At last! Back to our definition of “rehearse”:
To prepare for the public performance of a play by practicing the performance
If “public” is one of the reasons for our misunderstanding, what’s the other one?
I thought I ought to be sure I understand what “practice” means. So I looked that up, too. And I found this:
To do something again and again in order to become better at it.
And here, I think, is the rest of the problem. Our common understanding of the word “practice” is, indeed, to “do something over and over again.”
There are activities in which this is both true and useful. If you play the piano, you practice over and over to be sure you are hitting the right keys at the right time. Once you can do that, you can start thinking about artistic interpretation, but first you have to repeat and repeat the fingering.
If you play a sport, you repeat the motions in that sport over and over so that you can fine tune how you throw a ball or swing a bat. You rehearse the moves in a double play, so that in an actual game, you can execute it flawlessly.
In fact, any physical activity requires repetition – that is, “practice”, as defined above – to get better at it. In these examples, the physical motion is so integral to the final activity – playing a sonata or a baseball game – that you have to learn the motions through repetition if you’re going to be any good at producing the final product.
In other words, in these activities, you spend the first half of “rehearsals” practicing technique, and the second half being creative.
So far, so good. I would argue that we should use precisely that same format in preparing a play for performance: first half is devoted to technique, the second half to being creative.
Notice the change I made there. I didn’t say “practicing technique”; I merely said “technique”.
There are certainly physical elements to acting, and I’ve written before about the need to “practice” them early and often, just as you do “Moonlight Sonata” and the double play. Still, the core of acting is emotional, not physical, and to “practice” the emotional through repetition is to take the soul out of it. It can’t help but become superficial when approached this way.
If you doubt me, think about the stories you tell about yourself. Your “go-to” stories, the ones that are sure to entertain anyone. You’ve told them so many times that you know just how to tell them to make them a “good story.” But you also have distanced yourself from the events of the story so much that it is almost as if it happened to someone else. You are no longer the person it happened to; you’re the story “reader”, as it were.
Also, in these examples, there are certain restrictions to what you do. If you are a batter, there is only one way for you to swing the bat and be successful regularly. It may be different from how everyone else bats, but it is your way of doing it well. Once you discover what your personal mechanics need to be, you practice them over and over, and that makes you a .300 hitter.
If you are playing a sonata, the musical score gives you notes (like the words of a script), and it also gives you rests; that is, it tells you how long notes should last and how long your pauses should be and where they should come. If you are a jazz musician, you are welcome to disregard these things and put your own spin on it, but if you are a classical musician, you’ve got less wiggle room. And in any case, a jazz musician needs to know the restrictions of the original work before he can riff on it successfully; riffing is second half work!
What you are given to work with in these other circumstances is slightly different than what you are given as an actor. You are given words, but as you’ll see in future posts, you’ve got a lot more flexibility with them than you do with Beethoven.
So if we don’t want to “practice” in the way Merriam-Webster defines it, what do we do with the first half of rehearsals? “Technique” is not a verb, so it doesn’t tell you very much.
No, “technique” is simply the tools you use. (“Ah, at last, she’s getting back to the original topic!” Give me enough time, and I’ll always complete the circle.)
The first phase of rehearsals, for an actor, is for playing. For exploring. For daring. For making mistakes.
“Making mistakes!? I’m going to be standing in front of an audience in 6 weeks, and you’re telling me to make mistakes in rehearsal? You’ve got to be crazy!”
Crazy like a fox. I’ll explain why next time.