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Malvolio Production Diary: table talk

Last night’s rehearsal was table talk—well, there wasn’t a table. We call a rehearsal table talk if the actors are sitting down and discussing the text rather than up on their feet saying it. A read-through could be considered table talk in a sense, but the first read-through is a special thing of its own, really. If your company does a second read-through, as many companies do, stopping and questioning and re-doing bits of scenes taking in to account the discussion, that definitely is table talk. What we did last night is a different kind of table talk, where we discuss characters and their relations to each other, filling in the things that aren’t in the text.

Actors, just like real people, are different one to another, which makes the rehearsal process interesting and fun, as you can imagine. We each have different processes—some people find it helpful (and/or entertaining) to do a lot of this background stuff, coming up with a character biography and as detailed a profile as possible. This is often dismissed as knowing what the character had for breakfast, and in fact it is easy to go down the rabbit hole of irrelevant detail, spending time on things the audience won’t know, and more important, that won’t help the actor tell the story during the performance. On the other hand, a little background can help the actor keep interested in a role that might be on the face of it simplistic, and since there are a myriad of choices (of gait, posture, gesture, accent, etcetera, etcetera) (that are apparent to the audience) to be made somehow, table talk is one way that many actors feel their way in to those decisions. Some actors choose a person to model the character after perhaps physically but perhaps only psychologically; one of our actors explained his characters motivations by referring to a historical personage of note. Some actors are more articulate than others, of course, and when asked (f’r’ex) what he felt about a certain other character might say you know, sort of, yeah, I don’t know, ’cos it’s, you know, like, whoooah, and, yeah, which doesn’t mean that the actor didn’t find that exchange helpful. I suppose.

When I have done table talk (and most community theater productions I have been in do not choose to spend time on table talk, either because the director doesn’t think it’s valuable at all, or more likely because there just isn’t time) it has been at the very beginning of the process, just after the read-through and before blocking begins. That gives the company an opportunity to come to a consensus about the through-lines and emphases of the play before any decisions are made that it would be difficult and expensive to change (OK, the most difficult and expensive to change decision is the set, which almost certainly has been committed to before the first rehearsal and even before casting begins, but other decisions, including costumes and some publicity materials, are still at least somewhat nebulous at the first week of rehearsals for every show I’ve been involved with); if the company does not reach consensus about these issues through table-talk the director will have to impose a vision on the company. Or there will be no consensus, and much of the cast will come to their own decisions about these sorts of things, which can also work out well. Some actors prefer not to know motivations and subtexts the other actors have worked out, feeling that it is easier to portray truthfully their own character’s misunderstandings or confusions or misperceptions without themselves having the inside information. As an example: our Sir Toby revealed last night that he was attributing some of the character's destructive (and self-destructive) tendencies to a conscious resentment as a younger brother of being denied the family inheritance and a share in running the family estate. This is one perfectly reasonable interpretation—since there wasn’t anything for him to do except eat, drink and be merry, Sir Toby fell to his wastrel role with a will. Is it helpful for me, the actor playing Malvolio, to know this information that Malvolio wouldn’t? Is it helpful for the actress playing Olivia to know this information that Olivia wouldn’t? I answer that yes, but not everyone does.

Anyway.

This particular table talk rehearsal took place (as Gentle Readers will be aware) after we blocked and ran the whole thing a couple of times through. On the positive side, that meant we knew more about what was working and what wasn’t, and about how our castmates were playing their roles; on the downside, I think many of us are set in most of our decisions, so we may not be able to use the new developments very much. We’ll see. I also think it served a kind of indirect purpose, of getting us to pay more attention to each other—for blocking rehearsals I focus on my own marks, and largely perceive the other actors in terms of working around their location. No, I’m exaggerating, but it’s easy, particularly as you are laying in the blocking, to get caught up in your own interpretation of what you are doing and not focus on the other person in the scene.

Digression: You know what? I started writing a whole digression here about the Meisner school and Stanislavski-based thinking and various trade-offs of theatrical acting theories, and it’s just not going to work in the middle of this diary post. I’ll try to write it up over the next couple of days (remind me, if I neglect it and you are interested in such things) as a separate note. If you have been reading this Tohu Bohu for ten years, and I think I have attracted very few new Gentle Readers in that time, you know much of my thinking about acting anyway. End Digression.

Anyway.

For me, personally, there was one really nice thing, and that had to do with the question I have written about already a few times: In the court scene, why does Malvolio come back to Olivia and have the conversation that piques her interest in Cesario? What is he trying to do? And oddly enough, I found help with the actor who is playing Valentine. For those that don’t recall (and why would you) Valentine had been delivering love-messages from the Duke to Olivia before Cesario took over that task, and when the director asked the actor about Valentine's attitude toward being displaced, he described it as mostly relief. He is playing Valentine as Orsino’s steward (Malvolio’s opposite number) and said that Valentine found the obviously-hopeless task a distraction from his serious duties, and that he felt that by the point Cesario is given the task, he was delivering the poems in a perfunctory, almost desultory manner, neither expecting nor wanting a time-consuming and fruitless audience with the Lady. Anyway, that was a revelation to me: of course Malvolio is nonplussed that his opposite number Valentine has suddenly been replaced by some new kid that doesn’t know how this all works. I can imagine Malvolio and Valentine being reasonable acquaintances as the managers of the two large estates in Illyria. Not friends, nor even colleagues, but knowing and trusting each other a little bit in business dealings, and accustomed to each other’s habits.

And that means that it is news when Cesario comes to the door instead of Valentine, and news that might interest Olivia. And there’s an element in it of the new FedEx driver who doesn’t know where to leave the packages and who is authorized to sign and is insisting on seeing Olivia himself. It’s an irritation, and a change, and it means extra work as you explain to the new guy how things actually work around here, and that’s worth telling the boss about. But it doesn’t mean that Malvolio expects anything to really change—he doesn’t expect Olivia to admit Cesario to her court, and he certainly doesn’t expect her to entertain his suit (for the Duke), just that there may be a particularly irritating period of adjustment coming up. At least, I’m going to try playing it like that and see how it works.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

Fascinating! I hadn't thought about Valentine's attitudes before, but he must have a view of his role as go-between that is widely different from Viola's when she takes it up. Giving him a steward identity certainly gives the actor playing Malvolio a lot to work with.

After reading your comment on how blocking rehearsals may lead one to "get caught up in your own interpretation of what you are doing and not focus on the other person in the scene," it occurs to me that Malvolio treats life a bit too much like a blocking rehearsal . . .


I had also never thought about Valentine's attitude toward the love-message chore; I had never in fact differentiated amongst the members of the Duke's court. But it almost doesn't matter what the actor playing Valentine thinks—however that part is played, it's in the text that the Duke has sent someone new, who is behaving differently than the last one. I think it's more interesting to play that Valentine (and Curio, perhaps) is more humouring Orsino than actually trying to aid him, and that Cesario, guided by his crush on Orsino, puts more effort into wooing Olivia for him. That creates a sort of equilibrium at the beginning that is disrupted by Cesario's passion for Orsino, misplaced onto Olivia, who responds back… I do think that Orsino enjoys his misery too much to be in any great rush for romantic success, and that the Illyrians likely expect the whole stand-off (Olivia's protracted mourning as well as Orsino's pining) to go on years, if not forever.

Malvolio has no interaction with Valentine on-stage, nor with any of the Duke's court. They are all around in Act Five, of course, but I don't think it works to have Malvolio aware of them. At any rate, Malvolio's relations with the Duke and his court are important only insofar as they make a coherent Illyria for them all to live in, and as the various actors choose how to react to my appearance (and before that, the discussion of me) in Act Five, which fortunately isn't my problem.

Thanks,
-V.


While I'm thinking about it, Malvolio's conception of Cesario as The New Guy works well with Olivia's reaction to Maria saying that Sir Toby is the one talking to him at the gate—it's one thing for Valentine to know, as everyone Illyria must, that the Countess harbors a drunken relative, and another for Sir Toby to be the first face of the establishment to this new fellow.

Thanks,
-V.


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