There’s a famous story of the Royal Shakespeare company putting up a production with no set, no lighting, and entirely in rehearsal dress. It’s a popular story in actor circles, and I remember hearing different versions from various teachers throughout my time in school. The moral being that actors with a rehearsal mindset rather than a performance are more likely to act spontaneously and work on impulse, thus opening themselves up to real discoveries in performance.
Every class is a rehearsal, not a performance, and on Tuesday I was reminded of this during Max and Christina’s rehearsal of a scene from “A Hatful of Rain” by Michael Gazzo. In this complex scene about a husband and wife in their fourth year of marriage during the 1950’s, Christina’s character works to discover the source of her husbands mounting distance from their relationship. Her assumption is he has been having an affair, but the reality that he hides is much more sinister: a mounting debt and loss of his job resulting from his heroin addiction.
This was their first rehearsal of the scene on its feet after an initial table read last week, and after a bumpy first half Christina paused and looked at Cay.
Christina: Can we stop?
Cay: Yes. What are you working for?
Christina: I was working for the argument and for who he is to me.
Cay: Okay, do you have the argument? Do you know what it was about?
Cay: And do you have him?
Christina: Yes, I feel like that’s really strong for me.
Cay: Okay, I think you’re trying to do too much right now. You should be sitting.
At this point Christina stood and began shaking herself out. Max, sitting on the couch, looked thoughtful. He had spent the scene curled up on the couch under a blanket.
Those words, You’re doing too much…you should be sitting. I had heard those words before from Cay on more than one occasion. It can be difficult to know when the right time to get on your feet in a scene is. What Cay often talks about is the event of the scene, finding that moment when both you and your scene partner feel what the scene is about and feel that occur organically between you. But in my experience, sometimes you can have the event of the scene and jump forward too quickly. From where I sat on Tuesday that’s what it felt like had happened between Max and Christina; they knew what the scene was, they were just working ahead of themselves. In these situations I feel out of my depth on stage, but I will find myself hesitant to stop the scene and take it back or to just sit and work off of my partner.
Cay: What about you Max, what are you working for?
Max: I think I was working too hard on the dope sick and leaving her out of it.
Cay: And do you know who she is to you?
Max: It’s getting there.
Cay: Okay, give yourself one symptom of the dope sick. Take it again.
Christina moved herself to the table. Max took off the blanket and began rubbing his legs uncomfortably, then pulling at his shirt. After a moment he took his shoes off and rolled up his pants, agitated. He was clearly working with feeling hot and uncomfortable, as if suffering from a fever.
Several moments from this new rehearsal popped out this time around. After a few lines they hit the moment where Max admits to having lost his job. “They told me where to go,”and with the pretense of performance off of them, Christina dropped into a quick repetition exercise. “They told you where to go?” “They told me where to go.”
“Maybe I didn’t give you what you needed…fuck!”, Christina exclaimed, breaking into an emotional turn in the scene but not quite convinced herself that it was right. Cay stepped in to help guide her.
Cay: Find the moment. Don’t rush.
She took it again, “Maybe…I didn’t give you what you needed.” This time it was slower, more thoughtful.
Max would have his own moment of guidance later while telling a story about his character’s father. He began pacing frantically gesturing toward Christina, now perched on the edge of the couch.
Cay: Slow down, slow down. Really see him.
Max takes a deep breath and kneels, leaning across a chair between him and Christina and sagging with memory. The moment the monologue feels more personal. The scene ends with Max and Christina back on the couch, her leaning his head against him in what appears to be recconcialiation before he reveals in a final crushing line that he has to go out that night. Christina moves away from him on the couch and the gulf between them becomes that much more visible to the rest of us.
Cay: Good, how did you feel? You find things?
Max: It’s splitting the scene between the sensory stuff and the scene. If I’m overly in pain, she can’t know right?
Cay: Right, you have to hide it. But you have to have it before you can hide it. You need to give yourself stages of rehearsal. You need to have a rehearsal where you can fully express it, but then one where you hide it entirely. How do you feel Christina?
Christina: Not great. I don’t want to say much.
Cay: She has an interesting way of loving even though he’s cheating. But she tolerates a great deal of it.
Christina: I understand that too, but to what extent?
Cay: I think the pregnancy has a lot to do with it, and her love of him. If when working together you need to go back and stop and start then I think that’s well within the rehearsal here.
Max and Christina’s work on Tuesday was a good reminder of that concept that I mentioned at the beginning, every class is a rehearsal. That time on stage is for you and you alone. When you are able to look at class that way then it frees you up to try new things, to work organically, and to not be afraid to stop the work when you need to and just sit down and talk to your partner.
I remember for a short period of time one of my classmates would start every rehearsal in class by turning to us and saying “Screw you.” Did she literally mean screw us? No. What she was saying was “This is my time. This is my rehearsal. I’m not up here performing for you, I’m up here rehearsing for me.