Friday, November 19, 2010

Table Work.

I have, in the past, blogged about my frustration with 'table work.'  Table work is when the actors sit around a table and read thru and discuss the script in chunks, say, five pages and then talk, another five pages and then talk, etc.  That's what we're doing now in The Adding Machine.  It's a perfectly viable approach and I have many friends, actors whom I respect mightily, that love doing it.  For me, it's frustrating though.

When I first started coming up in the business, near the turn of the 19th century it seems sometimes, I essentially, for many years, did two types of theatre:  Fast, rotating summer repertory and grass root, original plays in small houses in NYC's off-off Broaway scene.  In both cases the key, the very essence of the work was about putting it up fast and furious.  It was all about necessity.  In stock, you had to do it, cause they's all the time you had...two weeks, up with Funny Girl, opening night, next day first readthru of South Pacific, two weeks rehearsal, put it up, slip it into the repertory with Funny Girl, one day off, read thru Camelot, two weeks to put it up and get it into the rotation...and all this time you're performing the shows at night and rehearsing 6 to 8 hours in the day.  That's how it worked.  I'm not even sure if that's how summer stock works anymore, haven't done it in ages.  As for NYC's off-off scene, the rehearsal space rates were so high it was impossible to rehearse a show too long.  Economical considerations alone made us work fast.  We simply had no choice.

So the question for me then becomes, is a play better served with an extended rehearsal period?  Maybe. 

I remember some years ago doing a play called 'Born Yesterday' at a large, Equity theater on the East Coast.  I was in the 'hired gun' phase of my career and spent most of my years literally skipping from one city to the next doing plays back to back to back.  Great times, and utterly exhausting.  There are very few major theaters on the East Coast in which I didn't work.  Anyway, so this director doing Born Yesterday loved to hear himself talk, loved to do 'table work,' loved to pontificate.  I specifically remember one day sitting around that table, well into our second week of sitting there, and listening to him draw comparisons to the Vietnam War and the rather slight, but well-written play Born Yesterday.  My eyes were spinning.  We rehearsed that play for five weeks and ran it for six weeks.  Drove me crazy.  I was ready to perform it after two weeks.  Was my performance noticably better with the additional three weeks of rehearsal?  I don't think so.  Was it more 'layered,' more comprehensible, more palatable for the audience?  I don't think so.  My job is to say the words loud enough for the guy in the back row to hear.  To get too much more complicated than that is, well, bordering on the senselessly self-indulgent, really. 

Now, The Adding Machine is different, granted.  It is a tremendously complicated piece of writing and honestly deserves some table work.  Nonetheless, it still makes me a little bonkers.  And yes, it is important for the actor to know what he's saying (although I'm of the opinion it is less important than most).  And the source material, Elmer Rice's play, like Sondheim's Sweeny Todd, does not, at first glance, readily lend itself to musical theater.

I like gearing up for a rehearsal, almost like a prize fight.  I nap, I eat the right things, I do my homework, and by the time rehearsal is ready to start I'm focused, I'm ready to be shot out of the cannon. This, no doubt, comes from my early years in stock and off-off.  And the simple truth is, not everyone likes to work that way, which is perfectly all right.  I'm reminded of the old Russian director, Boleslavsky, I think it was, that insisted on at LEAST six months of rehearsal.  I think I would have just fainted dead away.  

Today I have a few hours flying solo with just the musical director.  Looking forward to it.  The dialogue in this piece poses no threat to me.  I'm not the least bit concerned with it.  But the music is tremendously complicated.  And today is all about the music.

See you tomorrow.