Over severals years of training as an actor, I’ve noticed many behavioral trends that seems fairly consistent no matter the context. One trend that is particularly fascinating to me is the often intense resistance to rehearsal. I can’t say how many times I’ve shown up to rehearse a scene for class and within twenty minutes the other actor and I have decided to grab a coffee, food, change rehearsal locations, watch Youtube videos, spend time getting to know each other, just chatting, so as to “build a rapport,” and on and on. There are as many distractions as there are actors succumbing to them. These things can be helpful, yes, but I believe they are subconsciously designed as a method of avoidance. And why would the actor wish to avoid the rehearsal process? Well, because it’s terrifying.
The rehearsal process is fraught, charged, loaded with pitfalls. How many times have I left a rehearsal feeling that, because the work was not great, I must be, fundamentally—spiritually!—a sack of rotten mashed potatoes? I know an actor—he’s sensational—who, before every scene he’d put up in class, would look at me and ask wearily, “Why do I do this to myself?” Actors are artists and artists are meaning-makers, so it makes sense that we can take something as innocuous, as necessary, as a bad rehearsal, and attribute to it a significance it does not deserve—that we can determine our self-worth by how well or poorly the process goes.
I’ve spent years in therapy working to divest the quality of my work from my worth as a human being. If I can, I would like to try to save you a little bit of time.
Diving into the word “rehearse” changed my entire experience of the process. It’s thought the word comes from the Old French “rehercier”—“hercer” meaning “to harrow.” A harrow is basically a big-ass comb that breaks up dirt clods and removes weeds and shit. It’s interesting to think of the text of the piece, the play itself, as a field. In rehearsal, it is the actor and director’s job to harrow this field. Rehearsal is—by definition!—harrowing. Distressing. Troubling. We are troubling the text so that we can, essentially, plant seeds. From these seeds will spring our choices. Many actors want the choices to come first, but they don’t—what comes first is the tending of the soil from which the choices will begin to bloom. The harrowing.
Declan Donnellan writes that an actor cannot feel what a character feels; they can only see what a character sees. Well, the first thing the actor sees, no matter what, is text. Words on a page. The first muscle an actor uses, then, is reading comprehension. A field is harrowed through repetition. Anthony Hopkins, when asked how he prepared for Silence of the Lambs, answered, “I read the script.” When asked what he did next: “I read it again,” and so on.… Something like 150 times. That’s all. A good farmer knows the dirt. Knows the texture, the smell, even the taste. Many actors are eager to get on their feet immediately, to get into their bodies. I understand the impulse, but the two great teachers I’ve studied with, Allen Barton and Art Cohan, taught me that staging can, and should, come later, after the story is understood—or, at least, in some way internalized. This must be first. This must be the foundation. Read, read, read.
On first read—especially when it’s out loud—the actor may feel like a genius. It’s all there—the emotion, the tension, the discovery—which makes sense, because it’s the first time they’re reading it; comedy and drama depend upon surprise. Then they start to think about it, and all hell breaks loose. Bruce Lee said the best thing I ever heard about acting:
"Before I learned the art, a punch was just a punch, and a kick, just a kick.
After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick, no longer a kick.
Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick.”
This is exactly how the rehearsal process goes. The rehearsal process of each scene is a microcosm of the actor’s entire journey. You begin in instinct; it’s simple, available. Then one day instinct isn’t enough and you begin to study (many people quit there)—and all the sudden you don’t know how to use your body, you don’t know how to use your voice, you don’t know what your hands are, you’ve never tied a shoe, seen a lamp, etc. Live and work within that discomfort long enough and you circle back to the beginning—it’s simple, instinctual, but that instinct is supported by technique, training, study, intellect, empathy. Everything an actor cultivates within themself.
This process, if one allows it to be, is fun, rewarding, exciting. But it is also frightening—and this is necessary. When we feel frightened, frustrated, angry, confounded, bewildered, etc, in rehearsal, that means it’s working. Let’s look again at the word: rehearse: “re,” meaning “again,” and “hearse,” a motherfucking vehicle that bears one to one’s grave. We must be willing, in our rehearsal process, in our training, to die again and again, and be buried. It’s a kind of immortality. I hope the actor will feel invigorated after a frustrating rehearsal, not defeated. I hope they will say to themselves, “I am engaging in something sacred.” The truly sacred—the moment when, to quote my friend Will Lagos, “the ghost is called into the room” is not arrived at easily or casually. The truly sacred puts the body and the mind through its paces. If it’s difficult, good! You’re doing it.
The sooner the actor can come to this realization, the sooner this realization can bring them joy, can create for them, underneath the whole process, a foundation of joy, the sooner the mystery will begin to reveal itself. Acting is mysterious, and joy, I believe, is the key to that mystery. Not to solving it, never that, but to entering it. Underneath all of it, the frustrations, bewilderment, anger, even grief, there must be a bedrock of joy. When an actor is told to “be vulnerable,” I believe that this is what is meant: to reveal to an audience the joy this process unleashes in the actor; to be seen having, unapologetically, the time of one’s life.
I’ve been acting for twenty-three years now. Thirteen of those years were spent studying—usually eight hours of class per week and countless rehearsal hours. I feel that I’ve only just, within the last three years, begun to circle back to where a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick. What that means for me is not that the process is easy; it means that I am prepared for and willing to surrender to the difficulty of it—or to whatever shape it might take. I, too, am being harrowed. I, too, like the text, am a field. The training, the rehearsal, it harrows me. We harrow each other. I tend to the play, the play tends to me. The better the play (whatever that means), the richer the soil. The richer the soil, the more harrowing it needs before the seeds can be planted and the choices can uncoil. Conversely, the better the actor I wish to be, the more harrowing I need. The clods in me—old beliefs, bad training—must be broken up so that I can be loose and free. Unclogged. So that I might become, as Leonard Cohen says, “…the brief elaboration of a tube.”
At the end of the day, we must be good and diligent farmers. It is hard, yes, but so deeply rewarding. Even fun. Mostly fun. It doesn’t always feel fun, but after a long, frustrating rehearsal, one might ask oneself what one would rather have been doing with that time. I love acting more than anything else in the world. I used to think what I loved about it was that it makes me who I am. That’s not true. I make it what it is. I’ve come to discover that what I love about it is this: the labor, the immersion, the surrender to the unknown results of hard and enthusiastic wok. The joyous and risky labor that depends on so many elements—the having faith that those elements will materialize, yes—but making sure that if/when they do, everything is set in place for harvesting.