I’ve written before about When to Say No and When to Work for Free, but I want to address something very specific that often straddles a line in this area: the staged reading. Several times in my casting career, I have been asked to coordinate a staged reading, table read, or other informal gathering of actors to review scripted material. I’ve always tried to make it clear to the actors involved that they haven’t necessarily been cast in the project, but that we would love to have them lend their voices to the process, while we “hear” the writing and come up with plans for strengthening the piece prior to officially beginning pre-production. One of the reasons I’ve had to provide such a disclaimer is that the unions want to call staged readings “rehearsals” and want to see their members paid for their time and effort.
Believe me, I totally respect that. I remember attending a SAGIndie Contracts Workshop a few years ago and hearing (and loving) the statement, “You can’t cast your SAG film, decide to throw a BBQ and pool party, and ask your actors to be sure they bring their scripts so that you can do an informal read-thru over beers. That’s called a rehearsal and your cast needs to be paid for that day’s work.” I’ve quoted that back to many producers who have asked me to put together informal readings after we’ve cast their films. I step out of the line of fire at that point and say, “Sorry. If I set it up, it’s a rehearsal. And you’re not budgeted for that.” So, if I totally respect (and follow) SAG’s rules on the whole staged reading concept, why do I occasionally set up staged readings for projects that aren’t yet cast?
Well, before a film, spec pilot, or stage play is cast, there are many reasons the writer, director, producers, and financial backers will want to get a feel for the material (and not just by reading the script… because, let’s face it, no one reads). I’ve assembled or attended staged readings that range from a half-dozen people who’ve never met sitting together in a living room to full-on, catered, script-in-hand (but well-rehearsed) readings on a stage (with light and sound cues) in a large theatre with a packed house. The goal is usually the same: Hear the piece, provide some notes to the writer, get some casting ideas, earn some funding, churn up some buzz.
So, here’s the big question: Do you say NO to a staged reading at the pre-casting stages because you believe that you should be considered a cast member (and therefore paid for your time at this point) or do you say YES, knowing that you’re building relationships that could benefit you far more than the few bucks and contribution to your P&H plan?
And now for your favorite answer: It depends.
I always advise that actors look at a few key factors before deciding to get involved in a staged reading for no pay: the status of the project, the relationship factor, and your standing in the industry.
The Status of the Project
If a play, spec pilot, or feature film is legitimately in the pre-casting stages (like, production hasn’t even hired a casting director, released a character breakdown, or set a tentative start date within the next six months), you’re probably actually looking at participating in a TRUE staged reading. The folks who show up are most likely hoping to get a feel for the work, pull in some financing, and maybe begin to brainstorm some casting ideas. Sure, this early on, there’s a risk that you’re reading a character that you’ll have no chance of playing “for real” (if it isn’t completely written out of the script in a future draft), but frankly that risk always exists. (Just ask any actor whose character has been written out while the actor is on set, shooting the dang thing.)
But if production on the project is going to be up and running within weeks of the staged reading and it has been actively casting before the staged reading takes place, you should keep a couple of issues in mind. It is possible that you are either cast in the role and working for free when you should be getting paid for rehearsal time or someone else (perhaps someone of “name actor” value) has been cast in the role and you are basically a placeholder during rehearsals masquerading as staged readings. I’m not telling you to say NO to a staged reading at this point — just asking you to weigh these issues alongside the other considerations, below. Definitely, if you are the actor officially cast in the role, you should negotiate for some rehearsal pay for these staged readings.
The Relationship Factor
Who are the parties involved here and how important is relationship-building to you, where these people are concerned? Sometimes, you’re being asked to participate in a staged reading because you’re a good friend with the writer and — even if you said no — you would be the first actor on that writer’s list to get an audition for the role. And if you’re going to have to audition no matter what, perhaps your time is better spent helping your writer friend in some other way (promoting the staged reading, referring a great producer, etc.) or at some other time. Of course, this depends on what else you have going on (see When To Work for Free for a list of reasons you’d still be smart to say yes), but you get the general idea, I’m sure.
If however, you’re getting an opportunity to have your work seen (even at the script-in-hand level) by an award-winning director, a team of producers whose projects always seem to do well, or potential investors in the project who find you compelling enough a performer to have a one-person show developed on their dime, how could you possibly say no? This is where the union rules on staged readings seem penny-wise and pound-foolish to me. Absolutely, I can understand saying NO to the offer of participating in a staged reading when there is no money, no chance for future work, and no relationship to develop. But if James Burrows is directing a staged reading of the spec pilot his long-lost relative drafted, you’d be NUTS to pass up the chance to show him your stuff!
Your Standing in the Industry
Just as there are times you’ll work for free on a student film or in a play at a community theatre to build up your credits, there will be a time when doing a staged reading is worth the “industry cred” it gives you. If you have very little on your resumé, a staged reading is a good first item to list. No, it’s not the same as actually mounting a production for an extended run at a well-reviewed theatre space with an acclaimed director, but it does show that you have been a part of a professional endeavor and that someone in the industry has put a little faith in you (at least for one night).
And I don’t just include this section for newbies! There are working actors who are looking to make a switch in the way they are perceived in the industry (actors with major comedic credits hoping to get a shot at a dramatic leading role) who benefit from being seen doing something “different,” even at the staged reading level.
An Edge in Casting?
Regardless of how much I write about relationships and longevity in the industry in an attempt to take the focus OFF the immediate-gratification factor, actors will always find a way to bring my columns back around to the one and only thing most of them seem to care about: Does this give me an edge in getting cast? Putting aside how much I dislike that question or an actor’s need to ask it, since it goes against the philosophy behind pretty much everything I say each week, I can tell you this much: Yes. Doing a staged reading CAN help you get cast in the actual project. (Of course, so can being related to someone who is financing the project, being the most talented actor of the right type at the right moment during casting sessions, and simple luck.)
Producers on every project I have cast with an informal reading in its history (whether a ’round the coffee table read-thru or fully-produced staged reading on Theatre Row) come to me when it’s time to schedule prereads and say, “Oh, and here are the names of the actors we used during the staged reading. Make sure they get to see you.” Some producers will ask that those actors come straight to callbacks. Others will insist they ARE CAST in the roles (until they start seeing other actors “just in case” and then somehow begin to waffle). And still other types of producers will say, “This is the guy we had reading JOE in the staged reading. He’s not right for it, but you should keep him in mind for anything else you’re casting. He’s a great actor.”
So, yes. Actors who work on staged readings will absolutely stay on someone’s mind during the casting process for this or some other project. But that’s not why you should or shouldn’t participate in any sort of informal readings. You should do it because it feels like something you’d like to do in terms of investing in your career. It’s a form of networking. It’s a wonderful relationship-builder. It’s a chance to act outside of your classes and auditions each week. And, in a town where loyalty is absolutely valued by many top producers, it could be the thing that makes someone remember you in a, “That actor was there for me from the very beginning! I’m going to find the perfect star vehicle for next season,” kind of way. Do your homework so that you’re not being taken advantage of, of course! But I’ve seen amazing “future projects” come from staged readings that took place long before. The bottom line is that creative people create. And while I appreciate the struggles performers unions have made to get actors paid for their time, I believe there are just some situations where the return on your investment is going to be far more valuable than Scale + 10% for the day.
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Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/000437.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.