After a table read, I’ve have overheard insecure, stressed-out producers whisper to each other, “You still like her? I didn’t like her voice, did you like her voice? She’s got that weird thing with her eye, did you notice that? I’m not sure if she’s going to be able to nail it…”
So you’ve got to learn how to survive the table read, one of the most misunderstood parts of the process for actors. Think of the table read as meeting your partner’s family for the first time over dinner. Sure, your significant other likes you enough to invite you to this family meal, but you still need to win over his difficult siblings, stern parents, and strange aunts and uncles (who all have their own baggage, scars, and insecurities).
A typical table read involves a group of people—actors, directors, writers, producers—who have sacrificed their time to sit around a table at a designated location to read through a script. They begin and end with everyone’s heads buried in scripts, not looking at or talking to each other. Thus, the potential to make a deep connection to the text and other actors, to really talk and really listen to them, is too often squandered. What’s more, most actors are unsure of how big or small their performance should be. Should they seem confident and just go for it, or should they seem confident and give a more subdued, thrown-away performance?
If you have a table read in your future, follow these four rules to ensure that you give everyone the ironclad reassurance that yes, you are the best actor for the role and that they’ve all done their jobs correctly in hiring you. Plus, you’ll get to keep that job you worked so hard to earn.
1. Your head should be up and out.
The technical rules of the table read are exactly the same as the cold read: when talking to another person, get your head up and out of the script and actually talk to them. This by no means suggests you must force hard eye contact—just keep your head out of the script.
The same goes when listening. Don’t break the connection to your partner to see what your next line is. Instead, keep your head up and out to listen. During the in-between moments, you can scoop the text off of your page with your eyes.
2. Keep one hand on the text.
Hold your script in one hand. Holding it with two forces the acting to be from the neck, up. Since we live in our whole bodies, acting should be no less physical. Also, a one-handed grip on the script exudes confidence. It shows you’re familiar with the material and comfortable with the character, so much so that you can free up an entire hand to help convey your performance.
3. Play yourself.
It’s important to tap the gas lightly on any intense acting “choices” you’ve made so you’re not entering the table read in gear. You want to be in neutral. We do this so we don’t lose the element of surprise when we’re on set/on stage.
The simple rule is to keep a little to yourself. In other words, at the table read, don’t give away your hand and reveal the brave and fun choices you’re ultimately going to make on set. Also, there’s a danger of looking green if you’re the one actor at the table read weeping real tears, screaming until you’re hoarse, sweating, drooling, dying, etc. It’s still a table read.
You’re not expected to deliver 100 percent all the time. If you’re the one person killing yourself to reach some awful tragic climax, it could very well work against you. Get into the zone of sadness, heartbreak, fury, vindictiveness, annoyance, lust, dysfunction—but just stick one foot in. Save the rest for when you are on set or on stage.
4. Be scary-real.
“Out-real” the other actors. Be so real the actors can’t tell you’re “acting.” That said, this does not mean deliver 100 percent (see #3). Be scary-real in the sense that you have fully merged with the character and no one can see the scaffolding of your craft.
Take time to prepare and do whatever it is you do that helps you get into character. Have your hook ready. Do everything you would do before an audition so that, like a musician, you don’t have to think about where you’re putting your fingers on the keys.
If you follow these four steps, I guarantee you will keep your job. At worst, if the producers get antsy and anxious, your name won’t come up as the one who needs to be replaced. At best: you’ll be the one other attendees at the table read say, “that so-and-so was great/so perfect/flawless casting” about.
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