Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Change of Pace: Actors Begin Rehearsals for Renaissance Season

"I wonder that you will still be talking, Signor Benedick: nobody marks you." This is the opening line in the first of many volleys in the fast-paced, hilarious war of words between Benedick and Beatrice, two of Shakespeare's most beloved characters. They come from Much Ado about Nothing, which opens the American Shakespeare Center's 2012 Actors' Renaissance Season. Much Ado is a great play to begin the season for the American Shakespeare Center; it moves very quickly (the ASC has an internationally acclaimed reputation for taking all the fluff and snobby intellectualism out of Shakespeare, and instead giving highly energized, entertaining performances that focus on the actor-audience relationship), and, especially poignant following the holidays, gives the audience laugh-induced stomach aches.

When I was presented the opportunity to observe the show's first rehearsal, I was naturally pretty excited. I've always been interested in seeing what a rehearsal for the Renaissance Season looks like, because it's unlike any process that's used in normal practice today. Here's what you could expect if you walked into a normal rehearsal hall in the beginning stages of a show's creation:

1) The actors, director, and creative team (lighting designers, costumers, etc.) all meet on the first day for introductions. The designers give short presentations on what they're thinking about doing with the show. They often times have models, sketches, or even power point presentations.
2) The director then sits at a table with the actors and they read through the script together, taking time to discuss meaning, theme, character, and anything else that can be gained from the words on the page.
3) After a few days of this, the director begins to stage the play, telling the actors where to go and when. Depending on the director, actors have either a good deal of freedom in what they do, or none at all.
4) This continues until the entire play has been staged, dress rehearsals are then done, adjustments are made, and then it's time for opening. When all is said and done, this process normally takes 3-8 weeks.

How is the Renaissance Season different, you ask? Well, first you get rid of the creative team. No designers, no costumers. The lights never dim at the Blackfriars, so a lighting designer wouldn't be able to do much there, and the actors pick out their own costumes from what's in stock. Next, you get rid of the director. The actors are responsible for working together to create the staging in a way that effectively tells the story. So that's it! There's also one more tiny, miniscule, little detail. Remember how the process from the first rehearsal to opening night can take as long as 8 weeks? The actors of the Renaissance Season get 2 days. Yes. 2 days. Many actors I know would faint if that's what they got. Or quit. Or just cry.

So here I am, quietly sneaking into the back of the balcony by myself on the first day of rehearsal, and the actors are already blazing through the Much Ado script. I shouldn't have been surprised, but it seemed like in the time it took me to take off my bag and coat and settle into a seat, they had already moved onto the next scene (I should note that I had, earlier that morning, sat in on the beginning of the same rehearsal block alongside a tour group of 39 children with accompanying adults, all of whom sat, entranced by the performers' prowess and by the beauty of the theatre itself). However, the actors at the ASC are seasoned for it; they love the challenge, and they realize that they don't have time to get hung up on concepts, style, and overly intellectualized conversation. They act on impulse. They go with their gut. If a choice doesn't work, nobody apologizes, nobody beats themselves up, they just acknowledge that it didn't work and find another option.

By the time the actors took their first break of the day (a little under an hour and a half into rehearsal), they had staged close to ten pages of the script, or roughly ten minutes of the show. Here's how to put that into perspective: A general rule-of-thumb for many directors in America is that one minute of a play requires an hour of rehearsal. The actors of the Renaissance Season did ten minutes in an hour and a half, and did it well.

At that point I slid out of the theatre and headed to the ASC's office a few blocks away, but the impression that rehearsal left with me has stuck. I am hard pressed to remember a time when I've seen actors work with such tenacity and passion. Even though they were working at incredible speeds, they were still able to make me laugh hard enough to worry that I was disrupting rehearsal. I'm not sure that you could say one method of rehearsing is better than another. Each production has its own needs, but it was refreshing to watch professionals work in the manner they do during the American Shakespeare Center's Renaissance Season. Sometimes we need to pick up the tempo in order to make things more interesting, not only in theatre, but in life as well. A change of pace is certainly something this Much Ado brings to the table, and I'm pretty excited to see the opening performance.

- ASC Intern John G.

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