Most rehearsal processes for Shakespeare plays start out with a few days of tablework. What that means is that before we start blocking the play, (working out all the physical action), we sit with the script around the table, and do very close reading of the text. Because the language is so complex, we need to break it down in order to better convey it to our audience.

It’s a bit of a maxim among Shakespearean playmakers that Shakespeare used every word in every scene for a very specific reason. Why does Henry call Hal his “unthrifty son” rather than his “wayward” son, or “untamed” son, or any number of other words that he could have chosen? Certainly meter is involved, and the poetry of the language is something we take into account, but we also have to look at the situation. In this case, Henry is in public, asking his advisors and the lords at court where the prince is. To tip his hand too much in regards to how he feels about Hal may not be prudent.

Shakespeare leaves a lot of clues for his actors in the language. Breaking apart vowel and consonant combinations will yield stores of information about a character’s emotional state. How a character strings words together, what sorts of imagery they use to describe events, how they speak to one another vs. how they speak to the audience: all of these things are taken into account when we first approach a Shakespeare play.

Tablework is our opportunity to ask any questions we have about why we say certain things, or even just to make sure what we’re saying is what we think we’re saying. And it gives us a chance to see what language makes sense, and what is going to need a little finessing to make clear to an audience. When working with Shakespearean comedy, especially, many of the archaic jokes can fall flat, because the language is just plain different now. So we get a chance to really parse it out, and see if it’s worth trying to save a joke, or make it about something else, or cut it altogether, in order to better streamline the show, which we often do.

I always enjoy tablework, because it’s a chance to stretch some intellectual muscles, and really dig deep into all the minutiae of the text. It’s the foundation upon which all the rest of our work on the play is built.


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