How to Direct a High School Play - Rehearsals
When I think about the whole process of directing a high school play, I focus on the fact that for the students, the process may be more important than the final product. They are in school to learn and grow. Whatever the final outcome, the hard work, creativity, and collaborative effort that the students put into the show will be the stuff that counts. The majority of the learning and growing will happen during the rehearsal process. Following is my approach to high school play rehearsals and scheduling.
Chunking the Script
After I post the cast list, I sit down to create a big picture of the season’s rehearsal schedule. To do that, I sit down with the script and divide it into rehearsal friendly chunks. This can be done by dividing the script by beats or by scenes. I define a “beat” here as a part of a scene. Some scenes are long and have several entrances and exits. If this is true, I look at the scene and create beats where there are major changes in the characters on stage. (These “beats” are also referred to as French scenes.)Using the “beat” breakdown of the script means that I don’t call all the actors in the scene at one time and only work on the first three pages, leaving several actors sitting on the sidelines.
After I have gone through the script and decided where the break points are for each rehearsal chunk, I create a chart. On the chart, I have a column which defines the rehearsal chunk, including the page numbers. The second column lists the characters in that scene. The third column lists the actors in the scene. I then fill in all the columns with the correct information. After that, you can start creating a rehearsal schedule.
Laying Out the Schedule
In creating the rehearsal schedule, I want to include all of the following: blocking rehearsals, depth rehearsals, whole company rehearsals, technical rehearsals and dress rehearsals. As I lay out the rehearsals, I keep my conflict calendar handy. My master conflict calendar is a compilation of all of the conflict calendars that students submitted during auditions. I try my best to honor their conflicts, and I note on my schedule if I have scheduled a scene with a student who has a conflict. My rule is that if they tell me in advance that they have a conflict, then I don’t expect them at rehearsal.
The rehearsal schedule is like a puzzle, into which you need to fit all of the pieces. Be flexible and know that you can make changes along the way. I don’t necessarily create the schedule in a linear way. Using a big calendar, I fit the pieces in in the following way.
A dress rehearsal is like a performance without an audience. It occurs on the last night or the last two nights before the show opens. Dress rehearsal nights are a good time to take promotional pictures in costume, which you can display in the entrance of your theater on show night. If you have video rights to your show, dress rehearsal night is also a good night to film. If students know that they are being filmed, they will perform as if it is opening night. Dress rehearsals are easy to place on the schedule calendar, and so I tend to write them in first.
At our school, the whole week before the show is known as tech week. Tech week includes the final dress rehearsals. The technical rehearsals I run are long, focused and mandatory. There are no conflicts allowed during tech week. These rehearsals, at my school, run from after school (around 2:40) until 8:00pm. We take a dinner break, but the rest of the time we are busy working. During technical rehearsals, we set final light and sound cues, and we practice them. We assign and practice scene changes. We work on timing. We put the final polish on the show.
Whole Company Rehearsals
Some roles in your show will be bigger than others. It is important, that you don’t lose the enthusiasm of the students who have smaller roles or behind the scenes jobs. Therefore, I schedule in whole company rehearsals at least once a week to keep those students coming in and interested. The first one or two rehearsals should be whole company calls. You will want to use these rehearsals to do a read through of the whole play and to begin getting ideas for the design of your show. During the whole company rehearsals throughout the rest of the season, you can do run throughs of scenes and acts. You can also have design meetings and work on projects for the show. Be sure to use these rehearsals to get out key information to your cast and crew as well.
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After the whole company read through rehearsals, the next set of rehearsals should be blocking rehearsals. In a blocking rehearsal, you will block out where actors enter and exit, where they stand and move, where and when they sit or stand, how they interact with others on stage, etc. As a director, find a balance during these rehearsals between your vision and the vision of your actors. Define the floor plan, even if you don’t have a set yet. For example, in my last production, Into the Woods, I knew what the set would look like in my head. However, I also knew that it would take weeks to build it and that we couldn’t put it on the stage until after our chorus and band concerts. So, we used spike tape and marked out where the set pieces would go. This allowed me to define the entrances and exits, which helps the actors know where to go without asking you every time. Let the students work the scene in their own way first. Then step in to direct them. You want to stand back and make sure that everyone is visible, no backs are to the audience, and that the scene is a series of pleasing images.
After all the other rehearsals are on the schedule, the rest of your rehearsals will comprise of depth rehearsals. These are the rehearsals where you focus on the depth of a scene. Actors will already know where to enter, exit, walk, sit, stand, etc. In the depth rehearsals, your focus is on making the scene believable. Actors should work on expressing the meaning of the text and building chemistry with their scene partners. Sometimes, you may need to rehearse a scene or a part of a scene many, many times until it is right. Push your actors to go deeper. Give them ideas about creating the scene in different ways until everyone agrees that it is right and beautiful.
Your more experienced actors may work on the depth in their scenes outside of rehearsal or when they have down time at rehearsal. Encourage that, as they will take more risks with each other sometimes when you are not watching. Sometimes, I will ask scene partners to go away for a while and work in the green room or in the hall. I ask them to work and come back with something different, and I move on to work with another group. This can be a good technique if a scene isn’t going well or gaining enough depth.
With younger actors, you may need to get creative to help them find the depth of emotions in a scene. When I directed Sherlock Holmes with my middle school students, there was a brief “romantic” scene in the end between Sherlock and a female client. The two students involved were extremely hesitant to even speak the awkward lines, let alone approach each other to embrace. They were adamant that they would NOT be kissing, and in reality, I wouldn’t want students of that age to kiss on stage anyway. So we worked the scene to highlight the awkwardness and created some humor in the process. When we got to those lines, we dimmed the stage lights and lit up the background with hot pink hearts. We played “Chariots of Fire” and had the actors run towards each other in slow motion. Just before they made contact, another actor, who had an entrance to interrupt, came running in and “pushed” the two apart and backwards. We incorporated a record scratch to end the music and brought up the lights. It was funny and created depth for the scene without making the actors uncomfortable.
Off Book Day
Give students a few weeks to learn their lines. During the initial phases of the rehearsal process, they should have their script on stage. They should also have a pencil to make notes. After those few weeks, designate a day for students to be “off book.” From that day forward, actors should not be able to have a script on stage. On off book day, I tend to do a run through of the show. It is a very telling rehearsal, as you will know who has been working and who hasn’t. Don’t give in! If a student hasn’t done the work, they should face the embarrassment of having to ask for their lines over and over. Trust me, that student will get to work fast after that experience. Have your stage manager sitting with a script on or in front of the stage. Any actor who doesn’t know a line should pause and say “line.” The stage manager can feed in the line and the scene should keep going. It might be a rough rehearsal. Be prepared for that.
Students Who Aren't Called
On most days, you will have students at rehearsal that haven’t been called to rehearse that day’s scene. Be clear from the start that students are welcome to come every day, as long as they are productive. You want to avoid students who are hanging out and cause disruptions. I try to give these students a purpose during rehearsal. They can rehearse and run lines for their own scenes backstage, even if you aren’t rehearsing their scene that day. They can work on projects. Give a student a camera and ask them to take some rehearsal photos. Ask a student to stand in onstage if you are missing a student who has been called, or ask one of these students to take rehearsal notes.
In laying out the rehearsal schedule up front, everyone involved will be able to know what their obligations are for the project. Be sure to honor the conflicts listed on the conflict calendars, and also be clear that students need to make this project a priority. Know in advance that you may need to tweak the rehearsal schedule as you go forward, as it might take longer than you anticipated to get a particular scene right. Let your company know that changes may occur and communicate throughout the season. Communicating and being organized with your rehearsal schedule will make the process go smoothly.
Written by Donna Hilbrandt.
© 2012 Donna Hilbrandt