“The techniques of the theater are the techniques of communicating.”Viola Spolin, Theater Games for Rehearsal: A Director’s Handbook. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1985. p.5
When I first read Mick Napier’s Improvise: Scene From the Inside Out I was inspired by his “Tips for Success” to collate my own Rehearsal Etiquette pointers. I’ve used the resulting document for most of my on campus long-form work since, and a gently adjusted version for my scripted shows too. As my university improv shows exist under a “conventional” theatre model – with directing and design teams, and five to six evening rehearsals each week – you’ll feel these production circumstances and assumptions pulsing through the language. I’m by no means advocating a wholesale adoption of these guides as each venue and project has a different face and needs. Ensemble created pieces, for example, don’t always utilize a traditional singular director or team distinct from the troupe itself. But I hope that these hard-learnt lessons and approaches might facilitate your own formalized (or informal) practices. I found it extremely helpful just to go through the process of committing these to paper and imagine that the same might hold true for you and your own companies.
Ten Rehearsal Etiquette Pointers
1.) Rehearsals are an apology free zone. The rehearsal hall is a space for exploring and trying things out, so don’t apologize for your stumbles or contextualize your work with an air of apology. Forgive yourself and others quickly and move on. There will be many other opportunities to fall and get up again.
2.) Focus on the work. Refrain from bringing other reading, homework or projects into the theatre space. There is plenty of learning to be had from the work of others as well as your own efforts. Undivided attention is a sign of respect and encouragement, and the bedrock of a collaborative rehearsal period. The creative team are committed to releasing you from the rehearsal space if you are not actively needed. Phones need to be put away during rehearsal until official breaks; stage management will keep everyone on schedule so you won’t need to keep checking the time.
3.) Fully commit. Jump up to participate, join warm-ups, volunteer with excitement and be the first to try the scene or dynamic that scares you most. Don’t make others drag you along for the ride or perform the role of “tired” or “sick” company member. Don’t fall into the trap of being “an opening night” performer who doesn’t give it their all until an audience is present thereby denying your fellow players the necessity of your fully engaged energy. Full commitment extends to your punctuality and attendance as well.
4.) Notes are for directors. Avoid giving fellow company members notes or unsolicited feedback. (An exception to this rule is if you felt unsafe or unsupported, or if something truly rocked and needs to be celebrated.) Let fellow company members learn through the doing and allow feedback to flow through the director and directing team. If you have a question or observation that will assist the whole team, by all means ask it. If you have a question or observation that will only primarily benefit you, wait until rehearsal is over and bend the director’s ear privately.
5.) Positivity is contagious. Relish the struggle. Applaud your own efforts and those of others. Celebrate that each “mistake” brings the ensemble one step closer to finding a more promising and joyful path forward. Don’t let negativity or outside rants lurk in the background of the work. Find the love both on and off the stage.
6.) Try it. If you find yourself on the verge of asking permission to try something, or asking a question of clarification out of the fear of getting something “wrong,” pause for a second and just allow yourself (and the rest of those in attendance) the gift of putting your question into action. Great discoveries are made through happy accidents or out-of-the-box approaches that weren’t hamstrung by circuitous pontificating or misplaced efforts of getting it “right.”
7.) Find you own type of improviser and celebrate it. An ensemble is made up of a selection of players with various talents and strengths. You will not be good at everything: you don’t have to be. Don’t fall into the trap of disparaging comparison. Work on your deficits, but be sure to recognize your own assets (and those of your fellow improvisers.)
8.) Exercise patience. When fellow players are struggling with something that comes as second nature to you, model patience and attentiveness. Everyone works at different speeds and you’ll appreciate it when this attitude of grace is returned during your own moments of stress. Also be careful of “helpful suggestions” during the heat of struggle as these can often add to frustration rather than serve as an antidote to it. Leave room for everyone to have their own process.
9.) Leave your day at the door (as best you can.) Or use your day to help you mine deeper truths. Or use your day as a source of finding connected material. Or use your day to heighten your emotional storehouse… Just don’t use your day as a means to separate or isolate yourself from the process or rest of the group as a whole. If you are truly not in a healthy space to work and need to be absent, contact the team prior to the rehearsal as early as you can so that any necessary adjustments can be made.
10.) Choose to be a contributing member of the team. Be wary of sitting apart from the group, or always stepping outside when others are working, or sleeping, or constantly checking your phone, Facebook or email as the rehearsal is in session. As in any good improv scene, exist in the real here and now with your fellow players.
Improv, as Spolin attests, is communication made manifest, and poor interpersonal communication during the process and behind the scenes is more than likely to spill out into the onstage work as well if left unattended. These written thoughts are part of my earnest attempt to start rehearsals on a promising footing. As is the case with most classroom syllabi, the above ideas are a living document and in no small part responsive to issues or trends I’ve noted in the improvisational rehearsal hall to date. While it might be revealing my teacherly side, I think it’s helpful to read these aloud and share them during the first rehearsal when possible as this embodies a clear commitment to the value and centrality of these (or your own) tenants. Although these were written with a student population in mind, as I have reviewed them for this undertaking I would observe that many of these tensions emerge equally in non-academic venues as well.
More detailed thoughts on post-show notes and a collective feedback model can be found in my consideration of the Postmortem found here.
Connected Game: Simultaneous Clap