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Stage manager Katie Jackson: Table work’s not just about making tea – it prompts vital discoveries

Photo: Shutterstock/Wave Break Media Actors reading scripts. Photo: Shutterstock/Wave Break Media
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“We’re going to spend the first week doing table work,” the director announces on day one of rehearsals. The deputy stage manager’s heart sinks.

Table work is the intricate process of the director and actors combing through the script, picking it apart line by line, and using their findings to inform a lot of preliminary decisions on the characters and action. For the cast, it is a useful and important process. For the DSM, it is like being put out to pasture.

Everyone will spend the next five days sitting down, so there are no blocking notes to make. They are astutely dissecting the text and noting their findings in the scripts that lie in front of them, so there is no one to prompt. If you’re lucky, and the estate will allow it, there may be some cuts and edits made to the play. You can excitedly note them down in the book and, two weeks later when you get the understudies in rehearsals, you can pass on the news that they can stop learning lines that are no longer in the show.

Otherwise, during a week of table work, the DSM is relegated to boiling the kettle, arranging biscuits invitingly on a plate and, if you’re working in the West End, filling a cafetiere.

However, table work is one of the DSM’s greatest tools in the rehearsal room. Initially, it brings a familiarity with the text, although that’s rarely a concern for the DSM who, by the end of the run, will know the script better than anyone else. Instead it offers the time and space to observe the personalities in the room.

‘Stage managers are the glue that holds a show’s personalities together’

One of the main responsibilities of the stage management team is to be the glue that holds a variety of different personalities together. During table work, the DSM can sit quietly at the corner of the desk and mentally note important findings. Which actor is always late back from the tea break? Which actor is asking question after question as they vehemently try to excavate the finer details about their character from the text? Which actor is asking question after question merely to be the voice that is heard most in the room? How well does the director respond to actors challenging what they’ve just said and offering a counter-argument? How much does the leading actor respect the opinion of the other cast members?

These are all vital discoveries to be made as early in the process as possible. It will help inform your decision on how you approach Ariel to tell the actor they will be called three hours before every show to be painted blue from head to foot. You can gauge whether Martha will bite your head off when you try to ask if she’s allergic to fake brandy. And whether the director will fire you if the biscuit layout isn’t aesthetically pleasing enough.

Katie Jackson is a freelance stage manager. Read more of her columns at: thestage.co.uk/author/katie-jackson

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