Play It as It Lays

Actor Larry Jurrist, who participated in The Killeen Trilogy, agrees that readings are a good way to maintain one's chops. A seasoned regular in full productions, he splits his stage time with his job as the head of the foreign language department at North Miami Senior High School. In fact, Jurrist likes performing in readings so much that he joined Theater with Your Coffee's board of directors. "I feel I can take on roles I otherwise wouldn't have worked on because I wouldn't have been cast," he remarks. "We make our decisions real fast, right or wrong." He also enjoys offering an actor's view to the playwright. "One [play] had fifteen scene changes," he remembers, "and I said, 'This is even too much for a movie.'"

Feedback for her work was one of the things that motivated Key Biscayne playwright Susan Westfall in 1992 to create the Playwrights' Alliance (now the Creative Alliance), a group of local writers and actors that stages readings as part of the Theatre League of South Florida. As producer of Coral Gables's City Theatre, Westfall is now helming a four-reading series of possible entries for that company's Summer Shorts festival of playlets. "Having a play reading can be informational, and it can be discouraging," Westfall says. "Things shouldn't be read too soon in public; on the other hand, with [readings of] things that are written down the line, you risk over-rewriting. Readings are good for writers because writing can be so solitary, and playwrights are writing for collaboration. Those readings are important to me to develop trust in my characters, in my play, in the actors, and in the audience -- you learn to give it up."

Like Westfall, playwright George Contini no longer experiences readings from solely the author's point of view because, as literary manager at Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables, he now selects and directs the works. After placing notices in the Dramatists Guild's publications and in various newsletters requesting script submissions for reading and possible production, he now receives an average of ten scripts per week. "This season I've read about 400 scripts, and 360 of those were in no way, shape, or form ready," he explains. "That cut me down to 40, and 30 of those had major problems. I see the plays, recognize them as drama, but I see the weaknesses as well. The fine line a literary manager like me walks is saying, 'I love your play and would be really interested in producing it, if you would change this scene.'"

Future production of the plays selected is an increasing consideration as the decade-old Actors' Playhouse starts its second year of play readings. And in order to achieve a clearer indication of what a full-scale presentation might look like, the theater follows actors' union guidelines (and is one of the few to do so), which dictate paying the cast and allowing a longer rehearsal period.

"Last year," recalls Actors' Playhouse artistic director David Arisco, "we tried to find plays that were new, new, new, so our subscribers could see and hear some kinds of theater we're not able to produce on a 600-seat stage because they are less commercial. The readings are a tool not only to bring new voices to our theater, but to find a new playwright who will work with us to do a little nip here and a tuck there. We're also going to have a 300-seat theater, and we're looking to find a play or two for each season." Arisco's hopes aren't unrealistic. Just up the road in Palm Beach County, the newly renamed Florida Stage -- formerly the Pope Theatre Company -- opens and closes its upcoming season with two plays that premiered as staged readings: William Mastrosimone's Benedict Arnold and Michael McKeever's The Garden of Hannah List.

It used to be that, as a show was transferred to a tonier venue and enjoyed a more lavish production, theater mavens could boast about having first seen it in a ragtag staging at some hole-in-the-wall. Soon bragging rights will belong only to those who attended early readings and can gloat, "What do you mean you saw the first production? I saw it before the first rehearsal.

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