What is 'Table Work'? And Why Bother With It?

This May, we began rehearsals for Pericles with a full week of table work.

Table work is a rehearsal technique which is often used at the beginning of a rehearsal process to deepen the actors’ and director’s understanding of the play before beginning to stage it. It usually means that the company will spend their first few days together sitting around a large table, reading through the play, and talking about it before they worry about getting on their feet.

Our director, Christopher Weddell, chose to dedicate a full week of our rehearsal period to table work, which proved to be very valuable, especially because we are tackling a play which is so rarely produced so there is a lot to discover within the text! Pericles is set over a 17-ish year period, and it follows the adventures of a prince, (named Pericles), on the run for his life. Each scene happens in a different country from the last, which brings a succession of different inhabitants, different customs, and different challenges. Each of these scenes tells a mini-story about the lives of the people there, and how they affect Pericles and his family. Our job is to make sure that each of these vignettes serves a clear purpose, and that we know why our characters are important to the overarching narrative.

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So, how did this work? First, we read through each scene as a company, going around the table and taking turns saying each other’s lines. After each scene, we would stop and have discussions about what we’d just read. We asked questions about the language, about the characters, and about the various plot elements. After we’d gone through the entire play in this fashion, we re-focused on certain sections which Christopher thought could use some extra attention. By taking such a long period of time to complete our table work, we were able to move past the surface questions about specific wordings or character arcs, and on to deeper musings about the type of story we want to tell with our version of Pericles, and about the overarching themes and messages hidden throughout the text.

Throughout our table work, we began to notice that each of the mini-stories within Pericles can be interpreted as a morality tale which teaches Pericles, or his family members, a valuable life lesson. With this in mind, we all began to consider what lesson each of our characters brought to the story, and how we each played a part in telling this massive story.

I had a very interesting experience beginning to work through my scenes as “The Bawd”, the owner of a brothel which Pericles’s daughter Marina is sold to in the second act. When I was cast in this role, I was excited to play someone whom I considered to be a villain. The Bawd is unapologetic, harsh, and a shrewd businesswoman. But, as we worked these scenes over and over, I began to see that reducing her to a stereotypical ‘Mrs. Hannigan from Annie’, trashy antagonist would be doing her a serious disservice. I found in the text that there is a softer side to this character -- a mothering side that is protective of Marina. She also expresses complex feelings about the nature of patriarchy, and her belief that sex work is a valuable, and valid way for a woman to earn a living and live with agency and some power as an individual. Over the course of the week, The Bawd transformed before my eyes from a Disney-esque villain to a sympathetic, complex woman who struggles with many gendered issues which are still very relevant in 2018.

I wasn’t the only one to experience some transformation throughout the week. Here’s what Wendy Magahay, who is playing Dionyza – another complex female character, who first swears to raise Marina as her own, and later attempts to murder her out of jealousy – had to say about our table work:

“I admit I’d never read Pericles. And on reading, it’s a story that travels the world and takes place in a half a dozen different places – someone at the table said it was like Pericles was another Gulliver adventuring in all these different lands.  So in just reading, there were definitely times when I was a bit lost. But at the table it all fell into place. Carol’s costume designs, where the inhabitants of each land are so unique, were a huge help. And because of the way the Festival can do Shakespeare with such a large cast, each of the individual voices suddenly fell into where they belonged.  And that’s what our audience will experience. It was so valuable to have the whole cast together. And then to be reminded that these characters are people and that people do things for reasons. Not always good or kind reasons, but still for reasons. So to continually ask: Why am I here? Why am I talking? What do I offer? What do I want? How can I get it?”

After a week of work as in-depth as this, I’m excited to start putting these discoveries into practice and getting the show on its feet!

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