I just completed the first week of rehearsals for Boomerang Theatre Company's Central Park production of Shakespeare's As You Like It, opening July 19. Very exciting. Working with a totally new group of folks. Of course, that always makes the first read a tad nerve-wracking. First reads, the traditional kick-off to rehearsals, are such odd social and artistic interactions. Folks that have worked together previously (and harmoniously) are always excited to see another and work together again, and are instantly chummy. Others must then make the choice to start introducing themselves, or wait for introductions to be made to them, or try my tactic, which is to pretend to search for something in my backpack until the director starts talking to the whole group. When As You Like It met for the first read, I didn't know a soul, except perhaps for the director Matt Johnston, whom I had met on a handful of occasions and at auditions. I am just naturally shy at such gatherings. I thought everybody else knew each other, but as Johnston later informed me, that was not the case. The cast came together from many different paths and sets of connections; many more people were in my boat than I thought at the time.
It was a traditional table read, and started with introductions around the table, role and name. Does anybody retain this information immediately? Someone can say "I'm Joe, and I'm playing The King of Italy". Joe, King of Italy, will then direct lines at me for the next two hours, and immediately afterwards I will only remember that the guy with the Decepticon t-shirt is the King of Italy; his real name will be a mystery to me even though I learned it at precisely the same time I learned he was The King of Italy.
And then the reading begins. Somebody's got the first line. Somebody has to open themselves up to the keen ears around the table. Everybody suddenly sits up, shifts in their chairs, looks ahead to their first line, listens. How high will the performance bar be set, for this, a simple first read? Will everybody laugh at the funny lines? Will everybody know which are the lines that are supposed to be funny? Will everyone be oh-so-clever, without an ounce of heart? Some actors are dyslexic, and reading aloud may be a evening-long struggle for them. Others give as monotonously neutral a first read as possible, to process their words on their own terms. Brando fell into this camp, it has been said. Artistically legitimate, but it can certainly make for a long night.
First reads, for me personally, are like exhibition games; they don't count, so why the hell not try to hit the home run? You strike out, fall on your face, who cares? Part of the fun of being an actor amongst actors is the sense of play and fun that is allowed; I don't see why that can't apply to first reads as well. It follows then, if actors are allowed to actually try and play the scenes to the hilt at the first read, mistakes will happen, and the whole production, in fact, will not be cursed. But it is hard to escape this fear. No one wants to be the focus of the collective thought "He's not actually going to do it like that, is he?" Shows are trepidatious journeys for everyone involved; we have all been on such journeys that have gone nowhere good, and it is impossible to not yearn for immediate assurance that will not be the case this time. For the record, As You Like It is on the awesome track to Awesomeland. (Blogger.com says "Awesomeland" is misspelled, but I've been there, Blogger.com. That spelling is dead-on; can you handle it?)
I have been in shows that have discarded the table for the first read. Mr. David D. directed such a show that was my first production in New York. It was called...As You Like It. David D. threw the first read up on its feet, the blocking got made up as the read went along, and it was engaging on a whole different level. The playing field was leveled; good "readers" were on as unsure footing as those whose skills laid elsewhere. Neutral readings were of little use when actors had to move to some degree as well. It does allow less time for the actor to concentrate on what they are saying. But the playful, experimental energy is palpable. It also lessens mental distractions that are familiar to a first read; who's hot, who has a curious birthmark, who has comic books in their bags, who will be your mortal enemy, who will be your drinking buddy, etc.
How about you? Actors, what do you go through with first reads? Directors, how do you like to conduct them? Playwrights? Does anyone prefer a first read-less process, and go straight into scene work?