Have you finished your script? Have you re-drafted it several times over? Perhaps you have asked for opinions on it from some industry experts? Mulled and agonized over every word? Then you might be ready to start thinking about a table read where you will hear your script read for the first time.
A table read is the first time the script is read out loud. The scene headings and other directions are also read. The people reading the script don’t have to be actors. They could be anyone.
The idea behind reading your table read out loud is to give the writer and other people working on the film an idea of how the dialogue sounds in real-time, how long scenes take, and the overall feel of the piece. Many people ask how long is a table read? The answer is usually that it takes as long as it takes but you should expect to be tied up for at least a few hours.
It can be a nerve-wracking but also exciting time for the writer. The table read is much like the first time a composer hears his piece of music performed by an orchestra or band. It’s a chance to take stock and get some feedback before you move forward onto the next drafts.
In the industry, the table read usually takes place as pre-production wraps up and the film prepares to be shot.
Alt-text: Actors gather for the first read-through of a script.
If your series or film gets picked up by an agent and then a production company you will eventually have a professional industry standard table read.
Until that happens, however, you should prepare your table read when you have got your script as well as you can make it on your own. This can not only prepare you for an industry-standard table read it can give you invaluable feedback that gives your script a much bigger chance of being picked up.
So how do you arrange one and who should you invite?
First, remember that the purpose of a table read is for you to receive feedback and inevitable criticism on your screenplay so that you can improve it. Lower your expectations. Do not expect to receive gushing feedback and praise on how amazing your work is.
It’s not that the other people in the room don’t anticipate your talent and the effort you put in but they are there to improve your work which inevitably involves taking a critical stance and evaluating honestly what works and doesn’t work.
Even the best scripts need constructive criticism to reach their full potential. Be sure to leave your ego at the door and do not take things too personally.
The best people to invite to your screenplay table reads are people closely linked to or associated with the film industry.
Your friends might be tempted to offer praise just because they are your friends so it’s best to avoid them if you can.
You should try and use any connections you have in the film and TV industry; their advice is going to be invaluable and who knows? If they like your ideas they might be able to introduce you to the right producer. If you don’t have any connections then try to network in the industry as much as you can.
It’s best to try and hold your table read in-person if this is possible. Online communities for writers are great but online table reads might not be as effective and it can hold up the rhythm and flow of the session if a connection drops or lags and one person has to catch up.
Your home is fine if nowhere more professional is available. But try to make sure you are all sat around a table rather than slouched into armchairs or sofas. You want to take yourself seriously and treat this as a professional exercise to prepare you for the industry.
You can ask the participants in the table read if they feel comfortable with you recording the entire session so you don’t miss any detail. If you think you won’t listen to this back or somebody objects be sure to take copious notes.
Also, provide every member of the table read with a printed copy of the script and a pen. Encourage them to add notes to their copies and collect them all at the end so you have their thoughts and ideas.
Industry-standard table reads are a lot different from your private table read. They will take place after you’ve got your script commissioned and pre-production is largely at an end.
The people reading your script back will generally be the actors who will be starring in your screenplay. You or the director can make objections if you think a casting choice isn’t correct.
Check out the first table read of Netflix’s The Irishman and how the actors first reading of their parts matches up to the final cut of the film.
A table read will give you as the writer a sense of how the screenplay is going to play out and if some minor pieces of dialogue aren’t quite right. You still have a chance to change it.
Actors might also have their ideas about how the script should be interpreted. Always listen to what the actors have to say and try not to react too forcefully even if you don’t agree with their opinions.
Remember a table read might be the first time actors have heard all the details of the plot. If you are writing a recurring series this could prove shocking for them. This is what happened during the table read for the eighth season of Game Of Thrones.
As well as the actors, the director, producers, and even other members of the production staff will all attend and may also offer their own opinions.
Expect a big room crammed with people around a table and be prepared that you might not always get a word in. Sometimes, as in the case of the table read for 13 Reasons Why things can get emotional.
Absorbing what everyone else is saying might be the best approach for the writer to take here.
Once the script has been table read the next stage is to make the improvements and edits that have been suggested.
Since pre-production will already be in motion, you are unlikely to be able to make big changes without the support of the director and producer as these may cost a lot of money.
You can certainly take on board the feedback from the table read to make minor changes to the dialogue and the scenes. Having heard some of the actors speak through characters that you wrote you can now match them more closely.
The way an actor interprets a character in a script can make a big difference. Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was markedly different and more aggressive than the late Richard Harris’ portrayal of him in the first two films.
Remember though casting changes can still happen even at the last minute and you should be prepared for this and be adaptable. Robert Lindsey was recast as Detective Chief Constable Mike Dryden in Series Two of the BBC’s Line of Duty because he and the production team disagreed on the way the character should be portrayed.
Table reads are challenging because they require you as the writer to face lots of different opinions - some of them potentially negative - on a work that you have spent months or years working on in isolation.
Approaching your table read correctly and being receptive to feedback is the most important part of the process. Hear what others on the production are saying and ask yourself if it will improve your script.
If you don’t think it will then the table read can be the first step on the path to a constructive dialogue with the director, producer, and cast about how to get the script that you want on the screen.
Header image courtesy of Fox Broadcasting Company.