With an exclusive focus on text-based theatre-making, Inside the Rehearsal Room is both an instructional and conceptual examination of the rehearsal process. Drawing on professional practice and underpinned by theory, this book moves through each stage of rehearsals, considering the inter-connectivity between the actor, director, designers and the backstage team, and how the cumulative effect of the weeks in rehearsal influences the final production.
Informed by over 20 years of directing experience in the UK and Europe, Robert Marsden’s book offers a practical guide that ultimately demystifies the rehearsal process and challenges how the rehearsal room should be run in the 21st century.
In the below extract, Marsden explains why this initial moment is so pivotal: both for setting the tone of the entire process, and laying the groundworks for a fantastic end result… and how ‘the buck stops’ with the director in this regard.
‘I run a rehearsal room based on trust, people have to get on with what they need to do. It’s collaborative and democratic. I try to be [that way]. It doesn’t always happen. But the buck does stop with me, and that terrifies me.’ Graeae’s Jenny Sealey establishes a firm credo for her practice and now we take our first steps into a physical rehearsal process which concerns establishing an ethos and rehearsal room values. What is meant by a rehearsal room ‘break- through’ is also considered in depth, and some initial exercises are provided as a way of establishing ensemble conditions.
But why should the ‘buck stop’ with the director, as Sealey suggests? The final piece is ultimately a product, driven by commercial factors and attached to that are conditions of production. Everyone invested in the theatre- making process is aware of the opening night’s looming date and time, boldly emblazoned on all publicity material. Ric Knowles, Professor of Drama at the University of Guelph, and author of Reading the Material Theatre, asserts against a backdrop of cultural materialism that any creative choices made are bounded by economic and commercial conditions that impact on the work. For Knowles, it becomes difficult to truly take risks, as the notion of ‘production, as product [means that] the possibilities for transgression or subversion linger only in the fissures amongst the various processes and practices’ (2004: 31). The imposition of strict deadlines means that any transgressions in these fissures may only be possible in certain rehearsals and, as Sealey reminds us, ‘we are bound by the rules of normative theatre’ and the rigour and discipline is attached to that. Structuring a rehearsal process that aligns a personal ethos and ways of working with the need to ‘open the product on time’ can be a challenge. As the work in the rehearsal room ‘amounts to more than eighty per cent of the creative process of mounting a production’ (Knowles 2004: 67), how artists shape that space in terms of its values, ethos and methodologies begins prior to the first day in the room.
Michelle Terry is aware of both the materialist nature of theatre with committing to change how rehearsals operate. She exclaims that every rehearsal is about hurtling towards the product. The ensemble nature [created as the under-pinning philosophy for a season] was to self-referentially say that we are also trying to practice, and to ask how can you have conversations about process as much as product. Can you have rehearsal rooms where you question who holds the leadership position at any moment? How can you have multidisciplinary expertise, plurality in the room where the agenda is of course to make the work but stay in process as we go? Where is the centre and the focus?
The early stages need to build on that and lay out the direction of travel, both in spirit and in deed.
An actor’s job then is to turn the psychology of a character into physical action. In other words, an actor needs to break down the intellectual information obtained from the text and their imagination, including thoughts and feelings and translate this information into the physical action of the character in a narrative. (Zybutz and Farquharson 2016: 76)
If the actor’s role in rehearsal is as described above, then the directorial role is to ensure that an actor can be willing vulnerable in a safe and inclusive environment. The word ‘ensemble’ is used often in relation to a safe rehearsal room, but we must create the conditions for safe and consensual willing vulnerability. Maria Shevtsova helpfully points out that Stanislavski’s notion of ensemble ‘was a matter of like-minded people with a “common goal”, who wanted to be together and were fully dedicated to making theatre permanently together according to this goal’ (2020: 7). When forming a company, wanting to be together as a collective is common. When a new production is being mounted with a nascent ensemble, it must find a common way of working, structured around a shared set of values. It is incumbent on the director, as the ‘tone setter’ of rehearsal, to ensure that actors are empowered to take ownership of the creative process. As Ken Rea reminded me, ‘the director can be on the first plane out of town if it’s a disaster, but the actors have to hold the production together. Therefore, they have got to find a way of coming together.’
Actor trainer Wyn Jones aims to establish this during training, in terms of how actors think about preparing for their work:
I’m also trying to get them to understand that the time the rehearsal starts is not the time you walk through the door. That you are always ready to work. It’s not just being dressed, it’s about the room being ready. On Wednesday I walked into a session and said: ‘I’m walking into something here, what am I walking into?’ It was a proper working atmosphere.
When questioned as to why this link was important, Jones goes on to say that he is ‘quite big on atmosphere and not bringing too much clutter with you. There should be a sense of play when they’re not being judged by others or by me.’
The director often encourages the actor to ‘let go’ in their work, and if the director is likened to a parent who should ‘let go’ in a more literal sense, then the ownership of the production must move from the director to the actor in the building of the ensemble. In the early stages, there is more dependence on the director, but from the outset, it is understood that the handover of ownership has begun for actors to have ultimate agency. Taking Stanislavski’s idea that ‘every actor must be [their] own director’ (2008: 113), and placing this alongside Katie Mitchell’s goal, which is ‘for the actors to be self-directing … [and] able to come off stage after a performance and assess what they have done’ (2009: 186), suggests that directors need to find strategies to ensure that actors are self-directing, reflective practitioners through rehearsals.
When Stanislavski directed, he ‘pretended ignorance in order to force the actor’s independent decision. [Maria Knebel] called it his “pedagogical cunning” ’ (Carnicke 2009: 203); here actors feel an ownership of a moment, even if they have been led there directorially. From my experience, making explicit that we all know what game is being played at rehearsals is important. Not only does this shine a light on the rehearsal room hierarchy, but it also overtly identifies the director as a leader amongst equals of a team, where ‘the buck’ does indeed ‘stop’ as a result of the materialist conditions of theatre-making.