How to rehearse with your actors
“As for rehearsal in film, I prefer to rehearse because I think of acting as craft, although some directors think it’s left to chance.” ~ Glenn Close
“Rehearsal in film, if it is in the hands of a skillful director, can pay enormous dividends. But if there is an indolent self-indulgent attitude on the part of the director that says ‘impress me,’ the actors can sense that. If the motives are good and creative it can be a great process. Rehearsals are like walking the track before you race around it.” ~ Sir Ben Kingsley
Rehearsal is an essential element of the preparation for a film or theater performance. Very often, directors mistakenly believe that rehearsal is an exercise for the actors to memorize their lines and their blocking. This view is relevant when it comes to what we call technical rehearsal, but rehearsal is not just for actors to prepare. On the other hand, many think that rehearsal can significantly increase the performance level of untrained and inexperienced actors. This is false. Remember that director can’t be an acting coach on a set. Unfortunately, weak acting is weak acting; there are no quick fixes for it. The main role of rehearsal is not teaching.
There are two types of rehearsal:
(1) TECHNICAL rehearsal is aimed to coordinate the work of the cast and crew, especially if there are intensive fight or chase scenes. This type of rehearsal is a part of production.
(2) CREATIVE rehearsal is a series of experiments used to find the best directions for the actors. Usually, creative rehearsal is a part of pre-production. This chapter is mostly dedicated to creative rehearsals.
What should you do if you are faced with a cast you cannot change? Talent on the part of your cast is important, but experienced, mature actors bring a higher level of competence to the set. Most young and inexperienced actors will have difficulty with the basics: hitting marks, remembering lines, repeating gestures and movements for coverage, and finding their key light. However, do not expect experienced actors to have superior memorization skills either. The job of the actor is acting, not memorization. As previously noted, getting brilliant, nuanced performances from inexperienced actors will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. In this case, your job, as the director, is to find the combination of script simplification, cast rehearsal and production elements that will allow you to achieve a successful result.
Directors in the theater world usually rely on more intense rehearsals than those in film or television. Often in the movie and TV world directors rehearse immediately before shooting each scene. This is usually due to money matters or business requirements. I recommend doing as much rehearsal as possible. Your technical rehearsal can be minutes before the takes, but creative rehearsals must start at least few weeks before you start to shoot.
The most important question is: How much should I rehearse my actors? My answer is that it depends on whether or not you understand the purpose of the rehearsal process.
What is the main goal of rehearsing? Creative rehearsal is a lab where the director and actors can experiment. The script is akin to a blueprint or a base of the movie or play. During rehearsals, directors and actors bring the script to life in the form of a film or stage play. The goal of the director is to revive the script, adapting it into the live form of a film, TV show or theater play, filled with memorable performances by the actors. The famous Polish director Jerzy Grotowski said that rehearsal is a “laboratory” where we conduct experiments. The main purpose of creative rehearsal is finding the best artistic choices for directing our actors in order to adapt the script.
However, some notable directors don’t rehearse at all before production. They rehearse with the camera rolling on the set. Famous director Penny Marshall shoots many takes instead of rehearsing. Tom Hanks has described Penny Marshall’s shooting technique as “filmmaking by attrition.” William Wyler rehearsed with cameras rolling, exposing a million feet of film for one movie. Legend has it that the only direction he ever gave was, “do it again.”
Some directors and actors fear rehearsals, saying that it kills the freshness and spontaneity of performance. I think many directors and actors who say this mean that they don’t have time to rehearse or that they don’t believe in it because they don’t know what the main purpose of rehearsal is. Rehearsal is exploration of the script; it is a way to find out the best directions for your actors.
Rehearsal is not performance. Your goal in rehearsals is not to get the best performance out of you actors. Your ultimate purpose is to experiment, to look for the best directions, to polish the script, and to find the best blocking ideas. Directors and actors also need creative rehearsals in order to find the best objectives and to explore the best physical actions. Rehearsal is your creative lab, and as any laboratory it does not have to look good. It is common for an actor’s performances within rehearsal to get worse at times. Often, it is “two steps forward one step back.” If this happens, you should go back, and try different objectives and directions to discover what your actors can do. “What if we try this scene differently?” and “how about this…” must be your directions.
Eventually, you will get what you want. If you rehearse more and more you will have brilliant performances with extraordinary range and freedom. The acting will become colorful and truthful, saturated with bold emotions. Your actors will have heightened levels of honesty, freedom and creativity.
One of the purposes of rehearsal is simply training actors to perform your script without tension or strain. Constantly encouraging your actors to discover new feelings and emotions will keep them in the moment and delivering a truthful performance. This is why a “filmmaking by attrition” method can work well. Rehearsals with multiple repetitions push actors into a state where they will quit checking and controlling their performances.
Creative rehearsal is the best tool in the director’s arsenal. If you want to create memorable performances, you will need to find time for rehearsals. Don’t worry—a scene cannot be over-rehearsed. The more rehearsals you do, the more natural, colorful and brilliant the performance will become. I have done rehearsals for 3-6 months for both theater and film and have always discovered new levels of performance from my actors.
Every time you rehearse, you and your actors will find more nuances, colors, facets and details about the personality you are trying to portray. Every rehearsal gives you more information about your choices—what does work and what doesn’t. Intensive rehearsals, where you continuously try new ideas by applying the techniques, will lead to your most powerful choices and brilliant performances. The more you work at this, the more your directing skills will grow.
Many famous actors are enormously committed to the rehearsal process. For instance, while working on the film The Devil’s Advocate, Al Pacino would spend several days rehearsing even a small three-page scene, refining choices with each beat in order to find workable directions. The harder a director or actor works, the more successful he will be.
Now I’ll give you an answer to the question about how much to rehearse. If you understand the goal of rehearsal you know that…
YOU CANNOT REHEARSE TOO MUCH!
I like comparing the rehearsal process with the process of making a Japanese Katana—the world’s best sword. The Katana is made by folding and welding pieces of high and low carbon steel thousands of times. In a rehearsal you should be folding and welding the script material thousands of times in order to create the best performance. The best things in life are not easy to achieve. You should be prepared to work hard and spend a lot of time if you want the outcome of your work to be unique and phenomenal.
INTRODUCTIONS AND TABLE READINGS
Rehearsal time is a great opportunity for everyone in the cast and crew to get to know each other. The order of business is to introduce the members of the cast and the crew to each other. It is the director’s job to set the tone as a relaxed meeting of professionals.
A director should create a warm atmosphere when working with actors. No matter how nervous or uncertain you are about your choices, your actors should feel like they are in excellent hands. You’ve already done a lot of work and have hopefully chosen actors who believe in you and your project. This is very important, because one member of your team who does not believe in the success of the project can kill the whole team’s inspiration. Be aware of all of the people whom you work with. For the first rehearsal it is best to start with a table reading without any choices, action verbs or objectives.
Discuss OBJECTIVES with Your Actors
Questions about the script and the characters will lead to an open dialogue with the actors about everyone’s visions of the characters and scenes. As early as possible, discuss all super and scene objectives with you actors. You will also have to discuss these with the key crewmembers: the Director of Photography (DP), the Production Designer (PD), and the Costume Designer. The DP and PD should know your characters’ super and scene objectives because the main purpose of cinematography and production design is to express the inner worlds of the characters. You should also meet with your actors separately. Take this opportunity to talk to them about their visions of their characters and to choose the right objectives. If there are any questions or disagreements, deal with them patiently. If the actors are asking too many questions, this could be a sign that you need to correct your objectives.
“No matter how old you get, if you can keep the desire to be creative alive, you’re keeping the man-child alive.” ~ John Cassavetes
I hope you now know that improvisation is the best method for finding objectives, psychological gestures, blocking, physical actions and so on. The goal of creative rehearsals is finding the best directions. Many directors use improvisation while working with actors. Mike Leigh (an English writer and director of film and theater) allows his actors to improvise dialogue and situations. He calls his method, “assembling the raw materials.” John Cassavetes (an American film actor, screenwriter, and director) also allowed his actors to improvise. Mike Leigh developed his method in the theater: he has always thought that his work on stage was a path to film. That was how he learned how to create characters and stories. But this method is not a way to make a movie; it’s a way to prepare to make a movie. Improvisation has been developed as a method for rehearsing by many practitioners, including Stanislavski, Michael Chekhov, and Sanford Meisner.