NEW YORK — It may be getting hard for some industry insiders to fit theatergoing into their schedules — they’re too busy attending readings.
On March 5, Gore Vidal’s reworked and updated version of his 1957 comedy “Visit to a Small Planet” received a reading under the direction of John Tillinger that starred Alan Cumming, Lily Tomlin, Christine Baranski, Philip Bosco and Kristin Chenoweth. Last month, Frank Whaley helmed a reading of Heather Bucha’s new play, “Dangerous Gift,” with Robert Sean Leonard, Gina Gershon and Julianna Margulies.
The Roundabout recently resurrected its Burt Bacharach project — formerly called “What the World Needs Now,” when it was at the Old Globe Theater in 1998 — with a new director, Scott Ellis, and choreographer, Ann Reinking, attached. Neil Simon’s “45 Seconds to Broadway” received its first reading, with Marian Seldes and Joan Copeland under the direction of Jerry Zaks. And coming soon is a reading of the new musical “The Royal Family of Broadway,” with Elaine Stritch and Donna Murphy, Zaks again directing.
Stuart Howard, who cast the “Visit to a Small Planet,” says putting star actors into such projects isn’t difficult.
“The easy part, is, actors want to do them,” says the casting director. “The hard part is, the second the actors get any job that pays they drop out.”
One agents says that readings have gotten starrier because “more high-profile actors live in New York than they used to.”
From an actor’s perspective, Whaley says readings can be nerve-wracking. “You can be expecting 10 people and it turns out to be 100,” says the actor-director, “and Sam Cohn is in the audience.”
Howard, whose first casting gig was “La Cage aux Folles” in 1983, says that readings have “more than quadrupled” since the mid-1980s.
“There are fewer workshops,” he explains. “Their cost is astounding.” Producers and artistic directors put the cost of a workshop at around $100,000, if not higher. “It ain’t two thousand dollars,” says Howard, referring to what is often spent on a reading.
“Readings are the first stop of a tryout,” says Jeffrey Richards, producer on “Visit” and “Gift.”
They can be used as a backer’s audition or to attract other producers. Or, as one agent puts it, “They are yet another opportunity for people to say no.”
“I do it for the writer and the director,” producer Julian Schlossberg says of readings. “I never do it for myself, to decide if I want to produce a show. I’ve already decided that before I do a reading.”
Over in the not-for-profit world, Lincoln Center Theater’s Andre Bishop says readings should not be held “to test anyone. Readings are about writing.”
Too often, he says, “Writers get their plays on this reading circuit, going from theater to theater. They receive too many opinions, which can be destructive to the play.”
While some producers/artistic directors insist that readings are not auditions, for others they clearly are. The reading of Bucha’s “Dangerous Gift,” a screwball comedy set in the 1920s, was “to hear the play for the first time,” as well as “expose a new playwright to agents, producers and institutional theaters,” says Whaley.
In an unusual turn, several actors were auditioned for the “45 Seconds to Broadway” reading. Simon and producer Emanuel Azenberg wanted only those actors who could conceivably commit to a Broadway run next season. “Why fall in love with someone you can’t get?” explains Jay Binder, the reading’s casting director.
“Actors auditioned for the reading,” says Azenberg. “Does the reading become another audition? Yes.” But it’s mainly about the playwright hearing the play for the first time. According to Azenberg, Simon cut two actors from his original cast of 10. “And not because they were bad. They were good,” he says.
Up at the Hartford Stage, artistic director Michael Wilson finds the occasional play through the Brand-New and Visions readings at the theater. He mentions Eve Ensler’s “Necessary Targets,” about American trauma therapists in Bosnia, and Horton Foote’s “Carpetbagger’s Children,” both of which will be presented in the company’s 2001-02 season. “The audience responses at these festivals reinforce one’s own choices,” he says. The Ensler reading, in fact, made the front page of the Hartford Courant.
And it’s not just new plays. Wilson will direct a reading of “A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur,” one of Tennessee Williams’ seldom-performed later plays. “It is under consideration for next season,” he says, “and it will be useful to see how it resonates.”
Todd Haimes at the Roundabout finds it necessary “to hear” even vintage plays. Keith Carradine recently read “The Petrified Forest” there. Two years ago, Nathan Lane read “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” which led to this season’s production at the Roundabout. A few years ago, a very starry reading of “Dinner at 8” with Alec Baldwin, Tyne Daly and Jennifer Tilly had the opposite effect.
“From that reading we learned that the play works beautifully but only if you have A-list actors in every role,” says Haimes. “It was written for 10 specific stars — not only really good actors but celebrity personas. We knew we couldn’t get the level of actors we had for the reading, so we didn’t pursue it.”
Such experiences have made him a firm believer in readings. Not that he has to see a reading of “Three Sisters” to OK a production. Or even “The Women,” for that matter.
“Benefits are always doing readings of ‘The Women,’ ” he says of the Clare Boothe bitch fest. “And it is something Roundabout wants to stage either next season or the season after.”