Bob Rosen, one of the former artistic directors of Theatre de la Jeune Lune, was chasing Live Action Set co-artistic director Megan Odell around a rehearsal studio, with wooden spoons in his hands like the pincers of a lobster. Megan was balancing a large rubber ball on her own spoon while trying to keep it away from Bob and fellow Live Action Set artistic directors Noah Bremer and Galen Treuer who also brandished silverware as claws. Everyone had this goofy, almost surreal, smile on their faces though no one seemed at all self-conscious enough to stop doing what they were doing or do it half-heartedly.
What were they doing? What was so special about the ball Megan was guarding? Why were Bob, Noah, and Galen chasing her? Why did they have to hold it with kitchen utensils instead of hands? And why was Bob, the director of the show, playing the game with them instead of watching them?
I spent a week in rehearsal with Live Action Set in early July of 2008, and I only know how to answer the first question: They were rehearsing their August 2008 Minnesota Fringe Festival production Deviants. As for the other stuff—why this activity in this way at this moment in the process?—I couldn’t tell ya, and I’m pretty sure they couldn’t tell you either. I do know, however, that whether they could explain it or not, this type of irrational, physical, goofy, free play was essential to creating the work that they eventually produced.
Live Action Set aspires to a different experience of theater than conventional companies, and their rehearsal process reflects their priorities. Sandbox Theatre in Minneapolis, the Wooster Group in New York, Anne Bogart’s SITI Company in Saratoga Springs, New York, and many others (including the dearly departed Theatre de la Jeune Lune) also utilize an alternative rehearsal process. While their specific training differs (SITI Company = Viewpoints, Theatre de la Jeune = Jacques Lecoq) and the specific games they play in rehearsal vary accordingly, they share four common elements in contrast to the conventional rehearsal process.
In general, alternative theater companies see rehearsal as a place to create the play while mainstream theater companies see rehearsal as a place to make the play in its most perfect form.
First, most conventional unconventional rehearsal begins without a script. At Theatre de la Jeune Lune, for example, according to Barbara Berlovitz (another former artistic director), they would start a project with nothing more than an idea. Live Action Set’s production of Deviants was broadly inspired by the Amish school shootings in Ohio in 2006.
Second, these companies are often anchored by an ensemble of core members who aspire to a less hierarchal, more equal balance of power in the rehearsal room. While respecting the specialized role of different players, they also aspire to open lines of communication where actors, light or costume designers—everyone— is welcome to comment and contribute to all aspects of the production. Whenever something seemed relevant and interesting, no matter who had the idea, “We could talk about anything,” said Berlovitz. Performers themselves would propose and contribute bits, ideas, scenes, etc. to the creation of the work.
Third, both the rehearsal process and the production emphasize kinesthetic, or physical, modes of communication over language. In other words, these companies are generally considered “physical” theater rather than “text-based” theater.
Finally, alternative theater companies take more time to develop their work. For Jeune Lune, “six weeks is insanely short. Eight weeks is short,” Berlovitz said. Months, perhaps even years, is preferable. The 2008 production of Deviants was developed from a concept originally produced by Live Action Set at the Red Eye Theatre in 2007 called Desiderare: Desiring the Undesirable.
Productions developed through this method often feature impressive, even virtuosic, performances because the performers bring so much of themselves—their particular skills, instincts, and passions—to the creation of the work. Also, the attention to detail that develops over time can be deliciously awe-inspiring and delightful for an audience to experience. On the other hand, these same shows can sometimes feel unfinished or unfocused because no single vision is unifying the experience the way a well-written script does. Plus, the attention to detail can feel self-indulgent, as though the creators forgot they were in a forest because they spent so much time marveling at the leaves on the trees.
Of course, plays developed through a more conventional rehearsal process often have an opposite set of problems. The insistent focus on language, unity of vision, and practicality sometimes hammers out so much of the performers’ uniqueness and sense of play that an audience might as well just read a plot summary and the director’s note and go home before the curtain rises.
Ideally, we embrace the process that aligns best with our purpose. Tim Carroll, the director of the Guthrie Theater’s Peer Gynt, insisted to his performers that “there was no right way” to do the show, that each evening should be different, as spontaneous and unpredictable as sports. Though the production was “text-based” and the rehearsal process was limited, he skipped table work altogether and never rigidly set the blocking of the play. According to actress Tracey Maloney, they began playing improvisational games from the very first day in an attempt to get the entire cast of the play on board with the story equally. The connection of the games to the production wasn’t always immediately apparent, though, she said, they all eventually added something to the final product. As the rehearsal progressed, the game playing continued, and the text was slowly integrated in to the process.
For most of us, however, our rehearsal process is constricted by our training, our mentors, our expectations, or the expectations of the theater that hires us. Often, we change the ingredients we use—new actors, concept, script, technical elements—but, out of habit, we follow the same recipe (mainstream or non-mainstream) for each new entrée.
Is it even economically or practically possible to alter key elements of the standard rehearsal process like length of time, emphasis on blocking or text, approach to collaboration, and technical needs? Can the alternative theater process even be applied successfully to fully formed scripts? Is an ensemble necessary? Is a truly collaborative ensemble theater economically or emotionally sustainable? And, if we re-evaluate how our process serves our purpose, do we define the role of the director in the 21st century differently than we did in the 20th century? Do we define playwrights differently? Do we change the role of designers? Can we? Should we? ❦