One of the most vital components of preproduction for film, TV, and theatrical performances, table reads help clarify goals, sharpen dialogue, and highlight areas of concern—which can lead to recasting, rewriting, or even rejecting a project entirely. Learn more about this valuable preproduction step and the kind of energy actors should bring to the (literal and proverbial) table.
A table read is a structured read-through of a screenplay or script by actors with speaking parts in a film, TV show, or play. The table read is often the first time that everyone involved in the production comes together. This test run takes place toward the end of preproduction and before shooting begins, to flesh out the script and finalize project details.
Who attends a table read?
Table reads are mostly attended by people directly involved in the production, including:
- Actors with speaking parts: Cast members read their lines out loud and engage with one another.
- Directors: The director assesses how best to create the visual narrative.
- Writers: Writers take notes about parts of the script that might need revisions.
- Producers: In a more utilitarian role, producers assess any practical issues with the script.
- Heads of department: Department heads use the lens of their department to come up with creative ideas and note any potential issues.
- Studio executives: Execs may provide creative commentary during the table read.
- Financiers: The table read shows financiers that their money is being put to good use—or might indicate that it’s not.
A table read requires:
- Space: While you can host a table read anywhere, it’s best to do it in a quiet space free from external distractions. The read-through should take place at a table or in a circle so that everyone can see each other.
- The full script: The complete read-through script is necessary to catch any issues and allow for productive revisions. Be sure to also include character breakdowns and story arcs.
- Cast list: The cast list with photos, parts, and real names allows for easy recognition of actors and their parts.
- Recording device: A video of the table read is a great asset when it comes to making revisions.
- Pens, pencils, and paper: Taking notes throughout the table read provides comprehensive feedback about the script and performers.
- Water: Hydration helps table reads go more smoothly, particularly for actors dealing with lots of dialogue.
Table reads provide insight into whether a script really works and if a team can collaborate successfully. They encourage:
- Community: Table reads are often the first time that actors meet and interact with one another and the rest of the film crew. This helps foster a feeling of collaboration and team chemistry.
- Good casting choices: Even though casting directors have a sense of actor capability from auditions, the table read can help them confirm their casting decisions—or reassign roles as needed.
- Creative flow: Getting those creative juices flowing through spoken performance helps with crafting characters and narratives.
- Revisions: Even the most eloquent script can contain errors, plot holes, and awkward dialogue. Hearing it read out loud helps illuminate any areas that need revision before shooting.
“The Office” final table read, Courtesy NBC
The table read process generally goes as follows:
- Introductions: People involved in the production introduce themselves with their names, job, and role (when applicable).
- Director vision: The director usually begins by discussing project goals and then guides the read-through.
- Read-through: Actors read their lines out loud. Another cast or crew member reads (often condensed) non-dialogue parts of the script.
- Feedback: Constructive criticism takes place at the end of each scene and again at the end of the entire read. Feedback should address dialogue flow; action scenes; actor interactions and chemistry; plot development; and character mannerisms, motivations, and narrative arcs. Remember that this is a chance to encourage team collaboration, so aim to provide feedback that is insightful, helpful, specific, and achievable. If you can’t put your finger on exactly why something isn’t working in a table read, try phrasing feedback in the form of a question (for example, “Why does this section feel stilted?” instead of “This part is terrible”).
- Post-read: After the table read is completed, changes are made to the script and casting based on its findings. Cast and crew should revise errors, respond to notes, and rewatch the table read recording to address any issues. Finally, the new and improved script should be sent out and reviewed.
These examples provide further insight into the table read process:
- “The Office”: The read begins with the director discussing goals for the finale, thanking the cast and crew, and then guiding the reading.
- “Bob’s Burgers”: Actors use their cartoon character voices in this comedic table read.
- “The Irishman”: The juxtaposition of the table read with corresponding filmic scenes illuminates how the process informs the project.
To conduct an effective table read, actors should:
- Be prepared: Much like Scar from “The Lion King,” ensure that your “teeth and ambitions are bared” by sufficiently preparing for the table read. Read the script several times beforehand to familiarize yourself with the narrative and develop performance choices.
- Look up: Just as with an audition, making eye contact helps you connect with your audience and develop chemistry with your fellow performers. The reason a table read is conducted at the titular table is so that everyone involved can look at one another.
- Act it out: While you won’t be fully gesticulating during a table read, you also shouldn’t just read. Engage your audience with energy and emotion so they don’t decide that casting you was a mistake. Show that “you have fully merged with the character” so nobody can “see the scaffolding of your craft,” says acting coach Joseph Pearlman. Even if you have a smaller speaking role, fully commit to your performance. Who knows? You might just impress the casting director enough that they choose to expand your role.
- Don’t overact: While you should act out the part instead of simply reading, be careful to avoid overacting. “Get into the zone of sadness, heartbreak, fury, vindictiveness, annoyance, lust, dysfunction—but just stick one foot in,” Pearlman says. “Save the rest for when you are on set or onstage.” This shows that you have acting range but are still cognizant that it’s not yet the real performance.
- Be considerate: Despite tales of certain actors who are notoriously difficult to work with, everyone prefers to work with people they get along with. Giving the performance of a lifetime at a table read means little if it becomes glaringly obvious that an actor is inconsiderate to those around them.
- Learn from the experience: Bring a pencil or pen to take notes on your script throughout the table read. These notes can help further develop your character, remind you of any questions or comments you have on the script, and show the cast and crew that you’re serious about the project.