Play By the Rules

Bare Bones Read

The fundamental goal of a cold read is that everybody walks out asking “When can we do this again?” To that end, we suggest the following model, based on the notion that cold-reading is a game (we play a play), with rules and regulations that ensure the play is fair and fun, engaging, edifying—so everybody wins.

Specifically, we rely heavily on the rules for Theatre Games developed by Viola Spolin: “Share the scene,” “Yes, and…” “Listen,” “Make your partner look good,” “Follow the follower”—applicable to all games (life itself’s an improv), emphasizing the respect, consideration, and support each reader shows and expects from the ensemble in the sharing of roles and expression of thoughts and opinions.

“Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” shows all the ways a cold read is like improv therapy.

Beginner Tips

No special knowledge is required to read a play. Almost everyone knows something that connects to something in almost every play, and if what you want is entertainment and good conversation, let the game be finding that connection.

More serious readers find it interesting to learn about the playwright’s life and time, production history, cultural significance. The Host may include a blurb in the invitation, but anyone can Wiki-search the playwright and follow related links for a snapshot of civilization.

Many readers will be already be familiar with theatre and dramatic art, if not as actors and playwrights, at least as frequent theatre-goers. The knowledge they bring to the table can can enhance the read, provide a context, but is by no means necessary for a successful event.

That said, there may be those want to know more. We suggest you invite a special guest (drama teacher, stage director) to moderate the read, maybe join your group. See Moderate a Group.


Typically, readers gather briefly before the appointed “curtain” time to share greetings, introductions, announcements, get a cup of coffee (or a drink), and sit down with open e-books, in “places.”

Rule: Start on time.

Often a host invites readers to arrive up to an an hour earlier (or remain after) to socialize, but the read should start (and end) on time.


There are no assigned roles. Someone (the Host?) announces the title and author and reads the opening stage directions. Someone else reads the opening line of dialogue and assumes that role; another person takes the second, and so on, as others appear through the scene.

Who these readers are depends on who speaks first, regardless of the gender, age, type, or dramatic significance of the role. If readers are reluctant, the Host may prod, but the goal is to encourage the meek to speak up voluntarily. It’s part of our mission.

Rule: Share the spotlight.


A cold read is a literary adventure, in which we discover who our characters are and what they’re doing as we speak their words. The game is let these discoveries affect the way we deliver them, to make the play make sense.

Whether we express the character’s attitudes and emotions overtly or internalize them, we’re all pretending—”standing in” for other people, walking in their shoes. Expression is encouraged (people learn by mimicking), but not demanded. Some readers are incurably reserved.

In no way are we “Acting.” Actors are welcome to read (their talent and experience enliven the event), and adventuresome readers may pretend, express emotion, but acting happens only after weeks of analyzing, memorizing and rehearsing, preferably after years of training and experience. There’s a difference.

On the other hands, we must speak loudly enough to be heard and enunciate well enough to be understood. Those who don’t are gently cajoled to “speak up” or “say what?” The more they read, the better they will get.

Frequently we all misread a line or mispronounce a word. Most of these we ignore—we all have scripts; we know what should have been said. Only when the error confuses the read (or becomes annoying) do we diplomatically correct it. See the post on Misreads for examples.

Stage directions can be tricky. In general, those describing characters, setting, and unspoken action are read; those suggesting actors’ gestures (“smiling,” “angrily” “with conviction”) are ignored. See the post on Stage Directions for tips and samples.

 * * *

At the end of a scene (or sooner, if the scene is long), the read is interrupted and recast. Those who haven’t read take roles; others swap around. Likewise, any reader may hand over a role at any time, and some groups make a game of readers “stealing” roles when they think someone’s read enough.

 * * *

At the end of the act (or halfway through) we take a brief intermission.

Ad Libs

Anyone may interrupt at any time to “ad lib,” either to clarify the situation or share related insights and opinions, which lead to discussion.

  • When we see a play on stage, we can’t say, “Stop, I missed that, say it again.” That’s how a cold read is like a novel: we can go back. It’s easy to get confused, especially in the early scenes, before we know who’s who. If no one speaks up, the Host ad libs to make sure everyone knows what’s going on.
  • As we read, we make connections to our own lives and the world. In a theatre, we can’t turn to our neighbor and ad lib,  “That makes me think of…”  That’s when cold reads get really interesting.

Rule: Respect all comments.

How long an ad lib lasts depends on how much time we have, how relevant the topic, and whether we mean to finish the play. If time is a factor, someone (the Host) must watch the clock; otherwise, anyone at any time can (politely) pick up the read and continue.

Rule: Keep focus on the play. Don’t ramble or socialize.


The read ends either when the play ends or when time runs out. If the latter, we decide whether we’ll meet again to finish (where and when) or see what happens on our own.


Assuming  the fundamental goal was achieved, everyone is asking, “When can we do this again?” (If not, please tell us what went wrong and maybe we can help you make it better—don’t give up!)

Take the moment while everyone’s together to talk about the next time. Pick a play, a time and place, and do it all again.

Continue as a Group

Those who keep on reading constitute a Cold Reads Group, regardless of how often or who shows up. Some groups meet only when someone picks a play and calls a read; others read every week. Some are small, for members only; others are open to the public. Some recruit and schedule via social media. See Find (or Start) Your Group and related posts for guidelines.

 * * *


The bare bones read can be adapted to suit circumstance and augmented to suit the occasion. Adaptations to the basic structure (cast at random, read, discuss, recast; repeat at random) include:

  • Reading ahead (like a book club) and discussing as a group. (Gain conversation, lose mutual experience)
  • Reading straight through and discussing after. (Gain continuity, lose spontaneity)
  • Casting to type and retaining roles throughout (Gain consistency, may limit participation).
  • Rehearsing a few times and reading for an audience. (That’s Readers’ Theatre. There’s a difference)

There’s also much to be said for reading plays you’ve read or seen before—familiar classics, forgotten favorites. Good plays can be enjoyed again and again, and even if it’s not “cold,” there’s plenty to re-discover.

The only other question is whether and when to serve hors d’oeuvres (or dinner).

Group Options

First-time readers are advised to adhere to the bare bones format, to get your feet wet. Those who continue may wish to peruse the options in Find (or State) Your Group and related posts.





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Unrehearsed Discoveries of Great Plays

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