The Problem with Run-throughs

digressionI need to digress and talk about run-throughs.  I’m writing this from the director’s perspective, but it’s useful for an actor to know, too.  I have much more to write in the Script Analysis series on Other People’s Money, but I feel a mighty powerful need to digress, too.

Run-throughs are rehearsals in which one “runs through” an entire act (or an entire play) with minimal, if any interruptions, and notes (corrections, suggestions, etc.) are given after the act is over.  There are a few real benefits to using run-throughs in rehearsal:

  • To “check in” on where the play stands.  If you’ve been doing a lot of piecemeal work, it helps you see how it is coming together.
  • To give the actors a sense of continuity.  Some actors find it difficult to work a play in pieces without regular run-throughs to remind them of how the play feels as a whole.
  • To give the actors the chance to really explore their emotional life.  Once you’ve cleared up the rough bits in the first half or even two-thirds of the rehearsal period, whether it’s physical stuff that needed fine-tuning or emotional motivations, actors can’t really explore their characters’ emotions fully if you jump into the middle of an act at the start of rehearsal.  And eventually, you need to be running the entire play in one night, because the second act builds on the first.

Maybe there are other benefits I’m not thinking of at the moment, and if so, I’ll be happy to add them as they spring to mind.  HOWEVER,

There are directors who seem to think that run-throughs, once blocking rehearsals are completed (“you move here on that line, then you sit, and then you stay there until she enters, at which point you rise and walk to the fireplace”), is the proper way to go.  In other words, a week or so into rehearsals, it’s time to move to a run-through of the act.

I understand where this philosophy comes from (at least some of the time):

  • That’s how the directors I worked under operated, so that must be how it’s done!
  • I can see how close the play comes to my vision, and so I can know better how to fix it.
  • How else would you direct a play?

If you’re working in community theater (or high school theater), this is, sadly, a not-uncommon approach to directing.  Why “sadly”?  Because it’s not particularly effective, even if you’re (otherwise) a good director.

On the one hand, I understand that a lot of people who end up directing in these venues have had no training as directors, and often no apprenticeship with anyone who is really good and creative as a director.  I’ve known directors who have never acted, and who have no real understanding of what an actor needs (whether he knows it or not, and not everyone does) to do his best work.  For those directors, run-throughs make perfect sense, because those directors are all about final product — beginning on the first day of rehearsal.

I am going to do something HIGHLY UNUSUAL for me, for those of you who have been reading this blog for any period of time, and confine myself to a SINGLE ARGUMENT, which is (for me) so powerful than any other arguments (which I could surely find) would be superfluous.  I recently came in touch with it in a powerful way, one of those wonderful “Aha!” moments that make life worth living for me.

The human brain is dualistic.  That is, we know a chair is a chair not only because it shares characteristics with another chair, but because it doesn’t share enough characteristics with a table.  We know what is “better” only when we compare it to like things that are “less good” or “okay, but who cares” or “atrocious”.

So if an actor is struggling with a scene, or simply in the early stages of “discovery” (which have nothing to do with final product — see all kinds of other posts throughout this blog) — letting him run that scene once a night — perhaps twice, in the context of the entire act, if he’s lucky — is insufficient.  Why?

Because if a scene or a beat or a moment or whatever isn’t working, you need to isolate it and work it repeatedly, so that the dualistic mind can do its work.  Forget what I’ve said about the subconscious — that will come into play here, too, but my emphasis on the subconscious does not mean that the conscious mind has nothing to contribute.  It does (but many actors rely too much on it, even if they think they don’t).  And here’s where the conscious mind is a real asset.

I’m speaking as an actor now:

Run a scene the first time, and you’ll get the “default” position — whatever your natural instincts brought you to.  Maybe not all of it works as well as you’d like.  Run it a second time (immediately), and you’re likely to change the things that bothered you the most.  The benefit is that you just did the scene in a different way, so you can compare the two (the brilliant dualistic mind at work) and say, “Huh.  I liked that part of version 2 better, but this other part was worse.  But I’m still not happy with what I did the first time.”

Notice that I haven’t gotten very specific about what did and didn’t work.  I don’t have to.  I may just be reacting on a gut level, but I feel that one or the other version succeeded in each moment, or that neither did.

Do it a third time, and I can start fine-tuning more.  I keep what worked from each of the first two versions and try to fix the remaining broken parts.

Or maybe I go completely off the rails and try something different the third time, most of which doesn’t work, but which offers me a clue about the exchanges that are troubling me.

I can take these learnings ONLY because they are back-to-back.  Spread them out over three rehearsals?  I’m sorry, I haven’t got that good a memory.  I can’t remember the nuances of how I played this scene two nights ago.  In the intervening 48 hours, my boss has yelled at me, my kid has had a fever of 103.1, the quote from the roofer came in and I almost fainted, and my best friend told me she’s having an affair with her dentist.

Seriously — you can’t expect me to remember what I was displeased with at the last rehearsal if it was more than an hour ago.

Now, I’m talking as a director (who happens to be an actor, but that’s sort of coincidental):

At some point, I’ll talk more about how I direct and what I think directors can learn from it, but for the moment, I’ll just say this:  I work my scenes to death, until every important piece has been dissected — not necessarily fixed, but dissected,  I make my actors massively uncomfortable by not following the usual formula of repeated run-throughs.  I’ve learned to throw enough run-throughs in to keep the actors calm, while still focusing my attention on the pieces.

Still, I know that my actors, if they haven’t worked with me before, feel some uncertainty at my approach.  But 3/4 of the way into rehearsals (if it takes that long! — depends on the demands of the play, which is a story for another post), the prospects for the play look brighter for the actors.  They still aren’t out of the woods, but they begin to think that maybe I haven’t led them entirely astray.  By the end of that week, they start to become believers, because there is this magical alchemy that happens — a product, I’m convinced, of my approach to directing.  By the time we get to Wednesday of opening week, they are ready.  I mean Really Ready.  I believe in having a show that is as good on opening night as it is on closing night, because both audiences are paying the same ticket price.  I ensure that by making sure my shows are ready by the Wednesday that precedes opening night (and by the way, this also includes giving the actors a night off on Tuesday of Tech Week).

I should also say that the final product we’ve arrived at on that Wednesday?  It’s not only better than what the actors anticipated, it is better than what I anticipated (and I always have loftier goals than my actors).

Most importantly, I have a cast that is chomping at the bit to open, and is supremely confident that they are doing superb work.  Hard to over-estimate the importance of that.

I’ve done this with a variety of casts and a host of different kinds of plays.  It has worked every time.

I grant you, there may be one important distinction between what I’ve done with my casts and what another director might do.  I have a very good sense of how to help actors deliver their best performances.  Not every director will share that.  But allowing actors to explore options in a scene early on in the rehearsal period — not once you realize that repeated run-throughs are not fixing the problem — is an easy trick that doesn’t require any special expertise as a director!

Please, PLEASE give me feedback on this post if I am off-base.  As an actor and a director, I don’t think I am — and I have recent experience to justify this belief — but I am ALWAYS on the lookout for new information that might improve my perspective.  So comment if you disagree!

 

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