I enter the rehearsal room with my pencils sharpened, multicolored highlighters at the ready, notebook open to my latest character theories, and a script tattered with dog-ears, notations, annotations, accent notes. I feel as though all of these things should make me feel prepared for everything, let alone what is about to happen next, yet at the same time I can't fight off the feeling that I have not prepared enough.
It's all for the first table read, that glorious moment not-so-long after casting when the ensemble of actors come together and read the play for the first time. This is the director's, the designers', the cast's first opportunity to hear the text out loud. Before the staging begins, we begin at the table. It's the starting point—it will forever be the starting point, and until recently, this part of the rehearsal process has seemed the most nebulous to me.
I can't help fight off the excitement or the jitters before a first table-read. It's like the night before Christmas, and those days between casting decisions and first rehearsal are excruciating. I just want to jump into it! This semester was no exception when I found out I'd be portraying the role of Charlie Aiken in the UNC School of the Art's production of Tracy Letts' August: Osage County. Along with the excitement there is something slightly intimidating about mounting this production—this is a three and a half hour comedy/drama about a troubled family and their secrets. Along with the mass critical acclaim it has received—a Pulitzer, Tonys, a film treatment to star Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts amongst others—the characters we will be portraying are much older. My character is a 60-year-old man! With challenges all over, where do we begin? The table!
Three years of actor training has led me to believe that there is much more to a table-read than just sitting around a table and reading a script. It is a process, and in the case of film and television, it may be the only time you get to rehearse a scene with your fellow actors before a shoot. And whether you are performing the 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama or reviving Shakespeare, the way you approach the text at the table will affect the way you continue your exploration of your character in the space. Constructive table work deepens portrayals and can aid you in any challenges you face as you bring yourself to a character.
So, what makes a productive table read? I have included a list of tips and some to-do's, compiled from experience and director expectations. Special thanks to Matt Bulluck, the director of August and Laura Henry, one of my acting teachers.
• Read the play more than once before the first-read.
• Never, ever, EVER approach a first-read without knowing pronunciations of difficult words or their definitions. Research historical/cultural references that are dropped in the text, too!
• Work with the goal to solidify ALL actions and intentions by the end of table work. Really! They may change as you stage or explore relationships, but it always became apparent to me upon leaving the table, which moments I could've solidified more—and there is nothing worse than wandering aimlessly on a stage. Know your purpose!
• Yes, NOW is the time to begin getting off-book. The more off-book you are, the easier a transition to staging you can make. Even being glued to the words at the table prevents you from connecting to your acting partner. Many professional acting companies don't even leave the table until all actors are memorized. (Learning lines by rote, too, can also help you not become attached to one intention).
• Think of your character. Go home and construct a timeline of the play, what has lead up to the first moment, your character's background. Invite your fellow cast-mates over for dinner and develop it together!
• Once you become more comfortable with the text, bring in little props and begin exploring their potential—are you applying makeup? Brushing your hair? Smoking? Eating food? Knitting? (Just make sure management is okay with the food, though).
• This depends on your director, but it's a good idea to begin work on accents and dialects and applying it to your speech. Finding your voice at the table will help you carry your character confidently to the space.
• Jot down thoughts, quotes, questions, lines from the play, ANYthing that stimulates you, the actor, as they occur during the read. These notes always help me explore and contribute more to group discussions.
• Even though you are seated, stay active and stay grounded—keeping both feet planted on the ground keeps me engaged.
• Always have a water bottle.
• BREATHE! No one is expecting a finished product, and now is the time to focus on connecting—pace will come later.
I hope this helps you. Even if you know, it's important to review—and feel free to comment if I have left anything out of this list—it is, by no means, the definitive list.