Rattle those pots and pans

In Skokie, Illinois, on Dempster Street, is a fifty-year-old Italian restaurant that I briefly worked at between my first and second years of college. The owner was an old, muscular, northern Italian, bowling ball of a man. His head was round; his back was hunched; his legs were bowed. Even his hands looked kind of like rounded balls of dough because he’d lost the tips of his fingers while cooking for the Italian merchant marine during World War II. Coming toward you with a demand, he looked like a rolling fist. A few years earlier, he had taught his secret recipes to his nephew, so that he and his wife could add more northern Italian flavor to the front of the restaurant. Six days a week, Vince the nephew cooked, and the kitchen operated smoothly. Periodically, Vince’d disappear for twenty minutes at a time to hook up with a waitress in the back of his van, but mostly he stood over the intense heat and steam, a little stoned and very mellow, and kept the place neat and the food pretty good.

One day a week, however, when Vince took his day off, the owner would get back behind the stove and—well, all hell broke lose. That uncooked octopi that just flew by your head. The shouting and jumping and burning and dirtying up of every pot and pan and dish in the joint—and Mondays were the slow nights. They were also, if you cared about the taste of the food, the best nights to eat there. Even though Vince followed the recipes exactly as he was taught, even though the food looked basically identical on the plate whether it came from him or the owner, Vince didn’t make food half as exciting as his uncle. Somehow, with the same ingredients and the same recipe for the same order, the slightest change in attitude, habit, direction, purpose, timing—something—made an enormous difference in what we swallowed.

We experience the same phenomenon in the performing arts; how we choose to cook the work that we do is essential to how it tastes to the audience. Yet for some largely unexamined economic, cultural, and technological reasons, we often use the same method to cook almost every order whether the recipe really calls for it or not.

Of course, there are a variety of styles people use to rehearse a play and, yes, the particulars of any cast and crew make every rehearsal unique. Yet, most conventional rehearsal processes practice a pretty standard ritual. It’s taught in school, codified in union contracts in large regional theaters, copied by small emerging theater companies, and insisted upon by most directors. You personally may have become so accustomed to it that you can’t imagine there are any other reasonable ways of working. Or, if you went to an experimental conservatory or studied overseas, you may not even know there is a conventional American rehearsal process.

The meat and potatoes process

The standard rehearsal process in most professional theater, and the small to mid-sized semiprofessional and community theaters that emulate them, lasts from three to five weeks and is divided into five parts. First, prior to the first meeting of the cast, the director and designers settle on a look for the production. At a large regional theater like the Guthrie, they begin to build the set before the actors even show up for the first rehearsal. When they do arrive, they begin “table work,” more or less discussion in which the cast familiarize themselves with the script and each other, generally while sitting around a table. The director usually attempts witty, endearing repartee, and the actors laugh at it a little too loudly. Depending on the amount of time available, this part may be as quick as one rehearsal or as long as one week.

Part three, the blocking rehearsals, are, in fact, the only rehearsals that many directors and actors think necessary. Can all the important characters be seen when they speak? Can they be heard? Is anyone standing where the furniture will go? (Now say your line, and let’s get to the bar.) Still, assuming that the play is blocked and lines memorized before tech rehearsal arrives, then some of the schedule is reserved for part four, fine-tuning important or problematic specific moments in the script. Like table work, this part of the process is abbreviated when time runs low.

Finally, fifth, come the technical rehearsals. In technical rehearsals, the cast moves from the rehearsal room to the set (forgetting everything they did in the rehearsal room except for the blocking) while the designers and production staff scurry around trying to overlay all the production elements—lights, costumes, props, sound, whatever—on to the disoriented actors and the stage.

Ideally, sometimes mysteriously, it all comes together on opening night.

This conventional rehearsal process also depends on certain defined, hierarchical relationships between people and their specialized roles in the process. In most cases, the play is chosen based on a written script, but once chosen, the director rather than the playwright is considered the final authority on all decisions about the production. The designers also serve the director’s vision, and have little to no interaction with the actors in the rehearsal room.

After more than two thousand years of Western dramatic practice, perhaps this is the perfect recipe. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be perfect; perhaps it’s just nice to have some basic expectation that we all can fall back on when we begin a job in a new theater with new people. Or just perhaps we’re in the middle of one of many phases in a continual process of change in the definition, function, and method of the performing arts.

May the gods rehearse for me

According to the Rehearsal Handbook: A Practical Guide by John Perry (one of only five books available on the rehearsal process you can find in all of the University of Minnesota library’s theater collection), our kind of rehearsal is a recent phenomenon. Since early performance was so closely tied to religious ritual, preparation consisted almost entirely of a simple “emptying out” of the performer, so that he could be ready to receive divine inspiration right in front of the audience. In Shakespeare’s time, actors memorized their lines, practicing with the other actors only entrances and exits and fights because the conventions of the Elizabethan stage limited the amount of possible variation among productions. Physical gestures were standardized. Blocking was little more than walking downstage and talking to the audience. Actors spent their careers playing the same types of characters. Basically, a performer knew exactly what he was going to do in any play. All that changed was his lines.

By the beginning of the 1800s, new approaches crept in to the creation of theater in response to new styles, economic pressures, and technology. Still, this quick-draw, get-it-up-onstage approach remained strong all the way up through the invention of television. In the book, Exit Through the Fireplace: The Great Days of Rep by Kate Dunn, one actor recalls, “On Tuesday, you’d start one [play]... You’d rehearse Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and that would be it.” In another story, “The actors learned the lines on Sunday and opened unrehearsed on Monday.” (Anyone who has ever done summer stock theater, even today, will recognize the rehearsal process in which “you do the first thing which comes in to your head and hope for the best.” [Eileen Atkins, Great Days of Rep])

Summer stock theater, Renaissance theater, and British repertory ensemble theater share a common rehearsal process because they shared a common, primary focus: Sell tickets. Performances bring in box office revenue; rehearsals do not. “Modern rehearsal as we know it only became possible when companies could be sure that they would get a return from their huge investment of two or three weeks’ paid preparation,” writes John Perry. In other words, you can only rehearse as much as you can afford to rehearse—the industrial revolution in the early 1800s actually made this return on investment possible. With more people living in more densely populated urban areas, theaters, believe it or not, became more likely to sell more tickets quickly. (Think of how all the rich sports teams are located in the largest cities.) Ironically, the mass migration of workers from rural to urban areas sped up the process of manufacturing, while allowing theater the freedom to slow down the process of creating performance.

Industrialization also led to technological advances that both changed acting styles and required additional time to manage. Renaissance theater was lit by daylight and fire. Most of the text, therefore, was delivered directly to the visible crowd. Gas lighting, chandeliers, lamps—lighting innovations—actually changed the way actors performed on stage by separating acting areas on stage from the audience with focused light. Unable to interact directly with the audience, the actors started to play their parts to their fellow actors. The director was invented to stand in for the audience during rehearsal. Suddenly, with less immediate connection to any particular audience on any given evening and a player whose entire role was to comment on the perceived effect of the play on an idealized audience, rehearsals became a place to explore a possibly perfect version of the performance. Plus, someone needed time to practice shining those lights. According to the Rehearsal Handbook, the first technical rehearsal was in Covent Garden in 1837.

Meanwhile, playwrights started to respond to dramatic cultural changes like industrialization and world war, increased democratization and the invention of psychology, through the actual structure and style of their work. Life was more complex—or, at least, more repressed. Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov created characters that transcended archetypes or stereotypes. They wrote about distinct individuals, and they invented dramatic subtext. And subtext, by definition, wasn’t uncovered quickly. Now, more rehearsal time was actually necessary to mount these new plays in a manner of sufficient quality to attract and keep an audience.

At the same time as the artistry of the scripts grew, more and more ensembles started to ignore the urgency of the box office. The Meiningen Company of the mid-1800s, for example, was entirely subsidized by Georg II, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen. Their extensive, unusual, even “obsessive,” rehearsals influenced future directors like Stanislavski. Professor Michal Kobialka of the University of Minnesota believes that they, and other companies like them around Europe, began to reject the idea that the purpose of performance was only commercial gain and instant gratification. Instead, with their financial security established through patrons, they explored the “process of creativity. And performance as only a part of that process.”

The worst of both worlds

Today, our standard rehearsal process is a mish-mash of both worlds. Conventional, mainstream theater still needs to sell tickets to survive, yet we also have patrons, foundations, and government grants to subsidize the work in an attempt to protect the process from commercial pressure. The audience expects to be entertained but the elite expect to be transported. Our three to five weeks of rehearsal appears to be the longest amount of time that we can afford to rehearse before we need to start selling tickets, yet the shortest amount of time we need to rehearse in order to still feel as though we are making art.

Unfortunately, the same industrial revolution that helped theater discover the artistic wonderland of the rehearsal process, also inspired a culture of specialization that helped to kill the ensemble theater. Now, when casts and crew mix and match with each new show, “table work” becomes necessary as much for the insight the company gains into the script as the insight they gather about each other before they try to work together. Only focusing on blocking (that which an ensemble might feel out easily, naturally, and quickly together), may be the only safe way of rehearsing difficult scenes with strangers.

Finally, hierarchy rather than collectivity becomes paramount in our modern rehearsal process for the simple reason that someone’s got to be in charge. Since so many players are new to almost every production, no one knows the rules. The director, this relatively new role in the theater, grows essential and all-powerful because she is the only who knows what everyone else is doing.

Is it possible that the extra time we now take for rehearsal is only necessary to get the company up to the speed that an ensemble would be at in less than a week? Is it possible that the costs we incur to facilitate each freelance specialist—dramaturges to explain the playwright’s intentions to the director, new costume fittings for new actors for each show, complex contracts that standardize protections for actors against overzealous producers or directors they don’t know—might actually be better spent in other ways?

Is it also possible that the muddied influences that have combined to make the current standard rehearsal process need to be examined and redefined?

Believe it or not, other ways of working do exist. Some people swear by them. Are they better?