ON REHEARSAL

© 2002 John Clancy
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

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