Thursday, November 13, 2008

on rehearsal

Pressed for time today and the cat doesn't seem inspired, so here's a long-ass post about rehearsal, an essay I wrote a few years back.


A broad but truthful dividing line between all theatre people separates those who would prefer to always be in rehearsal and those who would prefer to always be on stage. I’m a rehearsal man. It’s sort of like preferring to be on a journey rather than at the destination. I find that all destinations, no matter how glittering or exotic, inevitably disappoint while the most mundane journey offers endless surprise and opportunity to marvel. By the same analogy, there is no one way to rehearse, just as you cannot give the same directions to Poughkeepsie and Cairo. You can’t even give the same directions to two different travelers both on their way to Poughkeepsie. The first may be wealthy and need to be there tomorrow while the second is penniless and has nothing but time. But as there are general principles towards safe and enjoyable travel, there are principles of rehearsal, which hold true in all circumstances.

The rehearsal period is one of discovery and it is impossible to discover anything if you believe you already know what it is. Any conversation about spirituality with a religious zealot is sufficient to convince anyone of this. For this reason, all theories and assumptions and first and second impressions of the play in rehearsal, no matter how obvious, august or time-honored, should be regarded with a high degree of suspicion. Often we find we believe plays are comedies only because we have been told so repeatedly. In the same way we are subjected to productions of Romeo and Juliet that stubbornly attempt to convince us we are seeing a great love story, despite the obvious foolishness and bloodlust of the protagonists.

The opening period of the rehearsal process is a rigorous interrogation exercise where the text is forced to incriminate itself. If the author is alive and present, she is at best the text’s attorney; she must not be treated as a witness or accomplice. She will not be on stage with the actors opening night, they will be alone with the text. Question the text, together as a company and most importantly, listen to what the text actually says. The key question the director asks in this phase is “What do you think?” All too often you hear exactly the wrong leading question, “How did that feel?” In these early stages, any feelings the actors may have towards the text or their work is unreliable. Odds are they will feel stiff and clumsy and hesitant. You don’t ask someone about the view when they’re still in the train station. “What do you think?” allows the actors to use all of their intellect and common sense and experience to analyze and respond to a phrase or an argument or a line of thought. Like good interrogators or detectives, they can latch onto the smallest clue, the detail that can unlock the entire piece for them. It is important for the director to ask, listen and ask again, leading the investigation but not coming to or announcing any conclusions. This is a hard thing for a director to do, but an understanding of a production that has come out of consensus and the actor’s own discoveries is much more valuable and durable than one announced at the first rehearsal and doggedly prosecuted for four weeks. The director’s job should never be to convince anyone of anything, it should be to provide the opportunity for the text to reveal itself to the actors and for the actors to give themselves to the text. Directors are not surgeons, they are midwives. Question everything, question each other, but always go to the text for answers. Every answer is in the text.

After a few sessions of open questioning and group discussion restlessness inevitably descends. The actors are tired of talking. The wise director agrees with them and lets them run at this point. The majority of the actual work of rehearsal: character definition, blocking, the first breaching of the arc of the play, is accomplished during this second period. The actors grow confident. The spirit of play and creation bounce around the room. The director can literally direct, steering the ensemble into and around the reefs and shoals of the text and always back towards the center of the play.

Usually towards the end of this second period of serious play and accomplishment the bottom drops out. Like the alchemical process set horribly in reverse, all that was golden turns to lead. Actors turn into automatons, the text is revealed as hackneyed, pretentious, second-rate scribbling, the director is a tongue-tied fool who never should have been trusted in the first place. Embarrassment, if not career-ending disaster is certain if the wretched thing ever actually opens. This is the time when everyone realizes independently and as a group that it’s serious. It’s actually going to happen. The idea of opening night is best kept out of the rehearsal hall for as long as possible, but it must be faced and it always bursts in frantic and accusing. The more discovery and risk that have occurred during the early phases, the deeper the unease and doubt at this phase. I have been in rehearsals where terror has reigned and actors have been physically affected by the depth of their discomfort. This is not the time to change course or pull out a map you have been hiding the whole time. Nor is it a time to reassure. The terror, doubt, or if you are lucky, simple boredom of this phase must be addressed directly and endured stoically. This is the time to say, “Yes. It’s horrible. Why?” Keep running the scenes and acts and look carefully for the one moment or exchange where the unhappiness in the room most clearly manifests itself. Focus on that moment, not by running it to death, but by talking about it and drawing the company’s attention to it. Question it as you did in the beginning. It will eventually answer and open the door to the final phase of rehearsal. There is always something in the play or the production or the ensemble that has been disregarded or left undeveloped, something small that was remarked upon early in rehearsal but not understood. Look for it now and it will come rushing towards you in all its insignificant simplicity and it will hand you your play.

Finally, you are in technical rehearsals and previews. Best to forget about the play entirely during technical rehearsals and leave the poor actors alone. You’ve given them all you can at this point. Once you can get a decent run together, complete with costumes, sound, light, props and sets, it is the right time to ask the company as a whole “How do you feel?” Actors are, in most cases, a very brave and canny lot and all you can do on the eve of their battle is thank them, praise them and embolden them as best you can.

So. Question everything and everyone at first, looking for and noting any truthful response. All of these responses will add up to something the actors can run with and breathe life into. Anticipate disaster. Acknowledge doubt and discomfort. Stay the course; eyes open for the detail that has been neglected. Seize it, unlock the last door, usher the company through and remain on the threshold, cheering them on.


Zack Calhoon said...

Thanks, man. We're in the middle of rehearsals right now, and this is a breath of fresh air for me.

It's amazing how every process is always going back the basics, and how it feels daunting and new everytime you start again.

Anonymous said...

I love rehearsals. Watching actors work and making discoveries is what its about. The ensemble on my last show was fantastic. They were a great audience as well as great performers...

John Clancy said...

Tony, yeah, so much of it depends on the ensemble and the harmony in the room.

And Zack, yeah, I've been doing this for going on 20 years and I still have fraud flashes when I walk into a first rehearsal, ready and willing to admit that I have no useful idea about what's about to happen.

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