There is a certain rhythm to the rehearsing of a play, regardless of its length, or content, or the amount of rehearsal time available. At least, there’s been a rhythm to it for all the [REDACTED] decades I’ve been doing this, having been taught my craft by artists who’d been doing this for [REDACTED] decades before that. You start with the words, with the actors holding their fresh scripts around a table in a rehearsal studio, the florescent lights shining overhead, the stage manager opening the cap on a fresh highlighter, as script analysis begins with the first table read. Then you get the show up on its feet with scripts in hand, then you get off book and run it through with technical elements, and only then do you face the terrors of opening night. This process may be stately or frantic, depending on how much rehearsal time you have; your time around the table may only take an hour, or it could extend onward for days. (In his various memoirs, the late Antony Sher writes rhapsodically of spending weeks picking apart the minutae of Shakespearean verse while rehearsing with the R.S.C.) But whatever theatrical journey you’re about to embark on, you start it at that table.
At least you used to.
My short play Basic Cable Method Acting is getting ready to go into rehearsal; we have one role left to cast, and an orientation meeting for the festival later in the week, and then we’ll be good to go. I was therefore speaking with my director this weekend, planning out our rehearsal schedule. (It’s only a ten minute play, but we have less than a month before tech, so, this will be more on the frantic side.) And he let me know that he preferred to hold off on in-person rehearsals until the actors were more familiar with the script. The first rehearsals with the cast would therefore take place over zoom.
It makes sense, now that we’ve all become familiar with the technology. (Thanks a lot, pandemic.) It’s not a decision that materially changes the rehearsal process in any way. But I don’t think, even after three years, we’ve fully come to terms with how profoundly this remote technology is going to change our industry. If you’re a producer, and you were planning on a week of table work, you now have to pay for one less week of rehearsal space. But have you then lost that crucial week of ensemble-building? Are you going to reimburse the actors for essentially turning their own homes into your rehearsal studio? Can you make the proper adjustments in the rehearsal process to actors’ performances if you don’t actually get to see them until about midway through?
I’m not objecting to any of this, mind you; I trust the actors who are working with me on this, and I’m more than happy to watch the process unfold from the comfort of my desk chair at home. (My cat will be delighted.) But there will still be a hole in my heart for the traditional start of the process, which, after generations of actors have come to take it for granted, may no longer be there. A hole in the shape of a table.
(Either plastic folding or formica. Depends on the studio.)