Saturday, November 1, 2014

What I've Learned About Giving Public Readings, Part One

I attended a Noir at the Bar reading this week, as part of NoirCon 2014.  The event was held at the Misconduct Tavern in Philadelphia, a fairly ritzy bar.  The event was held in the bar's basement, with the authors reading from one corner.

However, as you can see in the above photo, the lighting was terrible.  I can't even tell from this photo who the author was!  (I think it's Jon McGoran, but I can't be sure.) The authors were not well lit, the lighting for the authors to see their manuscripts was limited, and the microphone wasn't very adaptable.

Since even a high-profile reading like Noir at the Bar can have these drawbacks, it's time for me to reiterate what I know about giving public readings.

Your first decision is this: What do I read?

Keep in mind that your goals are to entertain your audience and, if you have a book for sale, entice them to buy the book.  In the latter case, many authors will chose to read from the book they are selling.  Often they simply read the first chapter.

However, I think it's a mistake to commit to a specific reading until you are physically at the venue and have the chance to look at your audience.  I learned this years ago when I was doing stand-up comedy.  I went on stage on a Monday night during football season...and the audience was entirely female.  All the men were off watching Monday Night Football.

That was when I learned that my act didn't have enough jokes that appealed to women.  (OK, maybe my act was a little misogynistic.  This was the 1980s, after all.)

The upside of this event was that I learned to tailor my performance to the audience on that specific date.

What surprises could happen when you arrive at the venue?

The audience could be all women (or all men).

As in the Noir at the Bar event, the lighting could be sub-par.  I certainly wouldn't read something that required my gestures or facial expressions when the audience couldn't see me!

If the sound system is poor (or nonexistent), you have to decide if you can be heard at all.  I'm known for having a loud voice...but the louder I have to be, the smaller my vocal range.  If I have to work at maximum volume, I'm going to choose the story with the least number of character voices.

You want the audience to be sitting down.  But if they're standing, there are going to be distractions.  I'm going to assume a short attention span, and choose the shortest piece I've got.

The audience could include children.  All of a sudden, you have to do a clean reading.  This is also the case where there are children in earshot, but not physically at the reading.  (The old Chester County Book and Music Company in West Chester, Pennsylvania, had its reading lectern next to the children's book area.  We did readings at night, so there weren't many children about then...usually.)

And an event might have just happened that makes the material you chose seem insensitive or ill-timed.  What if your chosen excerpt has an airplane crash, and there's been a real airplane tragedy while you were going to the reading?  Would you really want to read about a fictional air crash, when there are real people suffering?  Or a major fire, earthquake, assassination...any of the delightful events we use to move our plot along. 

Alternately, there could be an unintended comedic effect from something going on at the venue.  For example, the Readers Forum Bookstore in Wayne, Pennsylvania, is situated under a dance studio.  What if the piece you selected is a meditation on silence, but it's interrupted by the thump – thump – thump of dancers clomping from the studio above the bookstore?
So it's safer if you bring at least two different pieces prepared for your reading.

One other thing: don't be thrown by interruptions to your readings.  I once worked a venue that was directly across the street from a firehouse.  Sure enough, a loud siren went off during my performance.  You can't out-shout a fire alarm.  Just halt your performance, make a note as to where you stopped, and wait it out.  

Similarly, I was managing an event when a member of the audience had a seizure, fell off his chair, and hit his head on the concrete floor.  We took a break until the situation was resolved.  There was a nurse in the audience who took over tending to the afflicted person, so I didn't have to attempt that.  I just told everyone that we'd have to take a break while the situation was resolved, and asked for the lights to be brought up to maximum so the EMTs could see what they're doing.  Even though we were in an urban area, it took 20 minutes for the EMTs to arrive.  We had put the Muzak back on, and the EMTs asked for it to be turned off so they could talk to their patient.  Then the EMTs put the patient on a gurney and took him away.  Even though there was a 35 minute interruption, most of the audience had stayed.  So I thanked the audience for staying, and we resumed.

A final note: if you want a stock line for brief interruptions (like a waitress dropping a tray of drinks), try this:  look in the direction of the noise and say, “Just put that anywhere.”  Delivered correctly, it usually gets a laugh.

In Part Two, we will go over how to physically prepare your piece for your event.  Thanks for reading! 


  1. I never thought of these things happening during a public reading! Thanks for sharing, Tony! Can't wait for part 2!!

  2. Thanks for following my posts, Dan! I'll let you know when my next public reading is, in case you want to come.