A Staged Reading of a Musical on Zoom – Yes, Really, You Can
March 10, 2020: We were walking out of Pearl Studios with our writer friends after an informal table read of our new musical, Dear Shirley. Our writer’s residency with Philadelphia Theatre Company was happening the next month, with a 29-hour staged reading at the end of it, so we were glad for feedback to get the show in better shape before that process started. We capped off the evening by seeing a preview of Company, and afterward, there were hugs all around as we said our goodbyes and “See you soon”s.
We don’t have to tell you what happened two days later.
Overnight, all of us went “virtual”, and Zoom became a thing. Ever inventive, theatre professionals have discovered how to use this virtual platform to deliver all kinds of performances to audiences suffering from theatre-shaped holes in their hearts.
But what about using Zoom to develop new shows? Live readings of new plays have been popping up online everywhere, but what about live readings of new musicals? They’re not happening as much, namely because of limitations inherent in virtual platforms: you can’t sing at the same time without canceling each other out, and you can’t sync musically with each other across virtual space without lag issues.
Despite knowing these issues, we decided to plunge ahead with our reading process, rather than lose the opportunity that our NAMT-funded writer’s residency afforded. We met with our creative team: Paige Price, artistic director of Philadelphia Theatre Company and our director for the reading; and Matt Castle and Frank Galgano, our close collaborators for orchestrations and beyond, and in this case, also music direction by Matt. Together, we came up with a plan to “Zoom” through a 29-hour reading process in a way that felt satisfying and moved the show forward AND also didn’t require extra funds or advanced technical know-how to pull it off.
Here’s how we did it (and you can do it too):
- Be clear about your goals: Early on, we realized that creating an online reading that looked and sounded polished and professional would eat into our 29 hours with the actors without providing us what we really needed with our new show: time to focus on the writing. With that in mind, we worked out a schedule that included three full readings, with days in between for rehearsals and rewrites. The final reading would only be for a few invited guests, which would remove the pressure of producing a perfect reading. Instead, we could focus on refining each draft and maximizing the time with the actors to try new versions of scenes and songs.
- Prep backing tracks and vocal line plunk recordings for every song: Since teaching music is challenging over Zoom, Matt suggested allotting some of the 29 hours toward time each actor could spend using our recordings to help them learn the songs on their own. Then, during the Zoom rehearsal time, Matt listened to each person sing to their personal backing track, giving direction and going over tricky parts by plunking and singing them himself. Sure – there was only so much that could be accomplished this way, but again, we weren’t looking for a polished performance – just one that felt like it was authentic to the character.
- Lean into the tech expertise of your stage manager: Yep – you still need a stage manager even in a virtual reading. Shelby North, our SM, not only kept us on task and assured that we took breaks, but she also supervised the Zoom breakout rooms, which allowed us to rehearse scenes in one “room” and teach music in another.
- Don’t be scared to become a (very!) amateur recording engineer overnight: If you know the basics of Garageband, you have the skills to put together tracks with your actors’ recordings. In our 29 hours, we also included time for the actors to record each vocal track for every song at home. These recordings were made on smart phones, with the vocals sung into the phone while the actor listened to the backing track via headphones. Then the recordings were sent to us, and we matched them up to our backing tracks in Garageband. Were they studio-perfect? Nope. Were a few recorded next to an air conditioner? Maybe? Was it a little time-consuming to get them all matched up? Um…yes. But did it give us a better sense of the music than writers-only demos? Absolutely!
- Learn to love collaborative documents: We shared our script with the cast and creatives via Google Docs, which meant that script changes were as easy as saying, “Okay – everyone refresh your screen.” No trees were harmed in this process, and there were no confusing page inserts with labels like “Page 6B”. Honestly, once you do it this way, you’ll never want to return to Final Draft.
- Embrace the lip-sync and don’t fret about the lag: For our final reading, our actors performed their dialogue live, and then lip-synced to the pre-recorded tracks that we put together for the songs. Yes, there was lag and more “lip” than “sync” at times, but the emotional thrust and intentions of the songs still came through despite the tech limits.
- Create avenues for feedback: Just because you’re not in the same physical space doesn’t mean that you can’t get the same type of feedback that you normally get during a reading process. We had a fantastic group of creatives and actors who gave us all kinds of insight through Zoom discussions, the chat feature, and emails exchanged while making the recordings. This feedback was the backbone of our rewrite process and made the show so much better than it had been prior to this process. (Shout-out to our cast: Mary Tuomanen, Anne Tolpegin, Sarah Gliko, Ben Dibble, Garrick Vaughan and Rachel Camp!)
So, after all of that, we ended up writing three new drafts during the course of the process with a bunch of new songs as well, which was more than we ever dared to imagine we could get accomplished over Zoom. You can see that our methods for doing it were not fancy, and in fact, there may now be better ways to do it that have cropped up since the time of our reading.
Our point is: Don’t let the limitations of virtual platforms (and your fear of them) prevent you from doing a reading of your musical. You have everything to gain, and nothing to lose, by getting your show on its feet in a room, even if it’s a Zoom room.
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