Rehearsal. What a crazy time. A rehearsal process, particularly in theatre, can be wonderful, terrifying, challenging, highly emotional, unbelievably funny and can push us way out of our comfort zones. Today we’re going to be diving into all things rehearsal and what it has in store for us, and how we can make the best use of that time. So, whether you’re a rehearsal-regular or you’re about to go into the rehearsal room for the first time, this article is going to contain a number of brain pickings you may like to consider.
What to Expect From a Rehearsal
As a matter of curiosity, I counted the amount of rehearsal processes I’ve been through in my life, ranging from my first ever production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream back in school, to my most recent role in a production of Hamlet. The total count is 26. 26 projects I’ve gone through a rehearsal for. Some I’ve loved, and some I’ve struggled with. Though each process was vastly different (based on all the different factors such as the story, people involved and the director and their method) there are a number of commonalities between the 26.
As a general rule, a rehearsal has four main stages. I’ll call these stages: Understanding, Exploration, Practise and Presentation. Let’s talk about what these stages have in store for us.
Every rehearsal I have been a part of, without fail, has begun with a table read. This is a wonderful exercise full of nerves and excitement as the team hears the words spoken out loud and experiences the story for the first time. It’s a special occasion and one which should be treated with respect, as a ‘first read’ can never happen twice. Even though this read is unrehearsed, a lot of what comes up can actually be incredibly raw and organic, and a great indication of the place or feeling you want the story to get to.
Following this exercise, the first period of the rehearsal will be given to prioritising a unity of understanding of the story itself. This process may take a few hours or days, or the director might even give the whole first week to this exercise. Being on the same page as an ensemble about the story and what you, collectively, are bringing to the story is crucial. It is in these stages questions around why you are telling this story will begin to be dissected. “Why are we telling this story” has got to be one of, if not the most important question a rehearsal process seeks to answer.
The greatest actors I’ve had the privilege of working with use this time like they were a blank canvas. They free themselves of the obligation to lock in choices in these early reads. Instead, they warm into the practice of play. They throw things up in the air. They test the water. They approach their role with incredible freedom, which is a really incredible thing to behold. (I often feel like audience members would love to witness a half-rehearsed show, when the choices are raw, the actors are artists rather than performers.)
This understanding period can definitely induce fear and self doubt. This is normal. We’re in a room full of new people, it’s like our first day of primary school all over again. There will often be actors in the room we admire or are intimidated by, and we may feel the need to impress people with the way we read or demonstrate our understanding of the story; I know I certainly do. Know that everyone goes through this and it’s an essential part of the process. This early stage is where the dynamic of the ensemble starts to form, and though it may feel foreign now, by the time you get to closing night, you may not be able to imagine a world without the friendships you’ve formed during this time. Post-show blues are REAL!
What follows next is the stage of experimentation, exploration and play. (Notice I’m not attaching a time period to these stages. They might be a week each or only a few days, depending on the director’s method and the length of the rehearsal block.)
This may be the most glorious time of a rehearsal. It’s where the story begins to come to life in front of our very eyes. It’s where we start to see the actors and creatives bring their individuality to their role. It’s where we start to feel the power of the story we felt so potently in the first read. The training wheels are on our brand new pink-tasseled bicycle, folks. With that comes some glorious soaring moments, and some moments where we learn the importance of wearing a helmet.
This second stage is one of true freedom. We are far enough away from opening night to negate the need for locking down choices, but far enough into rehearsals to understand the framework which we can play in. With this I’m mind it’s important for us to prioritise play in this period. There’s no obligation to get things right (yet). We should use this time to test the limits of what our character is capable of. So your character is described as being incredibly shy and timid? What happens if they shout? The way you behave as your character may be completely wrong for the end result, but in that experimentation you get a step closer to being able to define your character and their boundaries.
Alongside play, listening is a priority during this time; it’s important all the time, but especially here. The more we can be in a place of organic responsiveness to the other actors, the more we will discover about our character. The other actors will be experimenting too, so the more we can strip away any pre-planned responses and simply react, the better.
This stage is where our preparation, (or lack-thereof) becomes truly apparent. If you’d like to check out my thoughts on how to prepare for rehearsal, head to my article on How to Effectively Prepare for Rehearsals.
Now we’re into the tricky section. Training wheels are officially in the bin. A lot of nerves, doubt and emotion can arise during this time. Stage three, often coinciding with week three of a rehearsal, is where we start to lock things in. We start the process of making decisions and then refining our choices.
For whatever reason, this stage can be a hurdle. Maybe it’s also to do with actors getting fatigued around week three, maybe it’s about being unsure of which choices are best to stick with, who knows. What’s important to remember about this time is the fact that there is still time. Opening night feels VERY close in stage three, but it’s important not to let this overwhelm us.
It’s often in stage three that we feel we should be much more prepared than we currently are. This experience is totally normal. The best mindset for navigating this turbulence is to breathe through the struggle. It’s about trusting the fact that you will be ok and you will get to where you need to get. Feelings of panic and fear may be unavoidable, but ultimately they will pass.
The process of locking in choices and blocking is best as a gradual one. Though you may be given clear direction to “Do it like you did that one time where you stood here then walked over there”, it’s still your job to investigate that choice and remain open to superior choices arising. You’re well within your rights to propose an alternative to try if you feel it would be productive.
Same with your acting choices and the delivery of your text; live within those choices. Theatre is magic for its spontaneous nature. It will never be the same two nights in a row, and I don’t think it should try to be. We go to the theatre to see life, and a perfectly polished performance repeated identically night after night can be totally lifeless. Find the balance. How organic can you keep your performance whilst staying in the bounds of the given circumstances and your rehearsed actions? I’ll give you a hint: It’s all about listening and responding. Chances are the other actors are delivering their lines slightly differently to you each night, so respond to the present moment, not yesterday evening.
We’ve created a structure for our performance, the skeleton of what we will ultimately perform, now we need to dig deeper into that structure and find freedom within it.
If this phase had a theme tune it would be ‘Danger Zone’ by Kenny Loggins, featured in Top Gun. We’re talking business now, team. And just like Tom Cruise reaching Mach 1.8, we’re thundering towards our first performance for the general public.
The time for new has come and gone. Now our actions and blocking need to be consistent, and it’s the actor’s challenge to keep them alive and truthful. In this final stage we will see a lot of new factors to take into consideration. The work of the other creatives will, (assuming they haven’t already) start to be included in runs of the show. Suddenly you’re wearing a costume, there’s a set, there’s music, and other technical factors being included. As well as this, trusted people may be invited to watch a rehearsal run. Having these audience members watch the show is a common and important part of the rehearsal. It reminds us that this is a show we’re rehearsing to be watched and responded to. The audience is another incredibly important character to include in the play.
This phase will include a combination of technical rehearsals, dress rehearsals, timed practise runs, previews in front of live audiences, re-rehearsals of various scenes and a bunch of waiting around whilst the pieces fall into place.
This time is all about prioritising preservation. It’s no use you burning out during tech-week and being unable to give it your all on opening night. Look after yourself, give what’s necessary for you to give but keep what’s to come in mind.
Additional Factors to Consider
So, we’ve covered off on what to expect from a typical rehearsal process. There are a few other things which have been essential for me to keep in focus.
Just like an athlete warms up for practise, so too do we need to make sure we’re taking care of our instrument during rehearsal. Hopefully some time will be allocated for this at the beginning of rehearsal, but to be honest if you’re not warmed up and ready to go pre-rehearsal, you’re already behind.
Look after your voice, and look after your body. Check out these articles for more info:
Acting is largely about sustainability. We could be able to give the greatest performance ever seen, but the craft of an actor is being able to repeat that performance night after night or take after take. To do this, we must take care of ourselves not only physically (as outlined above) but also psychologically. Set yourself up for success by taking extra good care of yourself during rehearsal. This means diet, exercise, sleep, downtime, mindfulness, being with friends and family and all other self care related factors. It also means managing the other potentially stress-inducing factors of your life. How can you organise your time so that you’re able to take care of your finances, relationships and other projects and obligations in your life?
An acting project is an odd experience, being all consuming for a relatively short period of time and then thrusting us back out into the world. How do we set ourselves up to be able to devote the time whilst not completely cancelling the rest of our lives? We have a great article on getting yourself out of character and winding down after a show called How to De-Role.
Take the time to figure out your plan for self care during rehearsals. If you’re not sure how, here are 10 Ways for Actors to Practice Self-Care. No-one can force you to look after yourself, you just should. It’ll make you a better actor AND a better actor to be around.
There really are no stupid questions in a rehearsal room. Even if you’re in the latter stages of the rehearsal, your investigation of the story and character should be ongoing. In fact, I think it should never stop until closing night. One of my favourite jobs to date had me performing in schools around Australia for 9 months. We reached 40,000 students in that time, and what I loved is that even though we did something like 400 shows, we were still dissecting our production on the day of our 400th show. The work never stops. This does not mean we made random major changes to the show, but it meant that we were still pursuing the core of the work we were doing.
Ask questions. Lot’s of them. Include the team in your curiosity, it will only inspire more curiosity.
In addition to this, the same rule applies to anything you feel less-than-great about. Speak up. If anything makes you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, speak up. The company you work for SHOULD provide safe avenues for you to express your concerns, but if they don’t, the next best step is to reach out to the equity or union most closely tied to your project. Take care of yourself so you can take care of others.
By opening night, we want to be in the ideal place: excited to share the work, prepared and passionate. To get to this place we need to take care of aaaaaalllll the steps which lead up to it, starting way back in the weeks leading up to the rehearsal even beginning.
I hope this has been a useful read for you! If you’re about to go into a rehearsal process: go forth and prosper! I wish you all the best. If not, I hope this article has got you jazzed for the next time you get to go into the room and do what you love. This is Jack, Signing off. (Danger Zone fades up as Jack walks off into the sunset with his leather jacket flung over his shoulder…)