NOW WHAT? A Teacher’s Guide to Directing Musical Theatre, Part 6: TABLE WORK

Now What Table WorkAs readers of this blog already know, we are HUGE advocates of musical theatre in schools. But we are also the first to admit that putting on a musical is hard work, especially for the teachers. It is the teacher who is usually expected to be the director, choreographer, stage manager, and producer; all while still being a teacher!

That is why we have asked Kimberly Patterson, the Theatre Arts Teacher and Performing Arts Chair at Oxbridge Academy in West Palm Beach, Florida, to write this series for our Spotlight On Musicals blog.
The series will outline the process of putting on a musical from start to finish, providing helpful tips and maybe even some new ideas. Topics will include:

  • Applying for a license with a publisher
  • Budgeting and creating calendars
  • Assembling your team
  • Running rehearsals with a student crew
  • Working with your technical theater team
  • Managing the house

…and many others. Whether you’re a seasoned producer of school theatre or you’re just starting out and have suddenly been put in charge of it all, this series will have something for you.

Thus far, we’ve posted PART 1: Selecting a Show & Securing Performance Rights, PART 2: Creating Your Documents, PART 3: Assembling Your Team, PART 4: Casting, and PART 5: First Rehearsal. Now it’s time for…

Now What? Musical Theatre Table WorkPART 6. TABLE WORK

Many directors spend one or two rehearsals on table work: sessions where the actors sit around a table and do a very close reading of the script. This doesn’t have to happen at an actual table; the point is that the actors aren’t working on blocking or too concerned with physical movement.

The goal is to reinforce characterization by talking about the what, why and how of the actor’s process, establish relationships, and clarify any additional questions about the dialogue. This is an established method of directing, and is typically very effective. It is also what many student performers, if they attend outside studios or camps, are used to when they are involved in a play. I’d now like to offer some suggestions for a few different ways of approaching this process.


Dick Van Dyke, Carl Reiner, Mary Tyler Moore and company at a table read for “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

I personally love table work because I believe that all of the answers that the cast and crew might be looking for can be found in the material created by the writers and composers. If you have a small cast, you can bring them all in together, or work in small groups. The task at hand is analyzing the book and lyrics for clues, and really fleshing out the why and how for each character (the what is typically pretty clear). This is also where pulling in the dramaturgical research can be handy.

An aside about dramaturgy: it can be one of those terms that are nebulous and mean different things to different people. At its heart, it’s the study of a dramatic text. While there can be many academic and professional aspects of this field, the most valuable thing for a high school teacher to get is that you’re providing comprehension, context, and relevance of the play for your students. For example, if you’re working on KISS ME, KATE, to truly understand the why of a scene is to first look at William Shakespeare’s THE TAMING OF THE SHREW and then at your libretto. What scenes mirror the text from Shakespeare? Which songs are part of the “show-within-a-show”? There are some jokes in the musical that are most enjoyable if you know that they’re straight out of Shakespeare’s play—it helps your audience connect to them if the performers also understand what’s going on. The actors will also need to understand the scenes when they’re performing the characters of Fred and Lilli, and when the characters of Fred and Lilli are performing the roles of Petruchio and Katherine. Making a note of these subtle differences can add polish to a production.

Table Work

Burke Moses and Carolee Carmello as Fred and Lilli – as Petruchio and Katherine – in KISS ME KATE (2001)

The focus of these table reads is on the text, and part of that includes memorization. It can be hard for students to memorize so much dialogue, so beginning as soon as possible is a must. Give the cast an off-book date and stick to it. Because they’re reviewing the dialogue so regularly and so closely, it’s a great opportunity for them to read from the script as much as possible so they can really get their lines right. This is also true for the music. If you have a musical director, this is an excellent time to start working on learning the songs. Teach the music, work out harmonies and areas of concern, and make the same arrangement for being off-book with lyrics. If students can get rehearsal tracks to use to practice at home, send them out now. Much as with cooking, if you read the recipe first and take the time to chop, measure, and prep before you start to cook, it can be an altogether smoother experience.

Because of all of the detail work that’s happening, it might be a while before blocking rehearsals begin. This prep work can sometimes take as many as 4-5 rehearsals, depending on the schedule you follow. Be ready for this to feel uncomfortable to you and to your students—it’s not how many high school shows typically operate. Also, because some students do learn better when they can associate movement with speech, it won’t hurt to have a blocking rehearsal or two in the midst of this other work, especially if they focus on entrances, exits, and other big staging moves. Over the years, I’ve found it’s hard to work on fine-tuning of a production while the students have scripts in their hands or aren’t running a song at full tempo. While this process might not work for every director or production, it can be an interesting way to approach a show and can breathe fresh air into a stale rehearsal situation.

Next up…

Part 7: In Rehearsal

KimberleyPattersonHeadshot2015 Table WorkKimberly Patterson is a two-time graduate of New York University, with an undergraduate degree in Dramatic Literature, Theater History and the Cinema, and a Masters Degree from the Gallatin School. Her program in Individualized Study focused on performance studies, dramatic writing, and technical theater, and her coursework included scenic design, puppetry, and “ritual-as-performance.” She spent more than a decade in New York City working in Off- and Off-Off Broadway theaters in almost every capacity possible. As a playwright, her plays have appeared in the New York International Fringe Festival and the New York Musical Theater Festival; her musical, Oedipus for Kids!, is published by Samuel French and has been produced around the U.S. Kimberly has extensive experience working with educational technology, and has managed online content and curriculum development for McGraw-Hill, ProQuest Education, and When not working behind the scenes in Oxbridge’s auditorium, Kimberly plays Japanese taiko drums and is a performing apprentice with Fushu Daiko.