In my adventures (and misadventures) as a middle school musical co-director, I find the phrase “please work on this on your own time” within my top-five most said in rehearsal. As an adult involved in community theatre, the same sentence is probably within my top-five most heard phrases as well. Most performers will agree to practice at home in earnest, but often find themselves at a loss when it comes time to do so. How can we make at-home rehearsal feel as useful and efficient as rehearsal with our peers?
Teachers and directors often emphasize the idea that rehearsal, the organized time spent with peers in a designated rehearsal space, should not be a space for personal practice. Practice related to a show involves mostly memorization of songs, blocking, lines, and choreography. Once memorization is complete, actors can then spend time in rehearsal working on character choices and line interpretation together, and directors and choreographers can further polish work.
Sticking with the idea that much of your homework will be memorization, learning to memorize and retain information effectively is an important step. However, setting yourself up for success with memorization is step one, and this often involves work that needs to be done in rehearsal.
Gathering Memorization Tools
- Get recordings of every piece of show material you’ll need to work on memorizing. Many directors now create and upload rehearsal videos to Google drives or Facebook groups for actors to peruse, but this responsibility falls to performers if the show staff decides to devote energy elsewhere.
- Videos of blocking and choreography are extremely helpful.
- Apps like Voice Record Pro or the built-in audio recording app on your phone can be used to record music rehearsals. Recording line exchanges with other characters might also be helpful.
- Take detailed notes in your script. A good practice might be to review what you’ve written down at the end of rehearsal. If you can’t figure out what something you’ve written means at that point, be sure to ask your director/choreographer/music director for input and re-write notes as necessary.
- Notes in your script aren’t just for blocking. Choreography and music notes can and should also be written in. Always be sure to have a pencil at the ready.
- Be on the lookout for other resources. Rehearsal tracks for songs from your show might be easily found on YouTube, for instance, or friends might have recorded video of choreography you forgot. If you forgot your script somewhere or don’t have music for songs you aren’t in, you can probably find these online. If you are lacking a necessary tool to help you prepare, don’t be afraid to search for it!
- It might be a good idea to team up with others in the cast to create a comprehensive Google drive or unlisted YouTube channel for your show. Many hands make light work, and these resources can help make your whole cast stronger and more prepared!
Once you have all the material you need to practice on your own time, it’s time to work on memorization.
Memorizing Your Material
- Review your memorization tools thoroughly. Simply watching a video or listening to an audio recording isn’t the most effective way to rehearse, but it can be a good starting point.
- Find ways of memorizing that work best for you. Generally, working in small 15-20 minute chunks at a time and practicing on a consistent, daily basis is most effective, but you will also want to find best practices for yourself. Everyone’s brain works differently, so everyone will practice best in different ways. For instance, rewarding yourself when you successfully memorize pieces of material with snacks might be effective for some and not for others! I’ve previously detailed my favorite memorization method on this blog before: engaging all of your senses.
- To memorize blocking and choreography: build muscle memory by going over material on your own. If you feel like you can’t get through a dance on your own memory and must instead refer to the people around you, that’s a sign you need to review more.
- Once you have practiced a given dance or scene enough, you can mentally rehearse effectively. Studies have shown that getting the movements of an action down before mentally rehearsing (that is, running over and visualizing the material in your head) can allow for mental rehearsal that is as effective as physical rehearsal.
- To memorize songs: actively review and rehearse. Listen to your recordings, follow along in your music, and sing along. Eventually remove the recording and try singing the songs with a voiceless backing track. Can you keep up on your own? Do you feel like you get stuck anywhere? Double-check your efforts in rehearsal with your peers. Are you singing the right notes at the right time, or do you clash?
- Though listening to professional performances might be a helpful initial step for understanding songs, avoid leaning too thoroughly on these recordings, lest you subconsciously pick up the performance habits and hallmarks of the singer. Don’t just copy a professional recording in performance!
- To memorize lines: Running lines will be chief. Record the lines of the other characters in a scene and leave silent space in between each line. Then play back the recording. Voilà! You can now run lines with yourself at any time.
- Though adding emotional value and interesting interpretation to your lines or songs might make them easier to memorize, many directors dissuade actors from rehearsing any choices too thoroughly. Imagine if you spent all your time practicing a scene in a specific way, but when you get to rehearsal, your director doesn’t like the interpretation. Breaking the muscle memory associated with your interpretive choices can prove difficult. Memorizing lines somewhat mechanically and working on interpretation in rehearsal, when working face-to-face with other actors, will typically yield more dynamic results.
- Prioritize. Each show and role has different demands. If you have 300 lines in a show and participate in one dance, it’s not a bad idea to focus your energy on the larger priority.
- Set yourself up for success. Don’t attempt to memorize anything while watching Netflix or while preoccupied with your friends. Turn your phone on silent and set it aside if you must! Minimize distractions and build an environment conducive to focusing your full energy on memorizing your material. This also involves practicing when your basic needs are met. Proper sleep, nutrition, and hydration are necessary.
- On rehearsing with friends: Running material with castmates can be highly beneficial for each involved party. Ultimately it is up to you to determine whether or not a group can practice effectively together without supervision. Be honest with yourself. If you don’t think your time together will be effective, work on your own.
Keep up the work of memorization consistently! Then you can bring your efforts to rehearsal with your peers and get further feedback.
Homework Besides Memorization
To claim that memorization is the only work actors should do outside of rehearsal would be foolish. There’s a wealth of other work actors can do to enhance their understanding of the show, script, and characters. Much of this work can also be useful to stage managers and other backstage workers!
- Research the show. Understand the circumstances under which the show was written and produced. Is the show a product of its time? Are the characters or story reflective of ideologies or issues of a particular era or culture? Gathering this information may help inform your performance.
- Be sure to check in with your director before taking any hard stances on the show material. They might be wanting to take the show in a different direction, or have a vision separate from that of the writer’s. Regardless of your thoughts on their production ideas, they are the director, and their say is final.
- Research references, language, or messages you don’t understand. If you don’t understand what exactly the characters are talking about, you’re not ready to perform the material!
- Familiarize yourself with the flow of the show. This will make the transition into running the show easier. It can also give you an idea of when you might be needed for set changes, should you be called upon to help with these.
- Make sure you fully understand your character.
- If you are playing a named character, there are probably some hints in the script as to the kind of person your character is. A character profile detailing the main personality traits and interests of your character might be a helpful exercise. If the character participates in a niche sport or has a unique interest, researching that facet of their character might yield workable character interpretations. For example, the character Chuck Biggs in Qui Nguyen’s She Kills Monsters is a Dungeon Master for Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. Understanding that this game role requires strong improv skill, intense understanding of game mechanics, and incredible creativity might illuminate the character’s personality beyond what is immediately clear from his dialogue in the script.
- If you are playing an ensemble character, you probably occupy multiple roles at different points in the show. Working on specific characters to play in each scene will help you stand out and be engaged. This requires some creativity and definitely requires thought on your own outside of rehearsal!
- Work on improving basic skills. Though this is secondary, perhaps, to the more direct efforts of memorizing material and following directives of production staff, basic skills are often best refined on your own time. Stretching, working on musicianship skills, and doing some extracurricular reading on acting methods might all be helpful. Remember not to get so caught up on this work that you don’t do the necessary work for the show! Cultivating masterful acting technique won’t save you in a show if you don’t have your lines memorized.
Adjusting in Rehearsal
Once you return to rehearsal, the inflexible, relatively mechanical work of memorization must become flexible.
- Do not marry yourself to any given choice. Be prepared to respond to stimulus from your fellow actors and input from your directors.
- Be sure to gather any updated memorization tools, as is necessary. If choreography or blocking get changed, be sure to update your notes and videos!
- Assess your memorization methods. Are they really working for you? Have you actually memorized your materials? If not, look for new methods. Some simple google searches should yield new ideas.
Hopefully this article has given you some solid tips on practicing well at home. If you walk away with any information, I hope you keep these tips in mind:
- Practicing at home mostly involves memorization and “book work” such as deepening understanding of the script and cultivating basic performance skills. Practice should be consistent, preferable done on a daily basis. Work in manageable chunks, when you are physically, mentally, and emotionally equipped to focus.
- Gather complete and accurate memorization tools using the most effective technology for each mode of material. Audio recordings, videos, and written notes can all be useful in the right contexts.
- Find the means that work best for you. If a method of memorization works for everyone else but isn’t helping you, find a new method!
- Remember that all of your homework is meant to serve the show according to the director’s vision. Your work must be flexible! If you get to rehearsal and realize some research you did or interpretation you planned doesn’t fit with what’s happening around you on stage, you must re-assess.
Take responsibility for your own learning! Use your time outside of rehearsal to be fully prepared during rehearsal. Your directors will note your initiative and your informed performance will surely shine.