If there are particular parts of the script you need help on, or are worried about the reaction to, write it down. Don’t ask people beforehand about these, just keep them with you so you can make sure to ask if they don’t get brought up organically.
Print/provide copies. You really shouldn’t expect people to bring their own script copies, even if you gave them copies ahead of time. If you don’t have access to a printer, be very clear that people need to bring a laptop or tablet to read the script off of (and make sure your location has WiFi). Even in the latter’s case, you should still try to bring at least a handful of physical script copies. People can’t be trusted.
Provide water and snacks. Just like on any film set, craft services shouldn’t be overlooked. People are doing you a huge favor and are getting far, far less out of this than you are. Feed them, and make sure they’re hydrated.
Take notes. This is why you shouldn’t be reading a part- because you need time to write down observations, such as where people are laughing, where people stumble over their words, where people’s attention seems to wane, and things like that. Don’t look down at your script the whole time- you already know what you wrote- watch the room react to it. It’s often more educational to observe the people not currently reading, as they’re the audience in that moment.
Shhhhh. Once the reading is complete, you should talk as little as possible. The point of this exercise isn’t to defend your work, because in the real world, you won’t be sitting next to viewers as they watch your content to explain what was “really happening there.” If people are confused, or reacting negatively to something, their solution might not be right but their concerns are valid. You’re there to get feedback, so don’t defend yourself. Just get the feedback. If you’ve cast and filled the room correctly with people whose opinions you value and trust, you need to actually value and trust them without feeling the need to argue.
Seriously, shhhhh. It’s hard on an ego to quietly listen to people misunderstand your brilliant allegory or conclude the wrong thing from a line of dialog. But you’re going to waste valuable feedback time if you spend more time defending what you are explicitly asking for feedback on than letting the people giving their feedback time to speak.
If you must talk, ask questions. For the most part, every sentence you speak aloud after the reading is over should end in a question mark. Reference the list you made yourself before the reading if something hasn’t been talked about already, and ask for clarification on feedback as needed. “Why do you say that?” “Where specifically did you get confused?” “What was your character’s motivation in this moment, from your perspective?”
Constantly remind yourself that you’re doing this to make your script better. Even though we all secretly hope the feedback we receive is “IT’S THE GREATEST THING I’VE EVER READ,” we all also know it won’t be, and that if it was, it wouldn’t be useful to us as we develop our craft. Genuinely want to improve the work, and invite people you think will best help you do that. It’s like a party but you also get to be productive!*
*this last part may only be an exciting prospect for me.