We look like we’re in a graduate school seminar.
With pencils in hand, coffee in our mugs, and resource materials close by, we pore over our texts. We refer to footnotes and dictionaries. We debate a nuanced turn of phrase and struggle to clarify a plot point. We are serious students of Shakespeare.
But we’re not in grad school. We’re not in any school.
We’re doing table work, the first step in almost any rehearsal process. It can go on for days. We’ve just completed three eight-hour days of table work for Hamlet, and we haven’t quite finished.
I love this.
You doubt me? Perhaps you’re haunted by memories of high school lectures and ten-page papers; perhaps you were intimidated by academic approaches to the Bard. Let me assure that what we’re doing is nothing like that.
I enjoyed school, and I loved my college Shakespeare professor, but I did not get excited about Shakespeare in a classroom. I could never see the plays in my mind’s eye when I read them (and I couldn’t even read them silently without falling asleep; I had to read them aloud to keep my eyes open. True story).
Shakespeare comes alive for me in performance, and I have been studying his plays for the last twenty years by seeing them and doing them. Of course I read them, closely and carefully. But my purpose is not academic. I want to know what makes them work, what makes each character (especially mine) tick, how the story unfolds for maximum suspense and excitement.
Table work is all about that. A group of actors is at the table to learn, but not for grades or advancement. We’re not competing with each other for class rank. We don’t need to put this work on our transcript, or use it to get into a good college. We’re not studying this text to fulfill a course requirement or to satisfy an academic advisor.
We are helping each other find the play. When we get up from the table and begin to put this thing on its feet, we will have a working sense of how each line feeds the next and moves the story forward. We will speak every word of text with confidence and purpose. This kind of work takes time, but it will pay off.
In the meantime, we may look like we’re in class. We’re not. But we’re getting a terrific education.