Tables, in Beaufort, South Carolina at least, have better reasons for existence than for actors to sit around them reading. As soon as director Bruce Doneff realized that we were going to have a big audience for last night’s table read of the Beaufort International Film Festival screenplay finalists, he made an executive decision. The microphone-less actors were going to have to stand and project. So he moved the table from the stage to the back of the house, draped it in lovely black fabric and stacked it with bottles of wine. It was one of three great decisions he made.
The second was to invite the actor Benjamin Busch down to the front row and get him to explain how table reads usually work — to the players and the audience that quickly filled in from the French film next door, once word of the wine got out. When dozens of film buffs aren’t paying $15 each to hear unpublished screenplays read aloud for the first time, table reads are apparently intimate, intimidating affairs. Usually only the writer, director and producers are in the room with the actors, who’ve never seen the script before. It’s when writers discover that dialog falls flat, directors discover they need more rehearsal time and producers discover that some cast members just aren’t going to click and need to be replaced.
Thankfully, ours was nothing like that. I’ll take a crowded audience of film buffs with glasses of wine in their hands any day. They didn’t seem to mind the tradeoff of conversational delivery for actually being able to hear in the back row. But I was nervous. I’ve sat, mumbling the dialog of my screenplays to myself, in front of my computer, for days. I rarely project. I never use body language. I don’t use high voices for females and my best Johnny Cash for males. So watching the rehearsal was like watching a Shakespearean adaptation of my dark, disturbing drama. It worked brilliantly for the screenplay before mine, about moonshiners and revenuers, but would it ring true on a modern-day drama about a sex offender?
Which brings me to the third great decision Bruce Doneff, the evening’s director and MC, made. He announced a five-minute intermission before my screenplay and encouraged everyone to get another glass of wine. His hope was that a good buzz would make the adult language in “The Scarlet Registry” easier to swallow. The actress who volunteered to play my protagonist’s wife, the brave and talented Suzanne Larson, had the distinction of dropping the first F-bomb in the festival’s history. Did I mention that the theatre is actually owned by a church, which holds services there every Sunday?
So I had a glass of wine myself, then got up in front of more people than I ever expected and gave the set-up for the excerpt. I didn’t go into a lengthy explanation of how it came to be, or warn the one 14 year-old-in-the-second-row-I-had-never-seen-before! about the subject matter. And because I didn’t muddy the waters, I had the most surprising revelation.
The first scene the actors read from, the one where a young girl sees her father doing something no girl wants to see, was unintentionally funny! If I hadn’t heard a real live audience laughing I wouldn’t have believed it. I was racing through possibilities – I should give the protagonist a more serious name, change the scene descriptions to avoid slang, definitely eliminate the girl screaming. But afterward, the director of a brilliant short in the festival, Seth Boggess, gave me something else to think about. He liked the fact that the scene came across as funny. He said the other scenes are so dark it needed some comic relief. And he might be right. It certainly jives with what the up-and-coming production company types told me in LA.
I know the screenplay needs work; all writing is re-writing, right? And yes, Busch was right. There’s nothing like a reading to show where I’ve given characters too much exposition. But the table read was just the motivation I need to keep going. The audience seemed to “get” my attempt to create nuanced characters and they asked good questions.
And the best question of all came from one of the filmmakers debuting her film this year at B.I.F.F: Natasha Warloe. She’s always looking for new material, would I let her read the whole script?