Maybe you’ve seen the t-shirt.
I can’t. I have rehearsal.
It’s true, too. Few people realize what a sacrifice it is to actually be a theatre major or practitioner. There are so many events, opportunities, organizations, and televisions shows that we give up because rehearsals take precedence. And in educational theater, we often start one show the minute we close and strike the previous.
Rehearsals are as unique as the production they are supporting. I almost hate to catalog it here because there are infinite ways to mount a play. And the hours will look different based upon the producing organization. High schools will typically rehearse 8-10 hours a week. Professional companies will rehearse eight hours a day.
At ETBU, we typically rehearse four hours each evening. This is on top of the standard academic work day. And every show receives 4-6 weeks of work, depending on its complexities and specific needs.
The calendar order looks a little something like this:
Table work. This is the time when the actors and director (and possibly other support staff) read through the script as a company. Often these rehearsals are used to discuss changes in rhythm or mood. Difficult passages may be the focus or even correct pronunciation of unfamiliar words. Dialects are honed. Some directors limit this work to just a couple of days. Others may spend a few weeks at the table, making sure the actors are comfortable with the text prior to staging.
Blocking rehearsals. Visual storytelling should support the text. As Hamlet advises the players in Shakespeare’s masterpiece, “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” If you see a play in a foreign language, the movement alone should give you an understanding of relationships, power, and conflict. So you cannot underestimate the importance of good blocking.
Our rehearsals at the university tend to start off organically. This means the actors are allowed to explore the space and define their characters bringing their instincts, preparation, physicality, and research to each scene. We can find some really lovely moments this way, as they come up with their own ideas for motivation and action. As a director, my job is to guide them into the strongest choices. I always have to keep in mind what the audience will see and how they will interpret our spatial relationships.
Fine tuning the blocking can last throughout the entire rehearsal process. Some moments are really difficult to stage, and choices made early in rehearsals may be scrapped entirely and reconstructed in an effort to make the emotion and storytelling stronger.
Special rehearsals. Typically, these work days focus on a production’s additional needs such as choreography or set changes. If a play is dance heavy, then choreography needs to be the focus early on so that each subsequent rehearsal reviews and polishes. The same could be said for fight choreography. It’s essential to commit these to muscle memory early so that later additions such as lighting, costuming, and an audience don’t distract the actor and result in injury. Additionally, scenic rehearsals facilitate quick set changes and prevent the loss of the audience’s attention.
(Side note: I saw a play mounted at Actors Theatre of Louisville that had a twelve-minute fight scene involving sixteen actors. When I asked members of the company how long it took to rehearse the fight, they replied 40-50 hours. Respect.)
Lines-off rehearsals. No more scripts on the stage. In addition to the work put in for academics, production work, and rehearsals, actors have also been carving out time to learn their lines. This takes discipline and several weeks to master—depending upon the size of the role. During these rehearsals, actors are allowed to call for “line” and the stage manager will read it to them. Hopefully they immediately pick up and go with it. However, sometimes these days feel like one step forward, fourteen steps back. It all depends on how prepared and confident the actors are. At some point, usually about a week after the first lines-off rehearsal, we institute a “no-more-line-call” policy. It’s sink or swim. It’s vicious. And I like it.
Polishing rehearsals. The last few days prior to going into tech rehearsals are where some of the best work happens. The blocking is set. The lines are solid. Now the actors work on emotional truth and connection. New discoveries are made and new risks taken in almost every rehearsal. It’s one of the most beautiful parts of the entire process. The really difficult scenes may get a lot of work here; in essence, everything is done to make sure the performance of the actor is worthy of an audience.
Because our goal is to tell a good story. Always.
Later, in another blog post, I will talk about tech and dress rehearsals. Those are beasts in and of themselves. But for now, if you see a theatre major, ask them if they are in rehearsal. Ask them what they are doing in rehearsals. Ask them how many hours they put in. Be invested in the work they do.
Just to have that work–those hours–acknowledged is reward in and of itself.