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Rehearsals

( Originally Published 1938 )



MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN on the subject of rehearsals, and much that has been written is good. These paragraphs do not pretend to add to the information on the subject al-ready in print; they do hope to emphasize several points to which our general plan of direction gives importance and to warn against arbitrary rehearsal schemes which are occasionally suggested in books and magazines.

It is obvious that the rehearsal room is the director's studio and workshop. It is here that he gives first realization to his dream of the production, bringing it to its early life on the stage through the medium of his actors; it is here that he tests his strength as a director and recognizes his weaknesses; it is here that he becomes, in turn, psychologist, creator, teacher, and foreman; and it is here that he assumes active and complete responsibility.

As he walks into the rehearsal room on the night of the first rehearsal, fifty or more working hours lie between him and the night when the curtain rises on his finished play. These are important hours and may be made rich and profit-able. They should not be wasted; they must not be barren.

A three- or four-weeks' rehearsal period, during which the printed page is transformed into a clear, unified stage play, capable of giving to the audience its desired theater experience, strongly suggests that the individual rehearsals shall not follow one another without plan, but shall proceed in order and according to some scheme of organization. The first question then is: How shall we organize our weeks of rehearsal?

Organizing the Rehearsal Weeks

Some directors would tell us that we should organize by making out a complete rehearsal schedule, setting down what we shall take up at each and every rehearsal; they would say that by keeping to this schedule we will have a play ready for presentation at the appointed time. Their schedule, for a three-weeks' plan, might read something like the following:

First Week: Monday. Explain play briefly.. (it is presumed that at tryouts or before, the cast has had the play explained to each member); give out parts; go through the first act, assigning positions and stage movements of the actors.

Tuesday. Walk through Act I; work out the stage business for Act II.

Wednesday. Walk through Acts I and II for stage business; some time may be spent on discussion of characters.

Thursday. Work out the stage business for Act III.

Friday. Walk through Acts I, II, and III for stage business.

Saturday. Go through Act I without manuscripts; concentration on remembering lines. (It is necessary to have the prompter at rehearsals from now on.)

Second Week : Monday. Act I again, without manuscripts, stressing motivation and characterization. Tuesday. Act II without manuscripts for memorization.

Wednesday. Work on Act II for motivation and characterization.

Thursday. Run through Acts I and II rapidly; go through Act III without manuscripts. Friday. Work on Act III for motivation and characterization.

Saturday. Go through the entire play to see what has been accomplished and what remains to be done.

Third Week: Monday. Go through Act I (and perhaps into Act II) for details in business, characterization, properties, and so on.

Tuesday. Go through the remainder of Act II and Act III for details.

Wednesday. Go through the entire play with-out help or suggestion.

Thursday. Dress and scenery rehearsal. Friday. The performance.

This rehearsal schedule, or any similar schedule ordering that on a certain night a certain act is to be rehearsed for a certain purpose, proceeds upon the false premise that every play is pretty much like every other play and so requires the same amount of time and the same disposition of time for the working out and perfecting of stage business, memorization, characterization, and details; and upon the equally false premise that acting ability is a standardized product. A director does not have to have much experience to recognize that such an arbitrary schedule is impracticable. It may possibly reward him with a well-memorized piece of routine work, but it will not give him the play he has imagined (or should have imagined) : the play with right emphasis, with variation in tone and pace, with atmosphere and color and dramatic power.

Such an arbitrary schedule for the director would be al-most as absurd as a schedule of work for the painter, in which he allowed himself fifteen minutes for the painting of a stone, twenty-five minutes for a tree, and an hour and a half for a house in the middle distance, just because he had to finish the picture on a specified date. It may be that more time will be needed on characterizations—or less time; that a piece of business proves ineffective and has to be changed (and directors are few who can use all the stage business they have planned in just the way they have planned it) ; it may be that a question of motivation or meaning of speeches comes up which requires a half hour for satisfactory explanation; or that an entire rehearsal period is needed to give the action of the scene just its proper pace. These changes and interruptions, we maintain, cannot be determined several weeks in advance.

Then what scheme of organization shall we set up if a plan like the above is impracticable? Any scheme we de-vise should surely be based on what we hope to have accomplished at the end of the general rehearsal period, which is: a play completely ready for public presentation.

A play completely ready for presentation should suggest to us three things : first, the actors moving about in a smooth and rational manner, behaving in character, and speaking their lines without hesitancy; second, scenery in place, lighting units in order, furniture in position, properties at hand; and third, it should suggest something beyond characterization, smooth routine, and a stage in readiness; it should suggest moments of highlight and shadow—sharp, tight scenes, and variations in pace—in other words, the color, tone, "theater," which lifts the presentation above a dead level and a dull evenness.

Do we seem to be asking too much of an amateur performance? We certainly are asking more than a blind following of the above rehearsal schedule will bring about. But we should ask for more. True, we need our actors well routined and in character; we need a stage in readiness; but if we are going to justify our efforts before a long-suffering public many more seasons, we need a performance embracing effective detail, vividness, variety, and something of professional "polish."

If the presentation is to embrace these three things : actors sufficiently prepared, stage in readiness, and polish, then our scheme of rehearsals should be devised with these characteristics in mind. About some factors we can be more or less arbitrary; about others we cannot. For instance, the stage business must be given to the actors during rehearsals, and approximately one rehearsal period is necessary for blocking out each act. Again (basing our conclusion on the average number of speeches and lines usually assigned to the characters and the time generally required for memorization), we may say that memorization of the entire play should be completed ten days or two weeks after rehearsals begin. Again, the actor, under the director's guidance, should, by the end of two weeks, be showing some evidence of acting in character.

These three factors we have just mentioned fall into a fairly definite chronological order: blocking out of business, memorization, and emphasis on characterization. Thus the director can devise a general scheme wherein the first two weeks of rehearsal are largely concerned with these three factors.

Another point about which we can be arbitrary concerns the period in which the stage is made ready, or what is commonly called the dress rehearsal period. This occupies two or more of the regular rehearsal periods just preceding the performance. It cannot come at any other time.

Now it is apparent, if we are working on a three-weeks' rehearsal schedule, that not more than three days intervene between the characterization rehearsals and the dress rehearsals. This is not enough to allow for polishing, changes in plans, and accidents, which leads us to the definite conclusion that we need at least a four-weeks' schedule in which to adequately rehearse a play for public presentation.

The Four-weeks' Schedule

We will not hazard any hard and fast plan for these four weeks, but we may be able to suggest some general scheme of procedure.

As mentioned several times, we begin by working out our stage business; we go through each act two or more times to get the business well in mind. During these first days the actors are memorizing lines. During these days we are not unconscious or neglectful of character. But it is only after business is disposed of and memorization is well on its way that we spend several rehearsals in which emphasis is largely or solely on characterization.

Two weeks, perhaps, have elapsed. We have had, during these weeks, several conferences with the stage carpenter, electrician, property man, and costumer (if we are fortunate enough to have these assistants). We have set them to work. We have warned them, under threats of hanging and quartering, that the stage and costumes must be in readiness by the time of dress rehearsals.

Now, returning to our rehearsal plan, we spend the third week in polishing—in whipping the play into shape, in tightening scenes, in perfecting character, in handling properties, in pointing lines, in breaking up long speeches by movement or pause, in timing entrances and exits, in stressing some significant detail in movement or tone, and in re-moving the emphasis from some insignificant detail.

Does the director believe that a week is too long to devote to polishing? Does he think that he won't have enough to do to fill in all the time? Let him dismiss such questions from his mind. The trouble with most amateur plays is that they lack polish; there has been no time for polishing, because all the rehearsal hours have been spent in getting the stage positions and memorizing lines. The director ought to plan his time so he will have opportunity for polishing. When he comes to the polishing period he may rest assured that he will find plenty to do. The chances are he will never have the experience of finding his play fully polished and ready for presentation before the night of dress rehearsal.

The last division in our general rehearsal plan is the time when costumes, lights, scenery, furniture, properties, and action are brought together. The director's watchword throughout the weeks preceding this perplexing period should be: We must have everything ready for it. If he has planned well, if he has been a good organizer and a stern foreman, everything—or almost everything—will be ready. Of course, on the first night of rehearsal, things will not move smoothly. A hundred details have to be brought together and they won't fit perfectly. A table is too large, a trunk won't go through a door, a piece of backing is in the way of a light unit. But such minor difficulties should be the only ones. If everything has been worked out with reasonable foresight, if everything necessary is at hand, and if the director keeps his sanity—and particularly his patience—the first dress rehearsal need not be an occasion for despair.

Since dress rehearsals are often looked forward to with much doubt and dread, several comments may not be out of place. First, one dress rehearsal is not sufficient for the adjustment of all the details and the routining of the stage crew during the progress of the action. Two at least, and three if possible, should be held. Second, the director should refrain from directing his actors during dress rehearsal. All he has to say about characterization, speaking of lines, and stage business should have been attended to before—except, of course, when such things as a piece of furniture or a flight of steps set in place for the first time just before dress rehearsal necessitate a change in business or tempo. The actors have enough to think about on the night of dress rehearsal with costumes, properties, and furniture with which they are not accustomed; and the director should give his attention, not to individual actors, but to assembling the various units of the play. These require his scrutiny now, and they should have it. Third, the director should not hold a dress rehearsal a few hours before the performance nor should he exhaust his actors with a rehearsal lasting most of the night prior to the opening of the show. At least twenty-four hours should elapse between the final dress rehearsal and the performance. The members of a physically tired or a nervously exhausted cast cannot give a good account of themselves. We have referred to the athletic coach previously. He does not run his half-miler to the point of exhaustion the day before a race or put his football squad through several hours of scrimmage on the Friday preceding a big game. While an actor, in the estimation of the public, may not rank in importance with the athlete, he is nevertheless a human being and can no more do his work when he is in an exhausted state than can the athlete.

We have suggested, then, a general plan for rehearsal procedure. It admits of variation. Each play, in fact, decrees that the plan be varied from that of every other play. The play may be a situation play in which characterization is simple and unimportant, and so more time may be given to stage business and the perfection of stage movement and less time to characterization. The play may be a poetic play, in which many rehearsals will have to be devoted to diction, or a dialect play, in which it will be necessary to give time to the pronunciation and cadences of the dialect. The play may be a thesis play, such as Bracco's Phantasms, in which case the rehearsal more than once will come to a standstill while cast and director sit around the stage attempting to fathom some meaning and how it is to be put across. Or, the play may be one of many scenes and sets, which will re-quire a number of rehearsals with the actors and the stage crew.

Again, the director should feel free to abandon his intended purpose in some individual rehearsal. He may have planned a rehearsal in which the emotion of the scene is to be stressed, but he discovers, after fifteen minutes of work, that a lack of understanding is in the way of a successful rehearsal on the projection of emotion; so he changes his plans and rehearses the scene for meaning. He may wish to work upon characterization, but decides that this would be time lost, since several members of the cast are not free of their lines; thus, the director shifts his attention from characterization to stage business, to pace, to reading of lines, or to something else.

There are too many unforseen problems which arise, and the actors are too uncertain an element for the director to make and keep to a schedule. And the director himself may find that he has made a mistake in planning a scene. He should, therefore, have in mind a general plan in which he recognizes that certain things must be accomplished by a certain time. The plan may be made a little more specific as he studies the play and decides upon what will need more and what less rehearsing. But he must be ready for accidents and emergencies and must often let the moment dictate what is to be done during the rehearsal hour.

We have seemed to advocate the four-weeks' rehearsal plan as the most desirable. Perhaps this has raised a question and some one is ready to ask, "If four weeks are better than three, why are not five weeks more desirable than four ?" In discussing the number of weeks necessary or desirable, we would first inquire how much time of each day is available for rehearsal. If the cast can meet only three times a week and is not available for any private work at other times, then, five or even six weeks may be necessary. The point is not so much over how long a period rehearsals should be extended as how much time is available for rehearsals, though even here we would suggest that four weeks of concentrated effort, with rehearsals each day, are much more likely to bring into being a lively, unified play than are six weeks of work with long lapses of time between rehearsal periods.

If we have a situation in which every night, except Sun-day, is open for rehearsals (with an occasional hour available for private work), then the four-weeks' plan seems adequate and sufficient for amateurs. We must remember that the amateur is generally young and is not possessed of a very active imagination; he can go only so far with a part before he begins to grow stale. We must remember further that the director's personality and inventiveness may begin to wear thin, and he will find himself repeating and routining until a necessary enthusiasm is lost. Let the director test out different rehearsal plans; he will find, if his experience coincides with that of others, that he will eventually adopt a four-weeks' plan as the most satisfactory.

The Individual Rehearsal Period

We have said very little about the individual rehearsal period, except to warn the director that he should be ready to change his objective for the rehearsal. We may, in these concluding paragraphs, be able to suggest several other points which will be of service to the beginner.

A reasonable length for a rehearsal is from two to two-and-one-half hours. A rehearsal lasting only an hour does not accomplish much. A director feels hurried, and the actors just get well into the swing of the rehearsal when the hour is over. On the next night the same sort of thing happens. Progress is too slow. On the other hand a rehearsal of three or four hours dulls the actors, and the chances are that during the last part they are marking time and accomplishing little or nothing. Two hours of hard, concentrated work are about all we can demand of amateur actors.

The director should have a definite idea of how he is going to do things when he comes to rehearsal. He should not spend the period in working out some stage business or in trying to come to some decision that he should have attended to by himself at some other time.

The rehearsal period should not be used by the actor for memorizing lines. Once in a while a lazy amateur will at-tempt to argue that he can memorize only when he is in rehearsal. This is ridiculous. He should memorize his lines in his own room. It is an unnecessary waste of time to permit the actors to memorize their lines while rehearsing, and it slows up the progress of the play to an unreasonable degree.

The director, when he has called a rehearsal of the whole cast, should not spend most of the time with one or two actors. He either should send the rest of the cast home—they derive very little good from sitting around waiting—and work with the two, or he should work with the whole cast and take the two who need individual attention at some other time.

The director should keep his promises. He should be on hand at the appointed time and dismiss the cast as near as possible to the hour agreed upon.

In summary, the director should have some sort of plan for carrying on his four weeks of rehearsal, the plan to be tentative and suggested by the particular play he has chosen; he should be ready to vary the objective of a specific rehearsal; and, above all, he should make the rehearsal period count for something. Perhaps nothing he can do will be so effective in making his actors want to work, in bringing them back to the rehearsal room in a state of enthusiasm, as conducting his rehearsals so that they are conscious that time is being spent profitably.



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