This article, by Colette Rouhier, appeared in the US edition of The Guardian on July 13, 2015
I’d never been tempted to join a book group. I’m a slow reader and it seems like I’ve always got too much on to plough through a different novel each month. I think of myself as someone with a fairly decent knowledge of English literature, with one exception – until a couple of years ago I knew next to nothing about plays. I could sometimes connect a title to a particular playwright, but had no idea of plots or themes, and wasn’t that familiar with the writers.
I decided I wanted to explore that world – and that the perfect way would be with a play-reading group. A group of friends would get together and read scripts out loud with each person playing a different character. I didn’t want to do it on my own, but luckily my friend Jen was really keen on the idea. When I mentioned what I had in mind, she said: “Brilliant – when do we start?”
That was two years ago, and we’ve since learned a lot about what works – and what doesn’t. Here are five steps to get started.
1. Build up the group
Don’t worry about trying to book a room in a pub or taking over the town hall. We’ve found that it’s best to host your script group it in your own home. Not many people want to read in a public place, and the familiarity of each other’s houses is comforting.
It was easy enough to sign up friends for our readings, but flyers and posters at the library and cafes attracted new members.
We now have a reading pool of about 16 people and can usually rely on between five and 10 turning up for each session.
The first play we read was Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, and I was surprised at how much humour there is in it. Reading it out loud brought out the fun in the play, and we knew we were onto a winner.
2. Keep things flexible
We meet once a month, and a different member of the group gets to choose the play and “direct” for each session, assigning the roles they want people to play on the night.
We ask people to confirm they’re going to come, because it can be frustrating for the director if they don’t get the cast they’re expecting. You have to be prepared to wing it on the night, though, doubling up parts if people don’t turn up, or dividing one role between two people during separate acts if you end up with more readers than expected.
We don’t think of ourselves as performers – none of us is likely to appear on stage, but that doesn’t stop us getting creative. We attempt accents and experiment to keep things lively. When we read Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinocéros, for example, I used a drum to simulate the stampeding rhinoceroses, building up the volume until readers had to shout. Some directors arrange the seating to ramp up the drama too. When we read Cat on a Hot Tin Roof we had Brick and Maggie, who spend much of the play sparring, sitting opposite each other – those kind of decisions influence the group dynamic.
3. Choosing the scripts
There are no rules when it comes to choosing scripts, but because each of us only has one choice per year at most, members have built up a stash of titles they’re desperate to try – I have a pile of more than 20 at the moment.
I’d never heard of Arnold Wesker when we read his play Bluey, but it made for a spirited read. And I nearly cancelled a reading of Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan when half the group dropped out at the last minute, but the remaining six threw themselves at the 16 parts with gusto. I’m keen to keep trying classics – we haven’t read any Ibsen yet – but also I’d love to read film scripts. I have Withnail and I, Reservoir Dogs and Goodfellas on my to-do pile.
My local library lends out sets of plays. I have also found a website called simplyscripts.com that allows you to download them.
Our group has a Facebook page and in the runup to a reading I’ll do some research on the play and post a summary as well as photos of professional productions. Some of our members like to prepare before a reading, even if they don’t know which character they’re going to be playing on the night, and when there’s time we often end up discussing the play.
With longer scripts, we sometimes split them in two and meet twice in a month, but we aim to get through two hours of reading in a session. Once people have arrived and had a glass of wine, things can easily slip and the director sometimes has to crack the whip to make sure the whole play gets read. But then you get that magic moment where we get into the flow and it all just comes together – it’s exciting when everything clicks and everybody gets lost in the story.
5. Branching out
We recently held our first weekend retreat at a friend’s house in Kent. She has a lovely place by the coast,, which made a great setting, and having a whole weekend meant we could relax into the play. It has encouraged us to try other locations – we’re making plans to go camping and read something frightening around a fire, and I have another friend with a large garden that I think would make a great setting for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Everybody has their wishlist of plays they’d like to read. Jen and I have our sights set on a two-header reading of Waiting for Godot. There’s a vast wealth of plays out there for us to get stuck into – the tricky thing is deciding which to do next.
I’ve been surprised at how relaxed people are about reading in public. Partly that’s because it doesn’t matter if anyone messes up – there isn’t the same pressure an actor feels on stage.
Best of all, there’s no homework. Everyone just turns up on the night, and off we go.
As told to Chris Broughton
Vicky Featherstone of the Royal Court on reading plays
Sometimes people say that they find reading scripts harder than reading a novel. The trick is not to work too hard. Try not to think about yourself and focus on the words. David Mamet’s advice is that you don’t need to do very much with the lines, just read them.
Don’t neglect the stage directions. In a good play, the action in the stage directions will be as vital as the lines the characters speak. Arrange your reading so you can all make eye contact, and “characters” can speak to one another – it creates a more dynamic environment.
If you want to explore more contemporary work there are all kinds of starting points. You could pick plays from the decade you were born in. Look up reviews, things that have been critics’ choices – they’re a rich source of inspiration. Publishing houses such as Oberon, Nick Hern, Methuen, Faber all have fantastic resources online.
I always like to ask “what’s surprising about this play?” Is it the story, the setting, the characters? Is it believable? That’s not to say that it has to be realistic, but do you believe in the world the playwright has created? Does it feel like a play that could only work in a theatre or could you see it on television, or film? If you’re having a discussion, these questions are good starting points.
Let your imagination run with the dialogue. Sometimes people feel when they read a script they need to be able to see it on a stage but you don’t, really. You just need to go with the feeling of it, more like a poem, focus on the emotion it gives you.