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.
“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.
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:
Additionally, for musicals:
Showers (many actors may just want to leave after rehearsal and go home to shower, but showers are certainly a helpful option).
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.
Difficult or Unfamiliar Props
Dangerous, Valuable or Fragile Props
Prop Etiquette and Protocol