Critical Debate: To Read or Not Read The Play First

imageChris: Okay, I’ve got homework tonight.

Lou: No, you don’t. You don’t have to read plays before you see them.

Chris: I do, you know. I’ve always done it.

Lou: I would suggest that, in most cases, especially at a new play festival, it’s counterproductive. Why would you want to rob yourself of the primary theatrical experience, which is having a story told to you and not knowing what’s going to happen next?

Chris: Because somebody wrote that story out, and because a lot of people have worked on that story to put it in the place that it is. I don’t read the whole script. I don’t care to know what happens at the end. I just want to get a sense of the style, the way the playwright describes the setting… I’ve been reading plays for fun my whole life, but I realized how important it was to my work when I got really skunked by some actors who explained to me what a certain new play was about — what they felt it was about — and I wrote a preview of the show. But then I went to see it and it was none of those things. I felt like I’d misrepresented the piece and I felt that even a glance at the script would’ve fixed that.

Lou: If I’m seeing a show, I want to feel like most of the audience is feeling. I want to experience it for the first time.

Chris: I don’t want to be like most of the audience.

Lou: Why not have that first experience? You only have once chance to have that experience. That’s the reason why I will never read a Shakespeare play until I’ve seen it. Yes, it leaves some gaps in my knowledge but until somebody wants to do The Winter’s Tale, I’ll stay ignorant.

Chris: There’s a bear in it. Look, I just don’t agree with the premise that you need to not know anything in order to enjoy it. If you look at the boxes on DVDs when they go to Blockbuster

Lou: I hate when a trailer or a critic or anyone gives away anything that happens more than a third of the way through a movie or play. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy repeat viewings of many, many plays and films. There are books I reread every few years. That’s a different kind of pleasure.

Chris: I don’t give away plot. And I don’t read other critics, at least until I’ve written my own thing. I don’t even read the whole scripts in advance. Just a few scenes, or the first act, to get a sense of the style and the tone and the set-up. Then I have it to consult if I need to check something, like at intermission.

Lou: One of the pleasures of a new play festival for me is to — like most of the audience — go in almost completely cold. I want to be a member of that audience. Then, if I want to afterwards, I’ll read the play.

Chris: I’m happy to be the critic in that circumstance. That can often mean being expected to have extra knowledge—knowing how the play has been interpreted at different times. I found that to be very useful knowledge. I’ve seen shows that, for better or worse, defied the explicit stage directions of the playwright. I feel like that’s information that should be conveyed. I’m doing my homework and happy to read and study and figure out what the background is.

Lou: I guess the question is, which is the car and which is the horse: the production or the play? Whenever possible, I want my first experience to be of the play onstage. I’m a member of the audience. Hopefully, a somewhat enlightened member.

I love theater and I want that theatrical experience to be my first experience. I could, if I wanted to, review an anthology of plays I haven’t seen but I’m much more interested in seeing and experiencing theater. It’s a gift that I feel like we’re given to be able to have that primary experience of the work on stage. And here at Humana, when you get a chance to see a play that’s usually impeccably designed with a terrific tribe of actors, why not see it first on stage in that near optimal form?

Chris: Well, because plays are interpreted. The form will change. Not only will directors and actors change but the performance will change from night to night given who’s in the audience.
You can go to a reading. You can go to a full production. You can go to a national tour. Which will all be different than the theater where it was originally staged. So I take all these things into account and I take the text into account. Sometimes it’s based on stories that I know so why would I not check out how they’ve adapted that story? Why not check to see if it’s in line with other’s by that writer? It’s just as safe little double-checking mechanism. So, okay, I might smirk a split second before the guy next to me because I happened to read the script.

I like knowing that if I go to Shakespeare show I know it. I’ll know half of a regional theater’s season. If I know those plays, it seems unfair not to not know the other ones.

Lou: I’ve gotten into the same sort of discussion with composers who write for the theater. There are some who want the music to work for that first time in the theater and then get richer if somebody hears the score again. There are others who really want you to know the score before walking into the theater. I think that’s counter to the reality of the theater experience.

Chris: For me, personally having that sort of experience is less crucial to the exercise of me writing about a play than my ability to explain the piece well. Am I robbing myself of something? Maybe a joke would have been funnier if I heard it first in the show, but I’m more interested in other things.

Lou: What could be more important than seeing a play, on stage, fresh?

Chris: I’m getting an experience reading plays and an experience looking at the show posters and an experience meeting the actors beforehand and experiencing the theaters.

Lou: Me, too. But I’ll save it for after.

Chris: Well, I read scripts and I’m going to do it for Humana.

Lou: And I’m not usually this extreme, but I’m going to try to not even look at the posters. I’m not going to read the blurb in the brochures.


  1. Firstly, I agree with Lou.

    But (B.), I have never heard of this universe in which a New Play Festival would make its scripts available to a critic. And I have done my share of new play festivals. The answer, should a critic have the audacity to ask for such a thing (and I have also never heard of such a request), would be “Suck it, bitch; see the play and form your opinion like everybody else.” (Phrased more politely, of course.)

    Even for a not-new play, I think the critic should wait to re-read it till after seeing the production. Theatre is a live art form, not something you read.

    That said, i disagree with Lou about looking at the advertising. The audience sees that, and if the producers are somehow misrepresenting the show, the critic has a perfect right to call that out.

  2. Thanks for the great conversation, the subject which I’ve not seen articulated elsewhere.

    I haven’t been a theater critic for a long time, but if the text is available from anywhere I’m firmly a pre-reader, both in my old life as a critic and my current one as a playwright. I find being able to compare the staging of the play’s moments with how I imagined those moments when I read the play is a useful way (for me, anyway) to assess the production, to gauge the elasticity of the text, and so on. (I also feel like it gives me an additional tool to help me tease out which elements of what I’m watching on stage are driven by writing choices, which are acting choices, which are directorial, and so on.)

    But it’s a credit to y’all that this candid and expressive shop talk offers strong support for both approaches.

  3. I agree it Chris 100%. I think it is a useful and fair technique for critics to use. Especially with brand new plays. And I agree about being able to point out explicit stage directions or choices made by the writer that have been disregarded. There is no worse feeling for a playwright than to watch your play be altered (in a not so good way) by choices that run very counter to your original vision. Worse yet is to be negatively reviewed based on those choices which you had little control over. So I think it a very responsible and thoughtful thing for a critic to be aware of these differences and able to reflect on that when composing a review. It’s not that the critic writes about the differences – but that he or she does not hold the playwright or play at fault for those choices. The only way a critic can know this is to read the play in advance.

    I recently sat on a reading committee for a new play competition. My favorite play was completely misinterpreted by the director. The play I read, was entirely different than the play onstage. Audience members watching the play did not have this info and left the theater thinking what they saw was what the playwright intended.It most definitely was not.

    Right on, Chris! Right on!

  4. I’m an audience member and a playwright and hate spoilers, but do want to get a sense as to whether I want to see a play or not. Being part of the playwriting community, I do go to a fair share of readings. As a result, I am sacrificing that future first-production experience of being completely surprised. It is something I do in order to help feed the playwriting ecology, and that provides me with satisfaction. It’s a different satisfaction from seeing a play in production for the first time with no preconceptions. But it is, nevertheless, a satisfaction.

    It can be mildly distracting on a second reading or in production to note in the moment, Oh, they changed that. Ideally, some time has passed (which wouldn’t happen if I read a script just before seeing the work) so that at least some of the surprises actually do surprise me.

    And, finally, reading a script is not a table reading is not a staged reading is not a production. So there is always something gained as one moves from one mode to the next. Or at least there had better be.

    What I mean to say is that I have some sympathy for either position.


  1. […] gentlemen at HumanaFest debate whether or not you should read a play before seeing it. This isn’t Finnegan’s Wake, […]

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