The Art of the Table Read

These techniques have been tried and tested at The Attic Studio Ireland. We honed these techniques over hundreds of table reads, successfully guiding numerous Irish productions, BBC, Channel 4, Berlinale Talent Campus, and projects in NYC and Los Angeles. Our experience fostering creative development is evident: we’ve hosted renowned writers like Irvine Welsh, Athol Fugard, and Terry McMahon. It’s no surprise that Channel 4 and the BBC found valuable development work here.

Now, in having being involved in 300+ table reads in the couple of decades since The Attic Studio, I know from experience that staged readings can be ‘hit’ or ‘miss’.

Here are the key notes to ensure they are a ‘hit’. These staged reading technique were developed to service the writer as much as possible.

Here are my discoveries…

  • Cast
  • Narrator
  • Writer’s Needs
  • Script
  • Space
  • Refreshments
  • Paperwork
  • Rehearsal
  • Cast Placement
  • Facilitator
  • Audience
  • Recording
  • Printing
  • Performance
  • Break
  • Feedback

1. CAST: Choosing the right cast for a developmental table read is imperative. It is best that they are actors, not neighbors/friends. Actors will serve your piece as they bring a depth of understanding and performance ability that will elevate your script and ensure a faithful representation of your characters. These performers should be confident in front of crowds.
You are casting for energies not looks. Consider building concise 3 descriptors for each character. This aids casting and helps actors grasp the characters quickly. Consider the vibe you need to get across for the mentor or the goddess character. Eg. if your table read has a child character you might consider not casting by age but an actor that can exude innocence. Focus on casting actors that can deliver emotional impact and/or have great comic timing.
As this is a reading it almost goes without saying the actors must be competent readers and have voices able to project – theatre actors are always a good bet.
For a focused experience the lead actors should only perform their main roles. This might only be the protagonist, love interest and antagonist in your script. All other cast members should double/triple up on roles where possible. Consider this from the audiences point to view – the more actors on stage, the less the focus remains on the core characters.
If the writer has written this as a vehicle for themselves to star in and this is a developmental read then it is best that they cast another player in the lead to get the most from this session. This will allow for a more objective perspective on the script. If the read is for financiers the writer should read the lead role.
If this is a pre-production table read with confirmed cast please note that your cast may be fantastic when it comes to on-camera and a table read might freak them out so much so you might consider re-casting. Think carefully on this, a table read can be a very daunting experience don’t judge them too harshly. Be patient and understanding during the read, as it can be a new experience for some actors.
The next day after the reading, individually thank each of them for their involvement and ask for their notes.

2. NARRATOR: Choose your narrator carefully. The narrator plays a vital role in bringing your script to life during a table read.
Engaging Delivery: Choose a narrator with a clear, engaging voice who can deliver stage directions with an active tone. The energy of the narrator sets the tone for the read.
Pacing and Tempo: They should understand the importance of pacing in screenplays and modulate their delivery to set the appropriate rhythm for the story. They create anticipation and mirror the film’s intended tempo.
Serving the Script: It might seem a waste to cast your most talented actor as the narrator but it is the best way to service your script. Prioritize a narrator who can effectively serve the script by delivering the stage directions with clarity and focus, rather than overshadowing the dialogue.
A strong narrator can elevate your table read. Most table reads fail are because of a weak narrator. If a weak actor has been cast as a lead it is the narrator that can save the reading.

3. WRITER’S NEEDS: A successful table read hinges on the writer being clear on the objectives of the reading eg. does the pacing work, are the characters clear with distinct voices, is the story engaging, does the audience understand it or are they left with questions, etc. By focusing on specific goals, you’ll receive more targeted and actionable feedback from the readers and audience.
Perhaps the writer wishes to have their work read to entice money people or try out a new director. The goals of the reading must be decided upon first and those aspects concentrated on and tailored to in the reading.

4. SCRIPT: The script should be edited to suit the read. Remove excess stage directions, camera angles etc. Give the narrator an edited script without “beats” or “reactions” or if not removed placed in parentheses – leave these directions for the actors to perform. Narrators should also be reminded to read the title page, on how to pronounced the writers name and abbreviated script terms eg. INT and EXT. If this is an online reading then the “beats” and “reactions” should be read by the narrator.
Send the script in advance to the actors to familiarize themselves with the script. The excellent actors will have read and be already prepared for the reading.
If you make changes to the script before the event ensure that you let them know as many will print their scripts and have added notes. You will feel honoured and humbled as a writer at the depth and breadth of work an actor will do for you.
Ask that the actors take notes as you go along.

5. SPACE: Consider hiring a theater – they are great spaces and can be very reasonable. Rehearsal studios work great too. It should be comfortable and well-lit space and provide enough comfortable seating for everyone for up to 4 hours.
If for financiers, it should be a space that projects a good first impression, that they feel comfortable showing up to with safe parking.
If this is an online reading consider sending readers backgrounds to make it easy on the eyes of the audience. You could consider backdrops colour coded differentiating good and bad or branding with your script name or individual backdrops clarifying character names. Consider using this an opportunity too to show the style of the piece.

6. REFRESHMENTS: Provide water, snacks, and consider coffee for the actors to keep their energy up. The audience, too, will need fed and watering. Script readings are a considerable chunk of time and usually in the evening. You need the actors AND audience energized for your grand finale.

7. PAPERWORK: Ask that actors sign an NDA. In the NDA it should say that they will not share the material, will not post on social media, that they might not get to play the roles when the project is produced and that they give their permission to be recorded. You might also stick a Notice of Recording on the entrance for audience members that states that they are attending a private reading that may be recorded. An NDA for audience members is typically unnecessary unless your script involves highly confidential content, such as a closely guarded intellectual property (IP) or truly groundbreaking material.

8. REHEARSAL: Rehearsal is not always necessary. It depends on how experienced your cast are, how production-ready the script is and the purpose of the read. If the reading is for money people it is best to take the time to rehearse. This will ensure the actors the actors correctly interpret your work and gives you time to fix any script flaws. You get one shot to impress them.
Rehearsals are a safe place for the writer to admit what is and isn’t working or if the script is just not ready. Table reads expose awkward phrasing and dialogue, hearing it spoken aloud reveals areas that need tightening or smoothening for natural delivery, something you can correct before the event. Rehearsals allow actors to familiarize themselves with the script and characters, leading to more polished and nuanced performances during the read.
If time is tight it is wise to ask the actors to arrive 3 hours earlier for a speed read of the script. However, this is less ideal than a dedicated rehearsal for a polished performance.

9. CAST PLACEMENT: Strategic actor placement and movement can enhance the table read experience for both actors and audience. We have found lead actors sitting together, prominently, with support characters flanking them either side with the narrator to one side works very well in visually establishing the hierarchy and helps the audience focus.
When actors sit “higgledy piggledy” in a row it’s difficult for the audience to match the mouth that’s moving to the voice and so breaking them out of the story.
From our experience, what works best, if space allows, explore having actors stand and move to the center stage when their character enters a scene. Ask that the actors take their time to react truthfully to each other. Rehearse a couple of key scenes like this to ensure this technique doesn’t sacrifice your piece. This can add a dynamic element and improve audience engagement. However, avoid full-blown acting with gestures and movements, as it can become chaotic.
You might not have a space that allows this. You might be around a table. If this is the case keep the leads at one head of the table with support cast fanned either side with the narrator on one edge. Audience should be at the other end of the table opposite the leads. In the script when the writer should consider adding a word or line of dialogue for the lead after the narrator introduces them, this is a great way to establish them for the audience.

10. FACILITATOR: The writer can introduce the piece and moderate the questions at the end, however, for larger reads, especially those involving financiers, consider using a facilitator (another writer) to introduce the piece and lead the discussion. This can add a layer of professionalism and impartiality to the event and helps all closest to the script get the most out of the reading.
The facilitator should ensure that time is kept. Invite your audience to arrive at a certain time. Allow 15-20mins for chit chat and grabbing refreshments and toilet breaks. Allow only 10mins for break any longer and people will fade during the finale.
In introducing the piece briefly explain the purpose of the table read (feedback, gauge audience reaction etc.) mentioning constructive criticism is welcome and that the session might be recorded.
They should also introduce the players – “Name of Player and Role”. These intros should begin with the narrator, jump to introducing the leads and then introducing the supporting players.
Even if not reading the facilitator should have a script to follow, to take notes for questions later, mark typos and be ready to prompt an actor if they lose their place. They should be prepared to call ‘Break’ and get everyone back after break.
In guiding the discussion they should know a good end time to avoid audience fatigue. The facilitator should know the goals of the reading and ask the pertinent questions in the end. If for money people it the moderation of the feedback should be kept as positive as possible obvs!
After the reading message the facilitator to thank them for their involvement and ask them for their notes.

11. AUDIENCE: Send out invites at least 3 weeks in advance. If a developmental read, audiences should be fellow artists or experts in the scripts subject matter. They should understand that their function is to provide critical feedback in a positive manner.
In a developmental read the most important people there are the actors reading your work. They now know your work more intimately than anyone else in the room and they will have excellent notes. You will notice that most of their notes will usually lens to the character that they just performed. There may be ideas however on how you can build on them.
If the audience is money people – consider peppering in your champions primed to talk you and your talent up and to find points in your screenplay that they connected with.
After the reading, thank everyone for their time and participation, and express your eagerness to receive their feedback. Message separately to each individual the next day to thank them for taking time to attend and for their feedback.

12. RECORDING: Free yourself up to fully engage in the table read by delegating the recording and note-taking tasks. With someone else capturing the audio and discussion points, you can relax, participate actively, and focus on the feedback you’ll be reviewing later. This allows you to listen back and identify areas of success and those needing improvement, even if something slipped by during the session.

13. HARDCOPY SCRIPTS: Provide your actors with well-formatted scripts for a smooth reading experience. Print them on single-sided pages, 12pt Courier. Three-hole-punched scripts in hardback folders are ideal for easy organization and note-taking, but a standard binder works too. Double-sided printing is acceptable. Remember to collect the scripts after the reading. These actor marked-up copies are a treasure trove of valuable insights. Actors’ initial instincts can often be spot-on, so be sure to review their notes carefully for potential improvements to your script.

14. PERFORMANCE: For the read you are aiming for a concentrated essence of character, not veering to stereotype but just close enough so the audience quickly grasps their characters function in the piece. If you are not fortunate to have a rehearsal ask that the players read the script before the event – most good actors will read it without asking.
Physical/Vocal/Emotional – ask that actors that are doubling/tripling up choose to distinguish the characters in this way – most won’t need asking and will do this instinctively. Having defined physical, vocal and emotional traits give the audience a clear idea of who is currently in the scene with little confusion. This is not simply reading, it should be acted out but not fully gesticulated.
As this is to service the writer ask that they avoid improvising. If a line is difficult to say ask if they can change it to better roll off the tongue. If something is unclear or mentions technical terms this should be discussed before the event.
Encourage the performers.
As we are going for essences for actors doubling up it can be helpful to mention a well known unique Hollywood actors that you imagined could play the role eg. Jack Nicholson, Sofia Vergara, Melissa McCarthy, Owen Wilson. If the actor is struggling to define several characters consider asking that they chose a point in their body where the character comes from eg. a banker characters voice comes from their forehead, the sex workers voice comes from their crotch etc.

15. BREAK: Choose your break carefully. Consider the reading as a theater show, a night of entertainment and so think of your break point as a mini-cliffhanger.
If the reading is for money people; break the piece just as something exciting is about to go down, or in the middle of an action piece to leave them wanting more and eager to hear the resolution.
If it is a development read; consider breaking on a scene before a problem area or the scene after the problem area. It will give the audience time to think about what they just heard and digest it.
It can be difficult to get people back into the zone after a break and consider a concise recap of the scene before to refresh the audience’s memory and set the pace for the remaining acts. You might choose to break just after the mid-point or hold on until after the ‘All is Lost’. Trust your instincts on what best serves your story and goals.

16. FEEDBACK: Writers should be prepared and open to receiving copious notes without feeling insulted/threatened, including some that might seem off-base. Remember, even seemingly harsh criticism can hold a valuable nugget of truth. All feedback, even critical notes, can be an opportunity to refine your script. Nobody likes a defensive writer. It comes across as unprofessional. The facilitator plays a key role in managing the feedback session. They should guide the discussion and ensure a respectful environment. If necessary, they can politely redirect someone that might be going off on a tangent or speaking too long.

Writers, a table read can be tremendously effective, one of the best cost saving devices at your disposal. This is your chance to hear your script come alive and absorb the performance. It is your chance too to be celebrated on your hard work. Remember, not everyone can do what you do.

Come play with me at the cold reading series Second Draft in Hollywood every Monday at Broadwater Theatre.

I have rosters of incredible actors to read your scripts. Congratulations on all your hard work – hire me to manage your table read and hear your script OUT LOUD

Feel free to send me questions.

April 13, 2024