A few years ago I was lucky to be in rep with two plays. One was a comedy, a new work written by a fairly well known playwright and the other a classic work from the late 1800’s. In the comedy I had a minor role and in the classic I had literally seven lines but an entire hour and a half onstage as ensemble. In the comedy rehearsal room things weren’t hilarious. In the tragic classic rehearsal room there was a sense of deep artistic exploration. Two rehearsal rooms so unlike each other that the experience of being an actor in each, was completely different. A strange dichotomy of value and valueless, artistic and automaton. It taught me powerful lessons.
Day One in the comedy rehearsal room was a lesson in torture. The director, although a lovely person, seemed to be flailing with how to begin. As if they hadn’t done their homework. As if they had come to rehearsals thinking they could ‘wing it’ with a large cast of performers. It got to the point where actors were talking to each other, turning their back on the director, asking how they should do the scene themselves. The director is well respected in her field. We were made to flounder.
Day One in the Classes rehearsal room and we played. The director had come prepared with many games and the movement director had come with warmups and ideas of how to start. We were told the point to all the games. We were told that everything we did might be considered and evaluated to see if it could be in the production. Everything we gave, in a warm up, in a scene, in a game, may lead to something. We were made into artistic explorers.
There were four actors flitting between these two rooms. Both casts were full of exceptional talent but there were many examples of the comedy cast coming away from rehearsals frustrated and overwhelmed. That never happened in the classic rehearsal room. Not once and there were huge ego’s involved.
Control is so important from a director. But not the ego-driven maniacal kind. Control over the time in rehearsals so that you could feel the work is moving forward. Also this control helps the actors trust your judgement as a director. So that if you say something about how you think a joke should be played the actors can go, ok, this person knows what they are talking about, and try it. Often in the rehearsal room, an elderly actor, almost came to blows with the director because he didn’t trust her. I would watch the tensions rise until the director was demanding that he try it their way. Dictatorial moments like that put my back up.
We were in previews and this led to me asking four times for an under-rehearsed scene to be looked at because a few moments felt wrong and embarrassing. The director turned to me and said, “Well it’s only embarrassing and wrong because you aren’t doing it right.” Not that I knew what right was, we had barely rehearsed me into the scene. The very next day I watched as the lead actor asked for a scene rehearsal because something felt “wrong” and “embarrassing” and everyone jumped, from the writer to the director to stage management. The scene was rewritten, the staging re-blocked to accommodate her. The utter disrespect of this is one I am sure many actors have had many times and it threw me into a state of panic every time that scene came up in the play.
Whenever we returned to the classic rehearsal room we were always taken aside by the assistant director, under the instruction of the director, to inform us about everything we missed, and the reasons for everything that was rehearsed in our absence, and also what the focus would be that day. We were always reading from the same script in that rehearsal room.
There was a dance in both plays. I am not a confident dancer, or mover. In the classic rehearsal room they had started the dance the day before. The whole cast was made to take us four through the routine slowly and carefully. An organic process of help. That very day, when I went to the comedy rehearsal room, I sat on the side watching the movement director doing a dance with most of the cast. Half an hour later he realised that I should have been in the dance too. It didn’t say in the script. No one noticed. No one cared.
I have never felt less valued than I did in that comedy rehearsal room. There are plenty of other examples I could give. In this room I was an automaton. If you had cut my character you would never have known a hole was there. And I was trying to make sense of it without any help or care from a director who favoured the cast that was always in the room, as if she had forgotten she was dealing with a rep situation.
In the classic rehearsal room even though my part was so small I finally felt like an artist. That my contributions to the ensemble was not less important to the director, in fact we were so expertly crafted that it felt we were as cared for as the lead cast. That sense of value made me rush to the theatre every night that play was on. The nights the comedy was on – well I felt exposed. Vulnerable. And it was only with the help of the mostly joyous people in the cast that I got through it.
I know the company asks the directors about the actors they have worked with. The never have asked the actors what they thought of the directors. It’s one of those power imbalances I cannot stand – another way we are failed by the system. If we are to be evaluated, no matter how casually, then we should be offered the same courtesy. But we never are.
I would have said that one director was incredible to work with and the other, well, one I wouldn’t want to work with ever again.