Rehearsing Shakespeare: The Rehearsal Room
'suit the action to the word, the word to the action'
The Rehearsal Room.
On the first day of rehearsals I always try to be in the room at least an hour before anyone else. Excitement and nerves are twisted together and I find it calming to sit there alone taking in the empty space, making it my own. This is a place where I need to lead, to set a tone, to create a sense of possibilities. Every rehearsal room I've ever worked in, from small wooden scout huts to purpose built modern studios, has plenty of chairs and slowly I arrange some of them into a circle. I place a table with a single chair just outside the circle for the stage manager - I think they prefer it that way, they like to be a little bit detached, just beyond the emotional currents that are about to be stirred and they need a big table, most importantly for "the book", the precious record of everything that happens, the bible of what will emerge from the rehearsal process. I try to make the circle as perfect as possible, each chair exactly the same distance from the next, the circumference dictated by the number of actors. For a while I move about inside the circle, then outside, visiting every part of the room, seeing it from all angles. The next people to arrive are, invariably, the stage management team, usually three of them. They see the circle and I feel a little guilty; this should be their job. They are used to asking the director how they want the room arranged and then arranging it. Some directors like no chairs because they will begin with physical exercises, and some have rows of seats for the actors facing a long table behind which sits the "creative team", which at the most might consist of the director, the set designer, the costume designer, the lighting designer, the sound designer, the movement director and the voice coach. The actors become the audience in this scenario and may well be outnumbered! So why do I make the circle myself? I suppose it relaxes me, to make my mark on the room, a gesture towards how I want things to be: egalitarian, focused, an image of the perfection we aim for but never achieve. An image of togetherness and of common purpose, a sign that we are there to make something with each other, to turn Shakespeare's words on a page into a play on a stage.
When the actors start to arrive the room gradually fills with the hum and crackle of meeting, of something beginning, threads of nerves, laughter, talk, anticipation, weaving themselves clumsily into camaraderie. We all settle and I begin to talk. Of course by now my perfect circle has been comprehensively disrupted - chairs moved to make way for baggage, rearranged so old friends can be together, set back a little out of modesty, the one next to the director always the last to be occupied as no one wants to be seen currying favour. I talk about the play, about the structure of the days to come, and at some point ask the designer to show the model of the set. This will usually have been assembled and covered with a drape before any of the cast arrive to increase the dramatic impact of its revelation. The physical chemistry of the room shifts as actors leave their seats and gather round the model. I watch faces as the designer explains and demonstrates how it will all work, looking for reactions. Do they like it? Is it making sense? What mood is forming? Then the costume drawings are produced and a new intimacy begins to emerge around the actors relationship to the production: these are the clothes they will wear when they step on stage in front of an audience as a character that has not yet even begun to exist.
Coffee break. The focused mood fragments into a multitude of conversations creating a party-like scene where old relationships are being renewed and new ones are taking root. The chatting over, the room resettles. The work begins. There is a long way to go.
Some directors begin with a straightforward reading of the play from start to finish. I've never found this particularly useful. Others begin with physical exercises, games, improvisations around characters and situations from the play. I've never done that. I favour a long slow reading of the text, stopping after every scene, discussing, going back, reading some sections again, sketching in possibilities, talking about alternative ways of looking at the relationships, and all the time trying to start understanding the implications latent in the text. This might take two or three days with the full company getting acquainted with the totality of the play regardless of which scenes they are in. We break the text down into "blocks" (usually about 40) which are shaped by the coming and going of the characters, basically whenever someone leaves the action or someone arrives. So by the end of the first few days the play will have been numerically restructured and we will talk about, say, Blocks 12-16, not Act 2 scene 3 or Act 5 scene 1. It's a way of making the rehearsal process focus on small units of action, encouraging detailed analysis not generalised feeling. From then on only the actors involved in a particular block will be called, not the whole cast all the time. Once broken down into smaller sections we begin to explore movement and that, along with digging deeper into the text, helps the learning - suits "the action to the word, the word to the action" to quote Hamlet. I always want actors to learn their parts gradually through the discoveries about their characters made during rehearsal - never to come with the lines pre-learnt. Bit by bit blocks of action come together making bigger blocks giving an increasing sense of how the whole narrative hangs together until eventually we are able to attempt the whole play in one seamless arc of storytelling. Sometimes at this stage, maybe just before or just after the first full run, we go back to the circle with which we began. The chairs are reassembled as on the first day but now the words have been absorbed into that mental space where actor and character meet. I tell the cast to forget about the movement we have added and to improvise if they feel the need to move, in order to concentrate purely on the text, with one strict rule: every time they speak the name of another character to look at them, wherever in the circle they may be and regardless of whether they are in the scene or not. Other people are in our minds an amazing amount of the time even when not present. We exist in a web of self defining relationships. Others are in us and part of us all the time and Shakespeare understood that and it is constantly there in his plays. It's remarkable how this exercise, after rehearsing in fragments, brings the whole together and how it helps the actor move out of their part and into their role. The cast becomes a choir, hopefully singing in tune. We live caught in the net of other people's feelings and expectations about us. We are constantly aware we can never, quite see ourselves as others see us. Rehearsing Shakespeare is primarily concerned with applying what we instinctively know about life in this respect, to Shakespeare's world of inter-relationships. As Bassanio describes Portia to Antonio is he seeing her in his mind's eye as she really is, or as he wants Antonio to see her? When Viola says: "My father had a daughter loved a man" is she trying to conceal from Orsino that it's herself she's talking about, or trying to reveal it? The place these intriguing questions get answered, is the rehearsal room.
Bill Alexander ©