The art of exploration
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the importance of rehearsal. In financed theatres, the rehearsal period is comprised of two to six full weeks, which, depending on the show, may be just enough time to get the show up, but not a lot of time to do much else. The amount of rehearsal for a show is correlated to the amount of funding available to the company. This is unfortunate, as rehearsal is such an integral part of creating a quality show. In the independent theatre world, it’s especially difficult as there are often no financial resources. It’s hard to expect people to rehearse for long hours when you can’t pay for their time.
Without adequate rehearsal time, the first thing that gets left behind is time to explore. Focus is put on the technical aspects of putting on a show: the blocking, basic understanding of the text and performing the director’s vision. Exploration may seem like a waste of time to some; it’s taking the time to fool around with the script; try things that might not work, play around with blocking, and intentions to discover new ideas. Exploration allows a company to discover a piece as they go, rather than making decisions right away about what it’s going to be.
The director, as well as the actors, loses out when they don’t get the time to explore in rehearsal. A good director will enter the rehearsal process with an understanding of the play and an idea of how to execute that idea, but without the time to explore, they don’t get to dig into their vision with the company. They have no time to allow the actors to play around, and reveal facets of the story that the director may have missed, working on the script alone. A director can only work with what they have, and with a shortened or limited rehearsal time, it becomes the actor’s job to make discoveries and present them during the time they do have with the director.
Assuming then, that an actor cares about the script and the show and would like to create the best performance they can, and give the director as many inspired options as possible, what can they do when their opportunity to rehearse with the company is limited? How does one explore on their own?
A year or so ago I attended a scene study workshop and heard something I hadn’t heard before. The instructor went about listing all the categories one would use to break down a script, mainly the five W’s:’ where’, ‘when’, ‘why’, ‘who’. He stopped before ‘How’ and said that though one did need to make decisions about how to perform a scene, it should be the last thing looked at. He argued that most actors will jump to the ‘How’ (probably a symptom of having to do so in shortened rehearsal periods), but by doing so, they can become stuck in weak choices. When one takes the time to explore their character and the script, they are able to create stronger choices.
When limited by a shortened rehearsal period, there are things the actor can do on their own.
Break down the scene; do the paperwork. Answer every question about your character that you might ask a stranger. Know who they are, know what they want, know where they are within the story and each and every scene. Don’t answer in generalities; know the specific answers. I know many actors who feel that the paperwork can limit them, but that’s only the case if they are thinking of the paperwork while on stage. The paperwork belongs before the rehearsal period. Once you have done it, once you have answered the questions, you can let them go; trust that they will inform what you do. You as a person know everything there is to know about you, and those things about you inform what you do; when you meet a new person, you don’t think, ‘well, I had a bad childhood and met a stranger once who yelled at me, so I must be wary with this new person’; you just act as you do. If you’ve done your homework and know your character intimately, they will react within a scene as they are bound to do, without you having to think about what they might do.
Do the paperwork, and then see how much paperwork you can physicalize. Explore how your character walks, and talks. What are their gestures? Who are they physically? Allow yourself to play make-believe; improvise the important moments in their lives; Go on that journey physically with them. Be like a kid and play. By doing so, you’re creating actual memories from your character’s point of view. Go about your day, or moments of your day, as your character. When Jenna Fischer was preparing for her audition for The Office, she would go grocery shopping as Pam Beesly; it helped her see how Pam experienced the world.
Do your homework, and do it thoroughly, and then throw it away. Trust that it’ll be there. If you’ve done the work, it will be.
Memorize your lines in as many ways as possible. The other day an actor told me she memorizes her lines using different accents, so that she avoids line readings. Do that. Memorize without any intention behind the lines. I don’t care if you think you know how it should be said, memorize it like you don’t. Once an actor gets in the habit of saying a line a certain way, it can be impossible to break the habit. Memorize your lines by singing them, by playing them in the most opposite, ‘wrong’ way, by opening up the words and breaking them down vocally, going through and exploring the individual sounds within them. By taking them in in many ways, you will make them yours and they will be able to be expressed with presence and truth. Instead of worrying about your lines, you will actually be able to listen to your scene partner and live in the moment you are playing.
Many actors will see the above exercises as basic homework to do before the first day of rehearsal; many of us did similar things in theatre school, and had all these ideas trained into us. But I know just as many who do the bare minimum, expecting more discoveries to come during rehearsal. When your rehearsal time is limited, you can’t expect to get the time to do your individual work then. The more you do on your own, the more you will have to give within rehearsal, to help solve the director’s problems, and create clear striking moments on stage. It’s by exploration and creation that we are not just actors, but artists.