Make Your Play Readings Zing with Zoom

There is nothing more exciting than sitting in the audience amid the laughter and tears of people experiencing the same emotion at the same time. Zoom has helped us get through the lack of that shared experience in our lives. However, that platform and others can continue to enrich the quality of theatrical experiences in the future.

live theatre performance showing on zoom

If they are directed correctly, Zoom readings can play a huge part in the development of new scripts and the rehearsal of seasoned offerings.

Actor Preparation for a Zoom Reading

There are some techniques that make some actors more successful on Zoom than others:

Managing the Script

Learn to read the script on your screen. Holding the script on your lap or placing it on your desk will force you to look down away from both the screen and the camera. This hides your eyes and your emotions from your audience

You can pull up your script onto your computer screen during the performance.

  1. Have a copy of your script minimized in your lower navigation bar. Log onto your Zoom meeting.
  2. Click on the copy of your script and it will appear on your screen, but only you will be able to see it.
  3. You can drag it to any comfortable position on your screen and read from it as you scroll through.
  4. Glance back and forth between the script and the camera (not the screen). As an actor, it will be tempting to look at the screen, but your eye contact with the audience and other actors is through the camera.

Looking Your Best

an actress prepared for camera work

Cameras are notably unkind to most of us. I hope I don’t look the way I do in most films. There are a number of ways you can improve your appearance on camera. Zoom itself has a page dedicated to measures you can take within Zoom to maximize your image on the screen from adjusting the lighting to improving the picture quality.

Lighting a Zoom performance

On your end, you can make sure that your most flattering image appears. First, check your lighting. Make sure that your light does not come from overhead or from behind.

Since most of us do not live in a recording studio, our normal lighting is usually inadequate. For a small amount of money (around 40 dollars) you can purchase a small light for your desk designed for recording.

These lights have a switch that can increase or decrease the lighting. Mine also comes with five different colored screens that can hide a multitude of sins. These lights sometimes also include a tripod and are recharged with a USB connection. Mine lasts for over 7 hours when fully charged.

Prepping Yourself

Open your own personal Zoom account. It’s free for the basic plan. Check your appearance and make necessary changes. Invest in some unpressed powder for your face. Lights and cameras are brutal on shiny skin. I also use some concealer and eye cream. i don’t know if they work, but they make me feel better.

From the Director’s POV

There is no question that directors of readings have to prepare as much, if not more, for a staged reading of a play done on Zoom. If you want to make your Zoom play reading go smoothly, take some time preparing the script for the actors and rehearsing them in techniques that will enhance their performance.

photo of gregory fletcher theatre director
Gregory Fletcher

Gregory Fletcher, a director and stage manager located in New York, recently directed a staged reading for a student playwriting capstone in the MA/MFA Creative Writing Program at Wilkes University. He ended up being a fan of Zooming for readings and shared these tips with me:

Up Close and Personal

“I love the fact that you can see the actors up close and observe their changes in expression as they ‘interact’ with each other and the audience.”

Gregory Fletcher, Director, Playwright Tom and Huck: Breakin’ the Law

Also, because there is no travel time involved, it was easier to find actors who could make the time. In this case, several of the actors had worked together before, a plus for a reading which was only going to have time for one rehearsal. And one of these actors was able to perform in the reading by making arrangements to take time out of another rehearsal to participate.

Must-Do’s for Zoom Readings

The elements that directors rehearse for readings on the stage are not the same as those they need to practice for a Zoom reading. The following will not guarantee a flawless performance, but they will increase its likelihood.

  • arrange “exits” and “entrances” from the scenes by having actors turn their videos and microphones on and off as they enter and leave a scene.
  • create actors’ scripts that have these directions in large type and highlighted to show them when they should turn mics and cameras on and off.
  • Strike out the stage directions you don’t want to have read and highlight those that you do so that both the reader and the actors know when to start and stop.
  • Insist that all actors use a laptop or a desktop. Phones and tablets don’t have sufficient power and will create a lag between speeches.
  • Clarify who will be sharing the wi-fi used by the actors during the performance in the space they are using. Additional users in other areas of the space will weaken their signal and cause delays. Actors should have a bandwidth that they alone are using during the performance.
  • Rehearse each actor individually to be sure they know how to exit and enter, pull up their script onto their screens, and engage the camera rather than the screen.

There are a number of other strategies you can use to augment your theatre’s use of Zoom or other platforms. Consider supplying the actors with identical back screens so that they are sharing what seems to be a common space.

Consider accessorizing with hats, scarves, necklaces, wigs–whatever might suggest your characters’ personalities or indicate a change in their age or status.

The Future of Zoom and Streaming

These avenues were a necessity during the pandemic and most directors, performers, and audiences look forward to sitting together in a theatre again. But Zoom and the internet have shown us that there is a viable venue that can exist and amplify the live productions that were the lifeblood of the theatre.

Moving forward, however, I think that theatres across the country will find that the Internet will be a profitable partner, not only for productions but for the development of new works for the theatre.

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