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Phil Willmott: These are the things you should do before you start rehearsing

The company gathers for Once Upon a Time at the Adelphi. Photo: Scott Rylander The company gathers for Once Upon a Time at the Adelphi. Photo: Scott Rylander
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Today was the first day of rehearsals for my production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Road Show. I always feel nervous the night before rehearsals of a new project – I always have done and hopefully always will. I think the day you don’t care enough to feel nervous is the time to stop directing.

I don’t have the most finely tuned people skills in the world, so I get worried about remembering who everyone is. I think every actor, creative and crew member needs to feel valued, so it’s important for me to be able to welcome everyone by name on arrival, and with a musical or a big classical piece that’s usually at least 20 people to be able to identify without dropping a beat. I never quite succeed – there are always one or two whose names I muddle up for the first few days – God help me if I’ve learnt a name wrong, it takes me ages to unstick it and relearn.

Once the company’s gathered, it’s time to stand up in front of everyone and set out the project. No matter how nervous you feel, hide it. Be enthusiastic, positive and clear about what you expect from everybody, the working method and your vision for the piece. Help the designer through the presentation of the set model – he or she will often be even more nervous then you.

You can’t really expect anyone to feel committed, focused and buzzed about the work ahead if you aren’t clearly exuding those emotions yourself.

Sometimes at this point it’s a requirement to do a read-through so everyone who’ll be working on it, from box office staff to the marketing team, can hear the story and evaluate how to best serve the production.

This read-through is never very fruitful: the leading actors get nervous and the supporting actors get restless listening to the leading actors get nervous. No one performs particularly well and I actually don’t want the actors to commit to any performance choices this early in the process, even for a reading. I don’t think first-day read-throughs serve anyone, so if I can I skip them, I do. I much prefer to invite in anyone who needs to hear the piece at the end of the first week to absorb something approaching how it will be in performance. And, of course, if it’s a musical they’ll be able to hear some of the songs in context, which is impossible on the first day when the cast hasn’t yet learned the notes.

If you’re not going to have a read-through, you do need to go around the circle and explain who everyone is. If it’s not too big a team, I like to tell everyone a little something about each person and why I’m excited to be working with them. Again, this helps everyone feel appreciated.

By now, some of the actors – especially those who’ve just had a success elsewhere – may be getting concerned in case the other cast members don’t appreciate who they are. The best thing you can do is to get them all talking and especially laughing with each other as soon as possible.

I get everyone to pair up and talk about themselves for two minutes, then have their partner report back to the cast what they’ve learned. This is always fun and if you can playfully get everyone recapping names and little details throughout it’s amazing how quickly you can get an entire group of strangers to know what everyone’s called and a few facts about them by the first coffee break.

You’ve also allowed each actor to present themselves to the group in the way they’d like to be perceived, which relaxes anyone scared of not making the right, or indeed any, impression on their peers.

Then rehearsals can begin.

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