Rehearsing the Play
The rehearsal period can be an exciting, creative time. But to make sure you get as much out of this time as possible, there are some logistical and other considerations of which to be mindful.
Creating a Schedule
“Budget one hour of rehearsal for every minute of stage time.”
-Aaron Frankel, author of How to Write a Broadway Musical
This simplistic but useful rubric is a reasonable departure point for plotting a rehearsal. It is predicated on the reality that certain moments will require inordinate amounts of time, while other play sections will fall into place quickly.
In most plays, a single page translates into approximately one minute of stage time. Exceptions to this equation are texts published in book form with the character names on the left and monologue-heavy manuscripts like For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide. Works in these latter forms sometimes run nearly two minutes per page.
There are few productions that apportion their rehearsal time this mechanically. Most often the director divides the play into “French Scenes” and then organizes these bits into the effective rehearsal groups.
For example, Eden, Andi and Bob share a French scene near the beginning of Jonathan Dorf’s play Supermodels in Jeopardy. Then Eden is pushed offstage. The three-character French scene is followed by Andi and Bob together in a short French scene, followed by a long monologue with Wendi, then a scene with Wendi, Bob and Andi.
A well-organized director could first call Wendi and rehearse her monologue. One half-hour later, call Bob and Andi arrive and cover the three-character scene. Wendi could then be dismissed and the two men work their duologues until joined at last by Eden to cover the three-character beginning of the scene.
This division of labor means that only the director has been present for the full three-hour rehearsal. Wendi and Eden have rehearsed an hour at each end of the rehearsal, while Bob and Andi labor for the second two hours.
Clever use of this process allows time to be expanded. This is essential in salaried productions. Union rules limit actor hours and require mandatory rehearsal breaks. Overlapping rehearsals means that a director can rehearse a monologue with a single late arriving actor while others have departed for lunch. It's equally effective at the school level, where students often have multiple demands upon their time and must juggle commitments to the show, to their other activities, and to their schoolwork.
Most often plays are best rehearsed out of sequence. This maximizes rehearsal hours and also keeps the experience of a long rehearsal period from becoming dull. Actors labor to build moments and then rediscover the excitement of the play when the sections are later assembled in sequence.
A SIMPLE STRUCTURE
Record all of the French scenes on a worksheet. Organize these based upon common actor groupings. (i.e. Maji and Tuma have several duologues in The Stalking Horse by Ed Shockley). Arrange these scenes into a rehearsal schedule allotting time-based upon the Aaron Frankel formula. Add additional hours for a work through, a run through, and a dress rehearsal. Collected together, this is the minimum number of rehearsal hours required for a production.
The Rehearsal Space
Actors cannot work in the theater space for the entirety of a rehearsal period. There must be time to construct the set, hang lights, and in many instances, there are other projects occupying the stage until shortly before opening. This situation can actually be of benefit to a production.
One of the most subtle and important jobs for a director is herding the cast toward opening night. No one ever wants a production to open with the artists unprepared, but it is nearly as devastating to have the show peak at some time prior to the first performance (or the final one either).
Sometimes, playing the same scenes over and over in the same environment can create the illusion of redundancy. Every talented actor knows that there is always something unique, but less diligent performers imagine that they have mastered a moment and begin to play it robotically after a time.
Beginning in a space other than the theater creates a focus on words and interactions. Using rehearsal cubes and substitute items for props again keeps the initial focus on interactions with actors. Slowly introducing actual show objects and taping the stage layout onto the floor of a rehearsal room adds another layer of discovery.
Moving into the actual theater space with full set and costumes is the culmination of a calculated progression. This process leaves the performance for audience and critics as the final destination of a long journey. This also means that there is less wear and tear on set, costume, and props.
An ideal rehearsal space should have the following:
- Open floor space equal to or exceeding the dimensions of the set.
- The ability to store items safely.
- Easy access to lavatories.
- Either isolation or soundproofing.
- Rehearsal cubes.
- Chairs for actors not on stage.
- A floor that is not easily damaged.
- An audio system (though you can always bring a boombox if it's without one).
- A water fountain nearby.
- First aid kit.
Additionally, for musicals:
- Wall mirrors.
- A tuned piano.
Showers (many actors may just want to leave after rehearsal and go home to shower, but showers are certainly a helpful option).
- Dance floor.
There are occasions when it is useful to take a cast into the actual setting of a play. This “walk through” allows them to rediscover the activities that are appropriate for the environment. ESL, Tom Smith's play about the tension between newly arrived Latino students and their English-speaking classmates, is set in a school. Rehearsing in a classroom might remind actors of details that they overlook in a basement rehearsal studio.
A prime example of this was the revival of Ed Shockley’s Merlin & Vivien at the Lansdowne Arts Festival. The late C.L Williams was both directing and reprising the role of Camelot’s great magician and working with Theresa Marsh (for whom the role of Vivien was originally written). He decided to rehearse on a large knoll in a suburban park. The area conformed nicely to the small island that is the setting of the play. More importantly, the elements of wind, shadow, insects, the cold feel of the grass and how it affected his joints, the distractions of the stars and fireflies all inspired the gifted actors on to mesmerizing performances.
Most rules of rehearsal etiquette can be attributed to common sense and shared purpose. A play is a collaborative race (or tumble) toward opening night. Problems will arise, nerves will become frayed and a production is always only as successful as the weakest person in the collaborative team.
Actors must always arrive on time. This means in place, ready to begin, at the start of rehearsal. The curtain in a theater goes up at its appointed hour, so an actor who is late for rehearsal because of a train delay, a babysitter challenge, a full moon or a zombie attack is a performer who sits in the audience watching the understudy steal the show. And if there is no understudy, a late actor holds up the entire production team and the audience.
In the case of a play still in manuscript form (as opposed to published acting editions), the script is best placed in some sort of binder. The name of the character or actor is on the script, and there are additional pages (usually inserted between the pages of the play) on which to write notes.
An actor always has a pencil and a sharpener or spare. His lines are highlighted and blocking is recorded either as it is given or solicited from the stage manager’s prompt book during a break. Directors expect the choices that have been ratified to reappear on subsequent days.
The delineation of roles in theatre are designed to facilitate success. Actors focus exclusively on their own role. It is the job of the director to comment on the performances of all the participants. An individual actor discusses his specific needs with fellow thespians and may explore shared information, but one actor never advises another on emotive choices.
Example (specific needs): I need to use the clipboard after you in scene three. When you decide where you are going to store it on the set please let me know, since my character is a neat freak and says that she knows where everything is in the office.
Example (shared information): We are brother and sister—did you find anything that suggests which one of us is the older sibling?
Any comments about another actor’s behavior on or offstage should be made directly to the stage manager. It is this person’s job to decide what should be addressed, how and when.
There is no chatting or horseplay during rehearsal. While actors are on the stage, others should be watching, studying lines or running lines in a location selected by the stage manager. If you're a student in a school production, the director may tell you it's acceptable to work quietly on homework while you're not being used. Regardless, the director must be able to locate each member of the cast at any moment in the rehearsal. One never knows when something in a scene requires your consideration.
It is often a good idea to bring a water bottle (consider a reusable water bottle to be more environmentally friendly). A good stage manager will create a craft service table of some sort in the green room or lobby, but it is better to be prepared than parched. There is rarely any eating allowed in the theater (though productions often break this rule during rehearsal), but there is certainly no eating while rehearsal is in progress unless actors are assigned a break—and there is absolutely no gum chewing. (The one exception is when it is a character action.)
Of course, all of the common sense rules of personal hygiene are in effect. The cast is in close proximity for many hours. Those onions at lunch might not be the best idea. Even perfumes and scents can become problematic since many people have allergies.
Safety In and Out of the Rehearsal Room
- Keep new, properly equipped and maintained first aid kits in ALL spaces where rehearsal or other activities take place.
- Make sure everyone working in any space knows the location of all exits and of all fire extinguishers
- Make sure there is a reliable telephone available in all spaces, and that everyone knows where it is and how to use it.
- Establish and rehearse emergency evacuation procedures and routes in every space.
- Clearly establish one person to be responsible for implementing the evacuation plan and verifying that everyone has safely evacuated.
- Keep every space used by the production scrupulously clean and neat at all times. All tools and props should be removed or put away properly after every rehearsal or building session. Floors should be swept before and after every rehearsal.
- All persons must wear shoes at all times, unless in costume.
- No one is allowed to use ANY tool, unless they have been properly trained to do so.
- No one should ever rehearse or work when they are overtired—not even during production week.
- Rehearsal space should contain nothing that looks like it might bear an actor's weight but won't.
- Electrical cords must be well out of all traffic patterns. Never suspend any electrical cord in the air.
- Ceilings and light fixtures must be high enough to accommodate any choreography or stage movement.
- Make sure the temperature in the space is within reasonable limits.
- The stage should NEVER be left completely dark, even when unoccupied.
- No traps or other unexpected openings in the floor should be left unattended when the space is unoccupied unless they are clearly marked, barriers are in place, and the lighting is adequate.
- The floor should be in good condition, with no splinters, protruding nails, or other hazards.
- Absolutely nothing should be left lying loose on any overhead catwalks.
- As much as possible, avoid having folks working on the set or lighting in the space at the same time that actors are rehearsing.
- All tools, especially power tools, should be removed from the performance space before actors arrive or rehearsals begin. If possible, also remove all ladders.
- The first time actors enter the performance space they should be given a tour of the entire space and hazards should be clearly pointed out, and areas that are off limits clearly spelled out.
- Any electrical cords for lighting, sound, or any other purpose should be firmly taped down and clearly marked.
- Backstage passages should be lit at all times. Any stairs, even single steps, must especially be lit so that they are clearly visible. This includes both permanent features of the space and any set elements.
- All wooden scenery should be fireproofed. No unnecessary dry goods (spare curtains or scrims, unused costumes, lumber, etc.) should be stored in the performance space.
- If there is a fire curtain, the scenery should not be built in such a way as to impede its use.
- If there are roof traps designed for use in conjunction with a fire curtain, they must be maintained in working order and tested periodically.
- Fire extinguishers should be plentiful and tested regularly. If there is a fire hose system, it should be properly maintained and tested.
- All structural scenery must be built properly so that it cannot fall down, and so that it can safely support the weight of at least twice as many people as will ever occupy it. If possible, non-moving scenery should be bolted or screwed to the floor.
- All moving scenery must function properly and be structurally sound. Moving scenery on which actors will stand must be anchored in place once it has been moved. All flying scenery must be properly secured to ballasts.
- All lighting equipment must be carefully maintained and checked regularly.
- All permanent seating must be in good repair and in working order.
- All lit exit signs must be in working order.
- The size and number of exits must be adequate for the full number of people the auditorium can hold
- Props, tools, or other gear must never be left in the auditorium when the public will be occupying it.
- All stairs, even very shallow stairs, must have proper railings.
- All passages must conform with minimum width requirements.
- Floor level aisle lights and lit exit signs must stay lit even during blackouts, and even when the space is unoccupied.
- All dangerous props and all prop weapons, real or not, must be kept under lock and key when not in use.
- Actors should be properly dressed for rehearsal in shoes and clothing that moves well and does not restrict movement.
- Always warm up actors' bodies AND VOICES properly before any rehearsal.
- Always use spotters when learning any lifts, throws or stunts.
- Never work actors' bodies OR their voices past the point of exhaustion.
- Ideally, entrances should be locked to prevent unauthorized persons from entering.
- Never leave young performers unsupervised
- No one should ever work alone. When ladders or catwalks are involved, there should always be at least one adult on the ground.
- Use all appropriate safety gear properly.
- Technicians using power tools should never wear loose clothing such as neckties, long loose sleeves, etc. that might get caught in moving parts. Long hair should be tied back out of the way. Rings, bracelets, necklaces and wristwatches should not be worn when operating power tools.
- Always observe proper manual lifting safety with heavy objects. Get help with anything bulky or too heavy.
- Always observe proper ladder and personnel lift safety.
- Whenever possible, load light pipes on the ground rather than in the air.
- When working in any space that has a fly system, establish and use warning calls for falling equipment.
- Never work directly under fly lines or catwalks that other technicians are working on.
- Anyone working off the ground should have all tools tethered to his person to avoid dropping them.
- Never use a paint sprayer or anything with potentially dangerous fumes unless there is adequate ventilation.
- Audience members should be made aware that flash photography is forbidden.
- If appropriate, hire a police officer to maintain public safety at performances.
- If the parking lot is inadequately lit, or if its terrain is in any way difficult or uneven, people should be deployed with flashlights to help folks park and make their way to the auditorium.
Stage Combat and Handling Weapons
- Make sure every actor is totally comfortable handling and using every prop she must handle or use.
- Make sure all props function properly, and are maintained in functioning order throughout the rehearsal and performance process.
- Make sure all props are where the actors expect to find them every single time they are needed.
Difficult or Unfamiliar Props
- Props that actors are unlikely to have used or handled much in their daily lives—say, a cigarette case, a walking stick, surveying equipment, a gun—should be rehearsed with as soon as possible. If the real props are valuable or fragile, an effective mock-up can be used instead, but actors need to become comfortable so that they can handle such props in a natural way.
Dangerous, Valuable or Fragile Props
- All prop weapons, especially guns, no matter how fake they look, should be kept under lock and key when not in use.
- Valuable or hard-to-replace props should also be locked up or kept in a secure location.
- Fragile props should be stored somewhere where you can be sure no one will handle them when you're not around.
Prop Etiquette and Protocol
- Beginning with the very first rehearsal in which any prop or mock-up is used, establish and enforce strict prop etiquette. This means no one touches any prop except the stage manager (or props master, or the director herself, depending on the program) and the actor or actors who use the prop. This rule must be drilled early and often, until it becomes absolutely automatic on everyone's part. Even actors who DO use a particular prop should not be touching or playing with it except when they are actually rehearsing with it.
- Ideally, you should have either the actual props or effective mock-ups available as soon as the cast is off book for any scene. This may mean establishing a place for all props to live in the rehearsal space. In addition to letting the cast get comfortable with the props, this has the benefit of letting you learn precisely where each prop should ideally live backstage.
- As soon as you move into the performance space, you want to set up a prop table or prop tables. They should be located at easily accessible spots backstage—typically one stage left and one stage right. The tabletop is marked out and labeled so that each prop has its own place. You can mark out the table using masking tape, or cover it with butcher paper and mark it with magic markers. Objects too large to go on the table should go on the floor under or next to it, and they too should have their locations marked.
- The stage manager or the props manager must either set up the tables before each rehearsal or performance, or check them to make sure they're correct. Then, at the end of the rehearsal, he checks them again, and remedies any errors. Before each rehearsal or performance, each cast member should also check on all her props to make sure they're where they expect them to be.
- If a prop is small enough that an actor can carry it in a pocket without it showing, he can pick it up at the beginning of the show, during the pre-show preparations.
- If multiple actors must handle the same prop in different scenes it's easier if each actor has her own identical item. That way no one has to rely on someone else putting their prop away properly.
- If an actor is having difficulty making an entrance on time, has a quick change right before an entrance or exit, or if for any other reason a stop at the prop table is not feasible, there's no reason another actor or stagehand can't be detailed to stand just outside the entrance to hand him the prop, or just outside the exit to take it from him.
- If an actor must read from anything during a scene—a book, a diary, a will, etc.—it is nearly always best if the text the actor reads is NOT actually printed on the prop in question. You don't want the actor to be tempted to read from the prop instead of speaking the words from memory.
- If you're working in a school, make sure you run any prop weapons by the administration before bringing them into the building or attempting to use them in rehearsal.
- Props that are "discovered on" should, whenever possible, be stored in or on the larger set pieces that are dressed at the same time, so that the deck crew does not have to separately place them.