"Usually, a first day of rehearsal goes something more like this. The actors arrive. The entire theater staff arrives, occasionally along with some board members. We eat stale donuts and mill around nervously. The artistic director says a few words. The director does a presentation. The designers do a presentation. The playwright says some awkward heartfelt things. It’s something like an ad campaign, but for who? We’re still trying to convince the theater to do our play, but they’re already doing it! We tell the actors how the play will look and sound, proud of our work, but because we’ve done the work already, the actors’ very particular imaginations won’t influence any of our big plans!
Then we sit down nervously, surrounded by a ring of about fifty people (depending on how big the theater is), and we read the play out loud at a table. The pencils are sharp, and the actors do a strange dance of auditioning for each other. The day ends, we are all relieved, and the next day we actually begin rehearsal. What if the first day of rehearsal could contain more joy? More costumes and fewer packets of information? What if it were as secretive and intimate as children building a fort, covering themselves with blankets, sitting in the dark, saying to the outside world: keep out, keep out, for now…"
Sarah Ruhl, “On the First Day of Rehearsal,” 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write on Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theaterbook of 100 essays has become my guidebook for theatre and life. I’m sure many of us have, on a number of occasions, experienced a read through just like what Sarah Ruhl describes above. It feels much more like ritual than rehearsal and without question there is a sense in the room that it is just something we need to do before we can start actually rehearsing. Lost in the ritual is any sense of purpose. Why do we do this? What is the point?
On Saturday morning, we had our first rehearsal for Stupid Fucking Bird. Before heading to the theatre, I re-read Sarah’s essay and was determined to avoid the typical read-through. We only allowed ourselves a 2 hour block for our first meeting because we were also scheduled to rehearse The Burial at Thebes that day. This is a cast in which some people have worked together a number of times and some people are completely new to tKAPOW so, yes, we spent a few minutes on introductions. And, yes, we spent just a few minutes explaining what we had in mind for the physical playing area. But, when it came time to dive into the script, I wanted to approach things a little differently. Stupid Fucking Bird is an amazing script and one of the things that makes it so great is that it very deliberately blurs the line between actor and audience. So, for the first rehearsal I set up 8 chairs in two rows of four. The two rows faced each other with about 15’ between them. Then we read the script, but rather than remaining seated, the actors moved into the open space between the chairs and walked through the whole show.
It was fascinating to watch the cast make decisions about where and how to enter, where to play the scene, and how to exit. If they felt chairs were needed they would drag them into the space and then take them with them when they exited. I was fortunate that so many of the cast members were off or almost off book so there wasn’t much of the awkwardness of having to balance your script while moving through space.
In this way, the first rehearsal was just that. A rehearsal. But, a rehearsal virtually free of rules. The actors went where they wanted to go and got to be in complete control. And, you know what? There were some moments, some real moments, created during that two hour rehearsal. Moments that I can guarantee we would not have found sitting around a table. Is it performance ready? No, but I truly believe that the cast learned more about the show, their characters, and their ensemble than they would have in a typical read through. Most importantly, I think this rehearsal set a tone for the rest of our work. It will be a process where the actors will be empowered to take risks, to explore, to play. I’m not trying to claim that there is anything really revolutionary here. I know that many theatres have long since abandoned the read through, but for us it was a new approach and I am really encouraged by the results. I’ll be very curious to see how many of the little discoveries from the first rehearsal end up in the finished product. Until then, we’ll have a lot of fun building blanket forts.
~ Matt Cahoon