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— Around the turn of the century, a theatrical movement spread through San Diego that's still growing. Every company in the county, it seems, is doing staged readings. With only one or two rehearsals, three max, actors in chairs, or behind music stands, read a play: no set, no props, and rarely costumes to define characters. And audiences -- in droves -- come to listen. Some even close their eyes.

There have probably been readings as long as there have been stages. Plays need a hearing before receiving a full production. In San Diego, the legendary Scripteasers has done public readings of new works since 1948 -- and read an estimated 1200. Actors Alliance of San Diego has had an "On Book On Stage" forum for many years. But recently there's been a spike. I've asked some people involved in these projects to help me explain a local, and not a national, phenomenon.

READINGS ARE CHEAP, I. Theatrical productions have become so expensive that many plays cost too much to stage. Period pieces, especially those requiring large casts and detailed design work, are getting shoved aside. This is true of Renaissance classics -- when was the last time you saw Dekker's Shoemaker's Holiday, or The Changeling by Middleton and Rowley, or John Ford's simpering tragedy, The Broken Heart? -- as it is of Restoration comedy or the showcase pieces of '20s and '30s Broadway. But assemble a cast, dress them in black, or civilian mufti, and they can present new, or rescue forgotten, works in an empty room.

READINGS ARE CHEAP, II. The cost of productions has raised ticket prices beyond what many theater lovers can afford. Staged readings, on average, charge between $5 and $15 per performance, most of which becomes a stipend for the actors.

One benefit, says T.J. Johnson, artistic director of San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre, is audience development: readings "increase the visibility of the theater. We can't afford a high-quality production, so we do high-quality readings." (One of the hottest tickets in town right now: SD Black Ensemble's doing five plays in August Wilson's cycle; at a recent Ma Rainey's Black Bottom performance, they had to turn away 40 people and are urging audiences to order tickets in advance -- for a staged reading, mind you -- for Joe Turner's Come and Gone.)

AN AURA OF FORGIVENESS. Critics don't review them, and no one expects perfection from actors having a couple of rehearsals and going on. "People don't mind if things are still in flux," says Shirley Fishman; "they understand the work is in process." Fishman is dramaturge of the La Jolla Playhouse, whose Page to Stage series has produced two of the most acclaimed productions -- Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife, and Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays -- in the last decade. Unlike other readings, Page to Stage often has two to three weeks of rehearsal and a week or two of performances. These workshops, says Fishman, "involve people in the artistic process of theater, in which the work is changing over time. They see how the new script develops and how each has different issues the playwright needs to address."

Most readings use a "play what you find" approach. Actors make discoveries and choices on the spot. A tone will evolve, or they'll suddenly discover a deeper connection with another character. These surprises, glints of recognition, lie at the heart of the creative process.

SURE, HOMER NODS. Some attempts fizzle. Everyone admits that. Dale Morris, whose [email protected] Theatre may have produced the most readings in the last five years, says there will occasionally be "clunkers where people count the pages. You know, looking at the script to see how thick it is -- and watching it slowly get thinner."

Many of the least successful attempts, says Morris, happen when a reading gets too busy, overproduced with "elaborate staging."

T.J. Johnson agrees: "I think people enjoy the lack of bad acting. In readings actors generally don't have the opportunity to go over the top. We want to be storytellers and not get in the way of the audience's experience of the author."

One of the most successful series to date ranks among the most minimal. Linda Castro and David S. Cohen wanted to read rarely performed Greek drama. They joined with Morris at [email protected]enn and began Grassroots Greeks in 2002, approaching each play as if at a first rehearsal. Wrote David S. Cohen at the time, the popularity of the series "surprised us: our choice of method was pragmatic but, we've discovered, also effective." Grassroots Greeks may have spawned the staged reading movement in San Diego.

READINGS...A CHANCE TO AUDITION. Not just for actors. Two weeks ago, Cygnet Theatre "read" Stephen Sondheim's rarely produced musical A Little Night Music. Over 300 people attended the benefit. Artistic director Sean Murray literally auditioned the piece. He wanted to hear the songs and voices of his cast but also to "see it in the space, how people come and go" and see if a staging at Cygnet were possible.

It is. Cygnet will produce Night Music as part of its 2007-2008 season, along with August Wilson's Fences, which SD Black Ensemble's recent reading convinced Murray that a full production was a must.

Murray and Cygnet also plan "satellite" readings: when they stage Thornton Wilder's Matchmaker, they will also read his Our Town, to give audiences a fuller sense of the playwright and his themes; when staging Eugene O'Neill's Desire under the Elms, they will read another of his plays, possibly The Iceman Cometh.

EXERCISE THE IMAGINATION. Readings range from "cold," first-time looks to Page to Stage. But most have just a few rehearsals. Jack Missett, of the Carlsbad Playreaders, encourages directors to avoid props, costumes, and "too much narration" but, unlike others, likes to add sound effects and music. They make the show "like a radio broadcast" that encourages audiences, as the Prologue to Henry V says, "to piece out our imperfections with your thoughts."

"In the age of the Internet," Missett adds, "it's a small-scale way to keep in touch with the ancient art of storytelling in a room with other people who still seek the shared experience."

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