What follows are some suggestions, especially for less experienced performers, gleaned from readings that have already taken place. However, they are only suggestions, not meant to discourage the creativity of those who are casting, directing, or producing readings. If anyone in those roles would like to discuss various casting and directing questions with Project Unspeakable’s chief playwright, Court Dorsey, please contact us and we will be happy to put you in touch with him directly.
• It is possible for any of these parts to be read by anyone of any age, race or gender. However, if possible, African-American readers can take the parts/quotes from Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and also from the other African-American characters in the script. Similarly, having women read women’s parts, and men read men’s parts, although not absolutely necessary, is helpful. (That said, at one performance, a very powerful reading of MLK was done by a passionate white woman who spoke with great conviction.) The grouping of parts suggested in the script allows for a great deal of this race and gender appropriate casting, with a minimum of “cross-casting”.
• In the 45-minute version, the “official” roles (e.g., those of Hoover, Dulles, and other “intelligence” or military-related persons) are clustered in Actor 10; choose a reader who can project the darker qualities that the quotes reflect. In other versions these roles are somewhat dispersed, but you might want to keep these characters in mind as you cast. Not all actors are comfortable or convincing in roles that they perceive as sinister or very different from themselves.
• The person reading Tenay should be able to convincingly portray Tenay’s relative ignorance regarding mid-20th century history and politics. Tenay is often surprised by the information in the play. Having that reader be a young person, while not necessary, has proven to be effective in this regard. This being said, there is no reason Tenay cannot reflect the actor’s or director’s creative choices, such as cynicism, skepticism or, on the contrary, naiveté. Often these diverging qualities can even appear in the same complicated character at different moments.
• Keep the reading moving, driving, snapping along, fast-paced. Let it all be in response to Tenay’s intense need to know what’s going on. When it drags, the audience isn’t as engaged and attentive; they’re less “on the edge of their seats.” Ask actors to read their lines ahead of time, so that they can do this during any kind of reading.
• Read with as little space between readers and lines as possible. Theater people call this “jumping on the cues.” This makes for a tighter, more energetic performance. Directors and actors may need to remind each other of this during rehearsals. (A rare, carefully chosen dramatic pause is electric in a reading with a fast pace and very little space between lines.)
• Unless there are microphones for each seated reader, readers can stand up just before they speak, both to better project their voices and also to take the visual attention of the audience. If there are a few microphones, readers should allow enough time for them to arrive and speak without any space after the line before.
• If readers are already standing, it’s helpful if they step forward when they read or when one of the narrators introduces them. This makes it easier for the audience to focus on the person reading and adds to the dynamics of the reading.
• If everyone in the cast is standing, you might have the Narrators stand on either side of and a little behind Tenay, stepping forward just a bit and turning slightly towards Tenay when they speak, to make clear they’re speaking to Tenay. (Alternatively, one successful way readings have been done is by having Tenay and the Narrators seated on stools, with the readers either standing behind them on either side, or seated on a stage or risers behind Tenay and the Narrators.) In general, within levels of comfort, standing is preferable to sitting, especially when speaking.
• Be aware of short scenes, or sequences of lines, where characters can remain in place, or where they they reappear quickly. In those cases, it is best to stay forward or standing throughout the whole scene or sequence, retreating or sitting only as the sequence ends and the characters disappear. This makes the action less choppy. This kind of clustering can happen especially, but not exclusively, with the four leaders.
• During the sections of the script where Malcolm and Martin seem to be trading lines, or at other times where you have a sense that the characters could be addressing each other, have the readers glance at each other as they’re reading, as though having a dialog (which, in a way, they are), while still facing the audience. The Narrators and Tenay consistently have this kind of ongoing connection. Whenever this happens, it will help bring the play alive.
• Readers need to project their voices outward toward the audience, even at the risk of thinking they’re speaking too loudly. It is helpful to envision your chest filling the room and bouncing your voice off the back wall. In staged readings, directors might stand at the back of the hall and encourage actors one at a time to speak loudly enough to reach them easily, taking the time with each actor, until they can really do it and feel comfortable with the volume. It’s always better to have lines louder than necessary than to have lines missed. Lines are rarely “too loud”.
• Readers need to give some “character” to the persons whose words they’re reading, even though in most cases they won’t know what these persons actually sounded like. The point is to make the people whose words are being quoted really come alive. Go for it! Have fun. If you have fun, the audience will too. This is not a time to be shy or reserved. Go ahead – give it a shot!