Preparing for a Role: Rehearsal Process

Ah Wilderness Rehearsal

Time is flying and between work, sleep, and rehearsal I’ve not had much time to write. I’m finding that the rehearsal process for college is shorter and more intense than I’d remembered. In community theatre you tend to rehearse a show for 8-12 weeks and have about three rehearsals a week. With Ah, Wilderness! we’ve been rehearsing five times a week and only have 5-6 weeks.

For those who’ve never been in a show, the rehearsal period can basically be broken into:

  • Blocking: In which you go through the scene, script in hand, and the director decides where she/he wants you to move as you say your lines. You do a lot of jotting down where you are on stage and where you’re supposed to move.
  • Working: The scenes are “blocked,” but now you start running through them top to bottom to get a feel for how it flows. You dig in to what your characters are doing and thinking. Eventually, you put down the script and run it “off-book.” The stage manager is generally sitting there with the script. If you forget your line you yell “Line” and she/he feeds it to you.
  • Run & Polish: With everyone off book and things starting to come together, you begin running scenes, acts, and the show from top to bottom. Costumes, props, and set pieces are incorporated. The director begins targeting scenes that need to be polished. Eventually, the director tells you you’re “off-book” and if you drop your line you’re on your own.
  • Tech Rehearsal/Cue-to-Cue: These rehearsals (typically in the later stages of the process) are all about incorporating sound effects and lighting changes. Actors typically do a lot of standing around and running scene changes over and over again as the tech crew get their cues set.
  • Run/Dress Rehearsal: With all the elements in place, you begin running the show as you will in performance. The director waits until the end of the night to “give notes” in which she/he will tell you what you need to work on or change before the next rehearsal.

I’ve really been enjoying rehearsals at Central College. We’ve finished blocking the show and are beginning to work the scenes and acts. It’s been fun working with the students and we’re getting to know one another. Chatting in the dressing room with Jacob Anderson who plays my son Richard in the play, I came to find out that Jacob and his family used to be members of Westview Church where I was a member before moving to Pella. I knew Jacob when he was a baby and now he’s a freshman in college and I’m in a show with him [cue: weary groan] Dang, I’m old.

The students have been great to work with. I have the advantage of having seen many of them in multiple shows at Central, and I’ve gained respect for their abilities even though I’ve never truly met them. They’ve never seen me on stage, however, and don’t have a clue who I am. So, we’re getting to know one another.

So, what am I learning?

  • Life makes you a better actor: Wendy and I were watching Derek Jacobi on PBS’ Shakespeare Uncovered yesterday. Sir Derek was watching himself play Richard II when he was 30 years younger. “I wish I could do it again,” he said. “I could do it better.” Wendy and I said in unison, “Of course you could.” The truth is that actors draw from life experience in developing their characters. The more you experience in the life, the more you have to bring to your character. The other night I had a conversation with Tiki Steen, a fine young actor, who plays my wife Essie in the show. There’s some subtext in one particular scene in which husband and wife are doing the subtle, unspoken flirtations that husbands and wives weave into everyday situations as they toy with the idea of making love that night. Obviously, Tiki has never experienced these flirtations so I was able to shed some light on what Nat and Essie are really communicating with one another.
  • Productions have different motivations: Actors talk about their character’s motivation all the time, but the entire production has a motivation, as well. Wendy and I were having a conversation with Ann Wilkinson who is directing Ah, Wilderness! the other night after rehearsal. She spoke about the transition she’s had to make from being a professional casting director to small college professor. A hollywood film is about motivated to make money, but a college production is motivated to educate students. The atmosphere in a Central production is different than a USP production because college and community theatre have slightly (though not completely) different motivations. Sometimes you have to alter your personal expectations and lean into the production’s motivation.
  • I love the process as much as the performance: I can’t say I’m learning it for the first time, but I’m rediscovering it again, as I do every time I get the opportunity to dig my teeth into a role. While there is no rush like making your entrance with a packed house watching, there is a subtle and somewhat more satisfying rush from the process of discovery, work, and collaboration in rehearsals.

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