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Monday, April 22, 2013

Rehearsal Etiquette for Acting Students


When I direct a show, the preparation work involves reading through the script over and over again with the actors while:

  1. doing script analysis
  2. discussing the author’s intent
  3. discussing the author and his or her background
  4. discussing the major themes in the work of the author
  5. answering Questions A – J for each scene in the text
  6. discussing each character’s –
    *        thinking
    *         relationships
    *     motivations
    *        different intents
    *        actions
    *        Who am I?
I spend about a month on this before I start blocking. The rehearsal period lasts between three and four months.

Student actors often cause major difficulties while working on a show. Even though I teach them how to behave correctly as part of the course, some actors frequently lack self-discipline, willpower, proper work ethics and even the most basic understanding of what is required of an actor. Some are often lazy, self involved and ignorant, displaying bad attitude and negativity because they want things their own way. I have to provide them with the most basic information about correct working methods again and again.

I am sharing these principles in order to give prospective actors an idea of what will be expected of them:

Knowing your Lines, Blocking and Daily Activities:

It is of paramount importance to stay on schedule as you prepare your performance for opening night. In order to stay on schedule actors need to:

  1. Be prepared to choose the correct sense memory work based on analysis of the script and work on it in rehearsal.
  2. In order to work on sense memory, the actor needs to first know the lines, blocking and daily activities.
  3. The actor must be capable of executing the lines, blocking and daily activities correctly at the same time without making mistakes or forgetting what s/he is supposed to say or do.
  4. Only then can the actor focus on performance and truthful response as the character based on the sense memory work chosen.

This is part of your job as an actor, just as it is part of an engineer’s or an architect’s job to design and / or build structures that won’t fall down. Nobody else can do this for you. You, the actor, are responsible for doing your job.

Should you work in professional theater anywhere in the world, you may only have three weeks rehearsal time. Professional directors are not going to sit through countless rehearsals while the actors are forgetting their lines and blocking. They are not going to listen to excuses that actors “need to go through the process” rehearsal after rehearsal while the work stands still because the actors are not prepared. They will fire the unprepared actors and replace them with others who do the preparation work at home so the rehearsal process can move forward and be complete on opening night.

Film and TV directors are not going to stand for it when actors arrive on set not knowing their lines. There is too little time and too much money at stake. Scheduling is brutal. Actors come off set at the end of a long day and have to learn their lines, have a bath, eat dinner, go to sleep and be on set the next morning at 5 or 6 o’ clock. Often one or two quick blocking rehearsals are done and then they shoot the scene. This means that actors have to be capable of learning lines and blocking fast and effectively. There is no time for the actors to “go through the process”!

I always hear the following when students forget their lines while working on scenes in class or rehearsal: “I know it! I knew the lines when I rehearsed at home yesterday!” Well, knowing your lines at home is not good enough. You need to know your lines while rehearsing and performing the play:

  1. under stressful circumstances
  2. while remembering the blocking and activities and
  3. doing sensory work and
  4. communicating with your fellow actors and
  5. thinking as the character while
  6. playing the character and
  7. expressing truthfully
 This is what actors are supposed to do!

I don’t particularly like the idea of what follows. I would much prefer it if actors learned their lines and blocking organically, while “doing” in rehearsal, rather than being trained like a parrot. Many student actors I work with don’t seem to have the ability to do it that way, however, so I unfortunately have to make the following suggestions, against my own better judgment, in order to get the job done:

  1. Sit with your script
  2. Read the first line and say it aloud to yourself three times while not looking at the script: “I pray you all give your audience”(from the Medieval Miracle Play, Everyman)
  3. Now read lines one and two together and say them aloud together three times while not looking at the script: “I pray you all give your audience, and hear this matter with reverence”
  4. Then add the next line and say all three together three times
  5. Then add line four and say all four together three times
  6. Then the next and the next, repeating all the lines in a speech together, from line one to line twenty-one, over and over and over again
  7. When you know the whole speech look at the notes you’ve made in your script on blocking and daily activities for that speech and practice same by doing it while saying the lines until you can do it in your sleep
  8. Then on to the next speech
  9. You also need someone to read your cues to you (the speech before you have to speak) because you need to learn when you have to say your lines
  10. But what happens if your cue doesn’t come?  You need to know everybody’s lines so you can solve that problem should it arise. You need to know the whole script well enough to be able to jump in if a fellow actor loses it
  11. This takes time and effort but it is the only way to do it if your memory is bad because it builds pathways in your brain that will prevent you forgetting what you have to say and do. It will also make your lines and your blocking and activities "one thing" rather than "three separate things" that you are struggling to coordinate. In the long run it saves rehearsal time so the process can move forward. You have to do this at home though – rehearsal time, while the director is sitting there twiddling his or her thumbs, is not the time to learn your work. 

Making Notes and Preparing for Rehearsals:

You absolutely have to make and date your notes in the back of your script / book re: everything you’ve been told to do or change at that rehearsal: your blocking, daily activities and performance notes, before leaving the rehearsal room. Then you need to work through those notes and practice / prepare before the next rehearsal or you will be totally lost and waste everybody’s precious time and end up getting negative and angry with the director. An actor needs to make notes about everything and work it through and know it off by heart and be capable of executing it for the next rehearsal in order to be consistent and experience growth. You need to learn to retain / remember and repeat the lines of the play, the blocking, the daily activities, the instructions, the suggestions, input and guidance you receive from your director.

An actor should never have to be told to do something or correct a mistake or problem more than once. No director should have to repeat him or herself to an actor – especially not over and over and over and over again! It is the actor’s responsibility to be told once and to then do what s/he has been asked to do every time … until the instruction is changed! One of the most important abilities an actor needs is being able to repeat the work exactly - as often as is necessary - once the director has indicated that this is the work required. After blocking has taken place, rehearsals are there mainly to explore the character / relationships / circumstances based on a thorough analysis of the play and the character as well as the answers to Questions A - J and to test Method / performance work. The time is wasted if you regard it as an opportunity to learn your lines and blocking and therefore arrive unprepared to do what really matters. 

Method and Performance Work:

I’ve asked the following question numerous times during rehearsal periods over the years: “Why are my actors incapable of consistently repeating the good work I’ve seen them all do at one time or another over the past few months? What more can I do for them?”

It goes without saying that certain things have to be in place and we always work on these before we start working on blocking and performance:

  1. analysis of the play and the character and each scene
  2. playing the author
  3. knowing what the character’s intent is and playing that intent
  4. motivation and justification
  5. thinking as the character in the moment
 These aspects go without saying.

When it comes to unconvincing, bad acting, however, the answer to my question never changes: “Tell them to do the work.”

I tend to make the same mistake with every show, looking for all kinds of reasons and solutions, wracking my brain to figure out what the problem is, while losing sight of the one big truth about working the Method way: If you are not truly experiencing sense memory and expressing your response to your sensory recall freely and honestly – without pushing for an end result - you are not doing the work! That is always the answer to indicating, speech patterns, pretending, being withdrawn / without energy or simply “dead”. There is no other answer and there is no other cure for the problem of bad acting. Also, you need ABSOLUTE focus and concentration to be able to do the work. If you’re thinking or worrying or concerned about anything other than your acting, you are not doing the work.

I’ve realized that the cause for the inconsistency in performances – the reason why I end up worrying whether my actors will be able to pull off a show year after year – is the fact that they sometimes do have the work and sometimes believe they have the work while, in fact, they don’t. New actors often think that they are experiencing sense memory when they are not. They do not yet know the difference between remembering and imagining and fantasizing and pretending on the one hand, and actually experiencing with their senses on the other. I ask them if they have the work and they believe themselves when they answer in the affirmative – but I can usually see that there is no work - I know there’s none because, if there were, we wouldn’t be faced with a problem. Yet student actors often do not have the awareness and perception to recognize that they don’t know what they are doing … yet.

If you were to really focus and concentrate on experiencing a sensory reality – even if it is nothing more than a sense of smell or a snippet of song or a feeling of being in a particular place – and if you were to trust it and respond to it truthfully - without pushing for an effect or an end result – we will see real work. But it doesn’t end there. Doing the work entails more. It means really thinking and responding as the character (NOT as yourself)  – really responding to the truth of the moment - really listening – really talking to  while concentrating on keeping the sensory experience going in a relaxed way. The audience must be able to see you think and conceive of the words and thoughts before you utter them as a character, or they cannot believe that what you are showing them is real. You can never allow yourself to go on automatic pilot – never ever. You need to be conscious in order to act!

But I’m not having fun! (Ah, woe! Poor me!)

Please do not expect to have fun, unless fun is defined by you as hard work! Children doing school plays have fun. Amateurs acting for an amateur group have fun. Adults studying at a professional acting school to become professional actors one day … do not have fun! You are here to learn the skill, the craft, the art of acting. This is serious work! You don’t expect to have fun studying for and writing your law or accounting exams – please don’t expect it if you’re busy preparing your best possible performance in a show to which audience members are buying tickets!

I believe that you will experience the exhilaration of knowing that you’re busy doing good work when on stage (that’s what I mean when I say: “Have fun!”); the pride of recognizing that you’ve successfully used all the skills you’ve learned so far; the joy of realizing that you’ve overcome major obstacles and done the best you possibly can. I hope that you will experience the true fun, finally, of deserving to feel good about your achievements and that you will have cause to be truly proud and excited by the time you've completed your final performance.

I hope that these suggestions will solve the problems with regard to how to work in rehearsal that student actors so often face. It will only do so, however, if you do the work. If you don’t, there’s nothing anyone can do to make you look good under those lights!

Stephanie van Niekerk
Method Actors’ Training Centre
Pretoria, South Africa


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