FESTIVAL COUNTDOWN: Making the most of rehearsals

A guest blog entry from Itamar Moses, one of the writers of Nobody Loves You, about the secret blessings of only have 25 hours to put together your show for the Festival
There’s a possibly apocryphal story that I’m too lazy to verify right now about a Russian director who was asked how long he wanted to rehearse a production of Chekhov. He said, “Two years.” When he was told that that was impossible he said, “In that case, two days.”
Actors will often tell you that their best performance in rehearsal is at the first read-through and that they spend the remainder of the rehearsal process gradually working their way back there, hopefully arriving by opening night.
All this came to mind when I sat down to write a blog post on the subject of presenting a musical with only a few days to rehearse, which is what you have to do when your lucky enough to have your musical in NAMT. Because having only twenty-some-odd hours of rehearsal is, in a way, not as big a burden as one might imagine. There’s a spontaneity, an instinctive tendency towards surprising and daring choices, to which performers often have access early in a process that actually becomes more difficult (for a while) as those initial impulses are gradually complicated by the questions and alternatives that inevitably arise when you start to live with material for weeks or months instead of days. And while all of that exploration leads (ideally) to deeper and more nuanced performances on the other side, there’s a long slog through the desert of murky confusion in between in the midst of which it’s probably best not to make an audience sit through what you’ve got. That’s why the (possibly fictional) Russian director’s second choice after having all the time in the world was to have almost no time at all.
All of which is to say that there’s something clarifying, simplifying, even useful, about having just enough time to learn the songs, run the scenes, and make a few very basic decisions about how best to tell a story, before you put it in front of an audience. You may not have enough time to plumb your piece to its deepest depths but you also don’t have enough time to get in your way. Put another way: unless the middle of your process is going to be long enough, you might be better off having a process with only a beginning and an end.
In the case of our show Nobody Loves You in particular we’re in a slightly different situation in that five of the eight members of our cast have played these roles before, in the musical’s world premiere at The Old Globe in San Diego. But even in a case like this the principle applies. Our three new cast members are having to dive right in with nothing but the few hours of rehearsal we’ve got and, in turn, our returning cast members have only these few hours of rehearsal to incorporate and respond to the new energy this adds to the piece.
So as you watch all the great musicals at NAMT this year and you want to think to yourself, “This acting and singing is amazing! I can’t believe they had only a few days to rehearse!” instead think to yourself, “This acting and singing is amazing! They’re so lucky they didn’t have more time to rehearse!”
It’s like that Malcolm Gladwell book BLINK. Which I didn’t read but which when I think about it for a second think I have a pretty good what it says.

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