It’s an invaluable part of every director’s rehearsal arsenal, but why do we use it? What is it for? And if we must spend time off our feet – how can we maximise it to make the most of our time on them? Through a combination of my own experience and the work of director Katie Mitchell (The National, The Young Vic), I will recommend 8 steps I take on Day 1 around the table.
So you’ve got the script, you’ve got the cast, you’re ready to go… but whoever you are, whatever you’re working on rehearsal time and space are always at a premium. What can you do? One of the most challenging parts of getting any new work off the ground is maximising the time in rehearsal space. How many times have you heard a director or actor say “we’ve just got too much time!” exactly. Rehearsal spaces are expensive, and actor’s and creatives time is valuable too. You’ve all made sacrifices to be in the room, you all want to get to it. But there is a danger in getting your actors on their feet too early, running headlong into a part they don’t yet feel they have much understanding of has a high risk of producing inconsistent work.
Time spent round the table is the key to maximising the time in the room on your feet. What’s even better is in a pinch and with a small cast it can take place outside of the rehearsal room itself, somewhere you’re not paying for the privileged of tables and chairs. You can focus on the discussion whilst not mentally totting up the pounds and pence eaten up by your admirable but time consuming consultative approach.
This list (which is far from exhaustive) is be based on my experience of working with established scripts, and not devised pieces. It is based on my process which I have developed through the work of Katie Mitchell, who’s book The Director’s Craft continues to be invaluable in developing the way I work.
1: Get warm
Always start with a warm up. Even if your cast already have a working relationship, and especially if they don’t, plan in some form of mental and physical warm up to get their heads in the room – and at the table. Even if it’s just a couple of minutes. Some wordplay, some counting, some stretching, some deep breaths.
2: Justify your choices
Next, when the scripts come out, If you have made selections, cuts or chosen a certain translation of a text, be prepared to justify it in the first table session. What you go into the rehearsal room with should be stable in it’s essentials, making big cuts or chopping and changing large sections you risk destabilising an actor’s performance – as well as their patience and tolerance. Katie Mitchell goes into rehearsal with a script that is “non-negotiable” (132) and whilst this is not always possible, it would certainly help save time nit-picking over keeping or throwing any sticking lines
3: Surviving the first read rhrough
A first read through is often a good place to start. Stress that it is not a performance and nor should an actor treat it as such. Katie warns that a pressured read through can lead to the construction of a ‘elaborate cliched performance’ that can then be difficult to shake off. Instead, let them feel out the words, no performance required.
4: Action stations
After comes the discussion part. Although discussion is of course an organic process, you can plan in advance the activities you are going do with your cast and approximately how long they will take to ensure the who rehearsal does not get hijacked by an in-depth discussion one one small part of the whole script. If you have a plan, you can gracefully move the conversation along – but always assure to come back to any issues left unresolved later if there’s time. A pro tip Mitchell recommends, is to do away with watches but make sure you are facing a clock – bring one if necessary! If you are checking the time to hurry the conversation along, best to do it surreptitiously so as not to cause your actors too much anxiety. Or perhaps they’ll just think you’re bored! Either way. Don’t watch your watch.
5: Facts and questions
The activity I personally find most helpful at a table discussion is facts and questions work. This involves going through the script line by line and listing every fact, and every question. A question occurs where information is required that cannot be qualified by a fact. Some of these may be answered later in the text, some of these will require research and some may not be answered at all, it could be part of the dramatic tension in the text. On some occasions it is helpful to speculate on these, particularly in character development. On other occasions (especially when rehearsal time is tight) it is not a productive use of time. As a director it is up to you to decide if you have time to do this from scratch in rehearsal, ask your actors to consider the work independently, or to present your own findings for discussion either before or during the rehearsal itself. Mitchell recommends that regardless which option you have time to carry out, you should always complete the exercise yourself first. Then, if your actors miss anything you find crucial to your own understanding, you can help steer them in that direction. You can also discover new and previously unconsidered angles in their work, which unhindered by your own suggestions, might take quite unexpected turns.
6: Homework is a gift
Some of the questions raised may be answered by floor work in the rehearsal space or by discussion, but set research as out-of rehearsal time ‘homework’ to bring to rehearsal. It is unwise for example to bring a laptop or phone onto the table for anything other than taking notes. Hours can be lost on the smallest details, and this pursuit if deemed necessary is better outside the paid time in the space.
7: A picture tells a thousand words
Visuals are a useful aid in developing the world of the play early on in rehearsals. Katie recommends taking any field trips early on, in the first week if they can be arranged, so they can “feed the actors imagination at the point at which they are starting to build the world and the character”. Where no such time frame or budget exists for the kind of trip I would like to take my cast on, so I recommend bringing other visual aids. Print off photos to bring along, or send them along with Youtube clips in advance of the first rehearsal. The reason I suggest printing them is so they can be used in direct combination with the script; laid out on the table or pinned on the wall (with permission!) and the association will be cemented more firmly with the work the actors do in the space.
8: Any questions?
Be sure to let your actors know that there are no stupid questions, but keep it on topic. If an actor’s line of questioning is not opening the discussion up to the cast but turning the conversation repeatedly on themselves, offer to help them answer them individually after rehearsal, or even over email if you don’t have this option. Sitting round the table is an opportunity to bring everyone together, not the opportunity for a one-to-one with a single actor in the cast.
All the work you put in at that table will translate into thoughtful work on the floor, and ensure everyone is at least closer to being on the same page. Every question answered at that table, however tedious, is another less answered in your valuable floor time. Another less reason to stop, or for an actor to awkwardly hold to their chest for the duration of a rehearsal. In short, time spent at the table saves time and energy for the floor of the rehearsal room itself.