The rehearsal room is our place to prepare for our upcoming performance. It is a safe space (hopefully) where we can play, experiment and work as actors to make our character as detailed and effective as possible. But as many of us will have already experienced, the rehearsal process is one which is often crammed with activity, and always seems to go for a week shorter than we need it to. This is why we need to speak about preparation for rehearsals. How do we prepare to prepare? It seems like an odd concept, but effective preparation for rehearsal can drastically impact your final performance. It can do wonders for your sense of ease and ability to play whilst in the rehearsal room, and is a MUST for those actors looking to deliver something truly special on opening night. Here are a number of things to consider in the lead up to a rehearsal, and a few tips and techniques for getting yourself ready for that process.
First things first, let’s get clear on the structure of our prep time. My first acting teacher used the phrase, “Take care of the structure and the content will take care of itself”. I love this idea and it has proved true for me over the years time and time again. Preparing ahead of rehearsals is a delicate endeavour. Spend too much time preparing for a role and we can arrive at rehearsals burnt out or locked into choices unaligned with the vision of the project. Too little time and we can arrive on the back foot, barely catching up to the rest of the cast ahead of opening night.
Have a think about these few points about taking care of the structure of your preparation:
1. Define the Time
I have had a revelation in the past few days as a result of thinking about this article, (Thanks, StageMilk readers). I have an upcoming theatre production to prepare for; we start rehearsals in just over a month. I have all these grand dreams about the preparation I’d like to do to dive deeply into my character ahead of the game. There’s a problem though. I’m procrastinating. I’ve had months of lead up to this production, and the preparation still hasn’t begun. My guilt levels have slowly been rising the closer I get to day one of rehearsals. My revelation is this: I don’t need a LOT of time to prepare, I just need some time of high quality and focus. It’s a quality over quantity situation. Sure, I could have read and re-read the play 20 times by now, but the quality of that work may not be as high as my current plan. My plan is this: I will start my work a fortnight out from rehearsal and will allocate 1-2 60 minute sessions of focused work 3-4 times a week. That’s all. We have a short rehearsal period, so this way I can keep my process contained to a typical rehearsal time rather than a long winded approach.
I was speaking to a musical theatre performer over the weekend about their recent production of Wicked. They had their show cancelled due to COVID-19, and instead of dropping their show entirely, they decided to keep rehearsing and working the show ahead of their remount which closed last week. They spent a year working on the show, detailing it and keeping it warm. This should have led to great results, right? No. The actor I was speaking to said this process had a devastating effect on the morale and enthusiasm of the whole team putting the show on. There was no clear end in sight so they were rehearsing in a void. We must avoid this at all costs.
The crux is this: Set aside a clear outline in your calendar for the time you want to prepare. It might be one or two weeks, (or more depending on what you need) with specific increments of time each day to work on the role. Less is more with this approach.
2. Define Your Intention
What this period of time allows you to do is to be clear about what you want to achieve. My grand dreams for my upcoming role were all talk, focusing on big results like “being unrecognisable within the role” or even just doing “really good acting”. There’s nothing tangible about this approach. Instead, what we need to do is list for ourselves a few really clear points about what we want to achieve, so we can go into the rehearsal room trusting that work. These goals can only be defined by you, but I’ll outline a few points I feel are essential to get across pre-rehearsal.
For each role you play there will be a number of different areas to focus on. From skills to develop and research to complete, it’s up to you to ensure your preparation is effective and tailored to you and your character. That being said, there are a few things I’d recommend you consider including.
1. Text Work
Contrary to popular belief, rehearsals are not the time to be learning your lines. Whilst there may be enough time in the rehearsal block to do this, focusing on remembering the words you have to say drastically takes away from your ability to play in the rehearsal room. The early weeks of rehearsal are crucial, with the director typically wanting to lock down choices and blocking in the second half of the period, you only really have about two weeks to experiment on the floor and play with a range of offers. If you spend that time with your head in the script, you limit the depth of your work.
Pre rehearsal is not necessarily the time to be making decisions about the delivery of your lines, but rather getting familiar with your lines, the story and the given circumstances. Get yourself to a place where you feel you only need your script on the floor as a reference or a safety net.
This article is primarily focused on theatre and it’s rehearsal process; however, I believe these points are valid to all acting jobs. In a theatre context, everyone comes to work with an area of expertise. The designer focuses on the visual elements, the costume team focuses on the actors’ clothing etc. The director focuses on the story as a whole. You, as an actor playing a character, are the subject matter expert of that character. This means it’s part of your job to come to work having done your research. You need to know the character, which means you need to know the world of the character.
Allocate some time before you start rehearsing towards research. Whether the story is completely fictional or based on real events, it’s your job to understand the world as clearly as possible. If the play is set in, say, Ireland in the 1960s, you need to research thoroughly that specific place and that specific time. All this research ultimately shapes your character and the way they behave, what drives them and why they do what they do.
There are a million things you could research for a role. These include the setting, the playwright, the occupation of the character, the attributes of the character, the events the character experiences, the interests of the character, the list goes on and on. You will and should continue this research throughout the rehearsal, but for your time beforehand be really clear about what you want to achieve. You may only need to get really clear on 4 or 5 things. Identify what’s most important to you and then dive into that research. Enjoy it.
Ok this is a must. If there are any skills or attributes your character needs to demonstrate on stage, (or, arguably, even if they don’t) become aware of this as early as possible, so you don’t get a last minute rude shock. Don’t let week 3 of rehearsals be the time you first try that cartwheel your character has to do.
When I say skills I mean a range of things, but I also mean accents. The more time you can give yourself before rehearsals to practise your accent the better. You don’t want to be worrying about how your accent sounds while you are trying to focus on making choices and playing on stage.
4. First Read
I want to flag briefly the importance of your first time reading a script. A first read is sacred and should be treated as such. You will never read a script for the first time twice. Your first read is where your imagination is most responsive and alive to the story, reacting genuinely to what’s happening. These organic responses are essential to take note of and write down and remember. In an interview I watched recently with Tom Hardy, he described his acting process as essentially reading the script, hearing and seeing the story unfold, then going through a rehearsal process to get out of his own way and get back to that first response to the story. When we start to rehearse we go through waves and tangents of doubt and curiosity which can deepen the work but can also take away from it. Having a clear experience of a first read which you can reference can be critical in remembering the core truths of the story and what you’re working towards.
Additionally, it’s important to remember to read the story as a whole on your first read. As best as you can, supress your impulse to only focus on your character whilst you’re reading for the first time. A first read spent highlighting your lines is a pretty narrow minded approach to a role. Read the play as a whole, respond to it like you would as an audience member. Form opinions about all the characters and events, not just your own.
5. Preparing for Play
As is true for all of the above factors, what you’re essentially trying to do is to arrive at the rehearsal room willing and able to play. Pre-rehearsal preparation is a wonderful period free from the pressures of the upcoming performance. It’s a time for you to focus on yourself and your own work rather than needing to give your energy to your ensemble.
The notion of play is important. I want to flag again, what I’m not suggesting you do is to arrive at rehearsals like a cooked chicken – job done. Quite the opposite. Rehearsal is the time to bring your preparation work to life through experimentation and play. Be familiar with your lines, but be alive to the lines of the other characters. Listen to them. Allow the story to come to life around you. Let this and your preparation inform your choices. Don’t operate in isolation.
Now that we’ve covered the essentials, what else can we do to prepare?
A rehearsal which is tight for time can rob us of the opportunity to experiment with our acting process. This is why doing pre-rehearsal preparation pays off exponentially in the long run. Use the time you’ve got to think outside the box about the ways in which you’d like to prepare for the role. I’ve got some ideas you might like to try:
What, if any, are the ways you could experience the story (or part of) first hand? Pre-rehearsal is the time for this kind of exploration. What environments, experiences or people could you spend time with to better understand your character and their experience? This goes without saying, but any work you do which engages with the real world should be done with the utmost care and respect. Similarly, if your role involves any kind of heavy or traumatic themes, you must take the additional steps to take care of both yourself and anyone you engage with.
A simple example of this technique would be for a character who plays in a hockey team. You could immerse yourself in that world and experience in many time and cost effective ways pre rehearsal which will all impact your end performance. You could join a team, you could watch one or several hockey games, you could talk to a hockey player… you get the gist.
2. Real World Experience
Similarly to the above technique, the chances are that you are not a million miles away from being able to get some first hand experience which is close to that of your characters. As well as this, I’d argue there would be only a few degrees of separation between you and someone with a similar story to that of your character. What favours can you call in, who can you meet with, what questions can you ask of people who actually know and understand what your character has gone through?
This exercise takes acting out of the realm of imagination and into the real world. By speaking to people about their experience, suddenly the story you’re telling becomes much more real. Suddenly, you have an obligation to do the story justice.
If you’re keen to check out some other methods for diving deep into a role, check out our article on the subject in our article about Intense Acting Roles: Immersion and Sustainability.
Onwards… to the rehearsal room
The core of my message to you today is this: set yourself up for success. Leaving it until rehearsals to learn your lines, do your research, practice your accent as well as ALL the rest of your work leaves very little space for exploration, which is what rehearsals should be all about. Arrive as the subject matter expert of your character. Be willing to let it all go once you’re in the room. Play.