09 May 2006


"Hey, you asked. I'm willing to tell you.... In fact, I will tell you." Kess, Independence, Act II, scene i.

A long time ago, someone I know mentioned a lack among her performer friends' blogs for any kind of discussion of process. We seem to be all about costumes and blocking dilemmas, but not so much on what the characters think and feel.

One term for this process is tablework. It's when the actors and the director sit around a table (because where else are we going to put our coffee and assorted snacks?) and talk about the play.

Naturally, everyone's process is different and every show's process is different. Some directors believe in a lot of tablework, some in getting the show on its feet and letting the emotions follow the blocking. One of the things that I appreciated most about Independence is how much table work we got to do, even if we weren't sitting around a table. As we would finish working a scene Maura might say "See, Sherry seems so angry there, but she's really hurt. Why isn't she welcome in her own family?" which would start a several minute discussion between us about that question.

But Independence is very relationship-driven. And Lee Blessing (the playwright) gives us lots to work with within the four corners of the script. So I looked at the ways that they talk to each other. Kess's first scene with Jo looks like an interrogation. "Why would Mom hit you?" "Did anybody see it?" Why is Kess interrogating Jo? Why doesn't she believe her? They haven't seen each other in four years, where's the hugging and how are yous? Where's the sympathy over the neck brace?

Evelyn, Kess and Jo's mother, is both manipulative and crazy. And Jo, whether she sees it or not, is also a manipulator. "Having you here has been so great. I feel much calmer. And I know Mom's happier." In other words, do what we want and everyone stays happy and calm. Every time I heard something from Evelyn's head come out of Jo's mouth, Kess would get suspicious and shut down. Not shut down completely, but there would be a posture change, a drawing in. Some things you decide to do and keep, some thing you find yourself doing and decide to keep.

Tablework gets everyone on the same page, which means when I threw that ball, Sharon would know where to go to be under it and vice versa. Do enough tablework and you'll never have to worry about the trajectory of the ball because before it left your partner's hand you knew where it would go. Not enough and you'll find yourself in the middle of Tech Week hearing people ask "why is it that so-and-so does such-and-such?" and not in a good way.

Ten minutes of good tablework is worth an hour of rehearsal, a belief I got to put to a practical test working on Perfectly Good Airplanes. When the director and both actors are rehearsing other shows, rehearsal time is very limited. We had a total of about 5 rehearsals to get that puppy ready (I credit how well it went to the quality of my actors) and we spent the first rehearsal completely on tablework. We read the play, we talked about the play, we read it some more. We talked about it some more. We came up with a bunch of questions for Steve, the playwright. We all hoped that the cast would learn all the lines (it's about a 47-page script) but I knew that we would live and die on the relationship between the father and the daughter. So we dug into the whys and the wherefores of that relationship.

I'm now working on a redaction of David Mamet's "A Life in the Theatre" and we are similarly pressed for time, but we still spent our first two rehearsals going over the script line by line, asking questions, bouncing thoughts off of each other, and because it seems that Jeff's brain tracks in a similar manner to mine, wandering off onto tangents and non sequiturs. Josh has already remembered how non-linear my conversation is and is probably having flashbacks to Sneakers rehearsals. In that respect, he'll relate perfectly to his character, but it seems a pretty high price to pay.


And next rehearsal we move from one of my favorite parts of prepping a show to one of my least favorite parts - initial blocking.


Anonymous said...

Nice sports metaphor - I like that! As a baseball player who does musical theater, it makes perfectly good sense to me :D


Maureen said...

I'm with you - I find inital blocking rehearsals to be excruciatingly dull when I'm not being blocked myself, and sometimes even then. Yuck!