Read the play
It may sound obvious, but it’s crucial to be as familiar as possible with the play before rehearsals begin. “If it's a big and/or complicated part I will read the play as a whole as many times as possible in advance of rehearsals,” says Alex Hassell, currently appearing in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 at the RSC. “I don't try to look for, or think about anything in particular but just read it a good bunch of times to allow my conscious, sub and unconscious to respond to it and start to get interested in what is happening in it.”
Essentially, the more immersed you are in the life of the play, the better. Jared Ashe, last seen on stage in Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas at the Lyric Hammersmith in January, emphasises the importance of “doing research around the period or subjects you're tackling”. If it’s an adaptation of a novel or a reworking of another play, you might want to read the original too, to give yourself another perspective on the story and your character’s role in it.
Catherine Bailey, currently performing in Globe Education’s production of The Merchant of Venice, sometimes goes even further. “I might try translating the script into my own words to make sure I understand it and can get behind the words.”
Learn your lines – or don’t!
There’s no consensus on this one. “I like to make sure I'm pretty much off book,” says Catherine, “especially if it’s a Shakespeare play. It just frees you up to do much more exploration in the rehearsal room.” Alex agrees, adding that it’s only when he knows the part that he feels truly “aware and awake” to developments in himself and the other actors during the rehearsal process: “I find being half in something an unhelpful way to work.”
But many actors prefer to hold off learning their lines until they’ve begun work with the director. It’s possible to be over-prepared, says Jared. “If you've learned all your lines and made too many decisions before you start it's hard to remain receptive to new ideas and thoughts in the rehearsal room.”
“Prepare as much as you need to to feel comfortable,” says Jared. “But the best work happens when you're responsive to other people's thoughts and offerings. The most important thing is to head into rehearsals with an open mind.”
Alex says he “tries to learn the lines in a way that is very flexible” so he can remain receptive to what’s going on in the rehearsal room.
On a more general note, it’s crucial to remember that the rehearsal process is a safe zone in which experimentation is key. Trust your director and don’t be afraid of trying new things. “Rehearsals are collaborative and it's totally fine to get things wrong,” says Jared. “It's a healthy part of the process, and I doubt there's an actor alive who hasn't completely fluffed it in the rehearsal room at one point or another.”
Be ready physically
A kitchen sink drama is obviously going to be less physically demanding than a big West End musical, but it pays to be in shape at the start of a rehearsal process, regardless of the end product. This means something different for everyone – you know your own body – so it’s about finding out how you work best.
“It's good to be fit and healthy from day one,” says Catherine. “This means doing boring things like eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep – rehearsal weeks are great fun but also demanding and exhausting and it's good to prepare for that.”
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Image by Keith Williamson, on a Creative Commons license.