Most of our discoveries and decision-making about our productions happen in rehearsal or in workshops before rehearsals begin. When approaching a script, it is important to understand the history of the playwright and subject of the play, but we tend to refer to that type of research as ‘homework’—something absolutely necessary to be done, but the fruits of which should be brought subconsciously to the rehearsal room after it has been given time to settle and incubate in the mind. For us, the rehearsal room is a creative and dynamic environment where everyone is either on their feet or actively observing in order to understand something about the way the play is trying to behave. Peter Brook explains his agreement with Brecht about the rehearsal process in The Empty Space in saying, “The quality of the work done in any rehearsal comes entirely from the creativity of the working climate—and creativity cannot be brought into being by explanations…the act of putting together a play is always a form of playing, watching a play is playing.” We use one or two days of rehearsal to work through the language and technicalities of the text and discuss what we all should know about it, but then we need to explore the story of the play, and that must happen in motion.
The story begins to take form when we gradually add limitations to the possible physicality of the actors. The first limitation is the knowledge of a script and its histories or the knowledge of an idea for a story we plan to tell. The second limitation is the space where we intend to rehearse and whatever that space, however empty, contains. Once we enter the space, the space contains the people in the room, who also serve as limitations of the space. With knowledge and a very basic container, we begin to physically explore the possibilities of storytelling.
Music is integral to the very beginning of our rehearsal process because it inspires motion and encourages a body to explore its abilities in the room it occupies. The music we choose to play for the actors to use as they warm up may not be what we ultimately use for our production, but it is informed by our first impulses to the story and the space we are using to explore it. Adolphe Appia, in his essay Man is the Measure of All Things, writes of music and the body in space, saying that, “The body, at the behest of music, commands and orders space. Little it cares for age-old conventions, for deep-rooted customs—all must be cut to its measure, all must adopt its pattern. Is not man the measure of all things?” Because of music’s aptitude for inspiring motion and ordering space, it is often one of the first things we introduce into the rehearsal process.
We work in character before spoken text because of our investment in real physical action as storytelling. An actor must understand the feelings and impulses of their character in order to discover the actions needed to communicate them, and then they are able to show their true meaning beneath their designated words. It is during this time when we begin to discover what we have and what we need in terms of objects and acting spaces that help drive the story of the play.
When we can afford to, we prefer to start from zero in terms of the scenic limitations for the rehearsal process. Bertolt Brecht in his essay About Starting From Zero, describes an ideal stage designer as someone who:
Instead of setting out by working up an enthusiasm for the play, getting into the right mood, sketching out his visualizations or trying to think how far he can incorporate something he always wanted to do, should make an effort to sober up, not to be enthusiastic so much as open-minded, not to seek sensations so much as to reflect.
If any one member of the creative team tries to have personal sway over the designs or staging, it is evident in the production and pollutes the directness of storytelling. It is not that a designer must go into rehearsal unprepared, but rather, prepared for anything.
When the time is right to consider what scenic elements might be necessary to serve the physical storytelling of the play, we use whatever objects or architectural structures are readily available to us in the space to explore our options. We use what we have to discover what we need to tell the story. We often use ordinary things in extraordinary ways to fulfill our needs for physical communication of ideas and feelings. Bertolt Brecht writes of Caspar Neher and how, “He often makes use of a device which has become an international commonplace and is generally divorced from its sense.” We often discover that an object has a purpose that drives the physical action of our play that it might not have in everyday life. If the object fully achieves our goal in terms of its use for physical storytelling, we will use it or design something that functions in the same way for our production.
Sometimes we find architectural elements or objects in our rehearsal space that may differ from what is available to us in the space where the production will be—if the rehearsal space and the space for the production are not the same. We examine what it is about the rehearsal elements that works, and determine how to bring those useful functions into the design of the play. If something we are using in rehearsal is not giving us enough of what we need to physically tell the story of the play, we discuss what about it we should change. In Anne Bogart’s The Viewpoints Book, she describes Composition as, “a method for generating, defining and developing the theatre vocabulary that will be used for any given piece. In Composition, we make pieces so that we can point to them and say: “That worked,” and ask: “Why?” so that we can then articulate which ideas, moments, images, etc., we will include in our production.” Using what we have in rehearsal often shows us what we may need to design for our production.
Lights and costume pieces are also added into our rehearsal process to continue to give form to our story. Once all basic design elements are introduced, the vocabulary of the story becomes more specific, and the necessity of more particular things in rehearsal is more apparent. Peter Brook describes the importance of what is brought into rehearsal by saying:
…the height of the chair, the texture of the costume, the brightness of the light, the quality of emotion matter all the time: the aesthetics are practical. One would be wrong to say that this is because the theatre is an art. The stage is a reflection of life, but this life cannot be re-lived for a moment without a working system based on observing certain values and making value-judgments.
What we use in rehearsal becomes more specific as the physical action of our story attains its form. The properties of rehearsal objects hold value in the telling of the story, not only in how they look, but in how they function together.
It is vital that the design choices for the production have an adequate level of ‘rehearse-ability’, that is to say, they must come from the discoveries found in the rehearsal process or allow for discoveries to be made in the rehearsal process and not from outside of it. With Diventare, we were able to start from zero in the rehearsal process and discover what we needed from what we had readily available to us in our rehearsal room. With Hedda Gabler, a show to be produced on a larger scale, the main scenic designs had to be submitted before rehearsals started in order for them to be built. We were able to approximate what would be useful to drive the physical storytelling of the play through several workshops, and we decided on something that we could explore using architectural elements and objects already existing in the rehearsal space.