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A Polish Theater Cookbook

How to Make Rehearsal Time Flexible

This post is part of a a series on the rehearsal practices of the contemporary Polish post-Grotowski theaters, with a focus on Teatr Chorea, in Łódź. We are currently discussing the various elements of the Floating Schedule: a schedule which is determined by the needs of the participants more than by the clock. This week, we'll talk about the Flexible Start and End Time.



Flexible Start

as practiced by Teatr Chorea

The Flexible Start is as simple as preheating an oven before cooking a loaf of bread.

Here's how it works. If the director calls the actors at 10am, then 10:10 is when they begin wandering in, turning on the teakettle, taking off their coats, and chatting. Or stretching a bit. Only twenty to thirty minutes later do they start working.

This practice acknowledges that it is not entirely natural or comfortable to dive right into intense theatrical work, especially after a day at the day job, or after just having woken up.

It is a transition into the theater.

This period of shared, relaxed time puts the performers in harmony with the theater, the rehearsal, and their fellow actors. It's like musicians tuning in the same room together. 

When I participated in this pre-rehearsal hangout, despite my initial antsiness, and not knowing what to do with this unstructured time, I found that my mind grew calmer. The flexible start was a moment of meditation before a strenuous activity: a deep breath before the dive.



The Flexible Start Time

suggested adaptation for US practitioners

1) Stagger the start. Announce that an interval for socializing and stretching will begin thirty minutes before rehearsals.

2) Attendance is optional. Do not count it as rehearsal time; don't worry if no one shows up. (But actors are often receptive to warm-up time in a comfortable room—and to food.)

3) Make yourself available, if you can, during this time. Drink tea, stretch, eat, or talk with the actors. 

4) Even after the added half hour elapses, don't start "on time" in the US sense. Try to wait at least five minutes past your announced start time. Ask your stage manager not to announce the start out loud.

At five minutes past the announced start, just begin talking to one of your actors about that day's scene, and head together into the rehearsal room. Some performers will follow you right in; others will lollygag a little, coming in a minute later. This is normal.

The few minutes you lose in rehearsal time will be minutes you gain in comfort—in an improved resonance between the performers.

An even easier way to adapt a flexible start is, just as at the end of the Loose Twenty last week, to wait to start until you sense that everyone is ready. This is not always possible, but when it is possible it comes off as a sign of relaxation and respect.

This easy version of the Flexible Start is one of the post-Grotowski Polish theater rehearsal practices that works well for me. I no longer rush my actors towards starting at the exact moment that my cell phone reads the start time. Performers need a minute more to get water, or just to sit and exhale, or stretch, much more than I need them on stage, right that instant.

All the elements of the Floating Schedule are about putting the human element of rehearsals, and the needs of the actors, first.



The Flexible End Time

As practiced in Poland

With Teatr Chorea, some rehearsals have no announced end times whatsoever. Work is  over when the director says it is. But more frequently, there is an announced end time, but the director normally keeps working fifteen to thirty minutes past that time.

Also, even when the director officially "ends" the rehearsal, not everyone leaves—only performers with urgent obligations, waiting children, etc. About three-quarters stay and keep singing or dancing for another thirty to sixty minutes. They don't stay because they have to—they stay because they want to. They want to run the scene again. Some performers are doing this out of professionalism or perfectionism, some out of joy. Why stop if you're having fun?

The director may leave, and they may still keep going.

Eventually, the performers who have finished sit in the break room, drinking tea, listening to the singers who are still working. They are in no rush. They stay as long as they can.

One to two hours later, when the last performer finishes work, the building is shut down, the door locked, and the remaining actors walk to cars and buses together. (No stage manager has to wait for them; one of the performers takes responsibility for closing down.) There is a sense of shared purpose, responsibility, and community.



Flexible End Time

For US practitioners

As I have mentioned in an earlier post, when I was directing a reading in Łódź, in 2012, my Polish performers found my wish to end right at 8 PM to be odd. They felt interrupted, as if I had slammed a door between us. However, even though I knew that they expected a flexible end time, I could not get used to it. They could not get used to my style, either. Sometimes, I would tell them, "Rehearsal is over," walk out, and they would stay in the room, singing the choruses from our play, without me, for the next half hour.

After my time as a stage manager in the US, I think I will always believe that the end is the end. Period. But although the flexible end time is uncomfortable for me to implement, I have three suggestions for US directors on how to use this technique in a modified manner.


It is worth remembering that this post-rehearsal time has a special quality. The conversation you have now, full of the energy of the day's work, cannot be duplicated tomorrow.


First, we might let ourselves off the hook the next time we are thirty seconds away from the end of a scene and we think we have to end the rehearsal because the clock strikes six. This strict adherence to time is not good for the process. Just finish the scene.
Going over means you'll have to take a shorter rehearsal the next day, but that's fine. It's worth it.

Second, the next time that an actor comes up to you, after rehearsal has ended, wanting to work, it is worth remembering that this post-rehearsal time has a special quality. The conversation you have now, full of the energy of the day's work, cannot be duplicated tomorrow.

Third, performers often go on rehearsing for hours after rehearsal, at home. If they had the option, might they not stay in the theater longer? You probably can't keep the building open for them for hours, but you could try not to rush into production meetings immediately. It might be worthwhile to sit in the room with the actors for twenty minutes, to let them wind down, and to be there for them if a question comes up. 

With the Flexible Start and End Times understood, the last element of break policy I want to mention is the policy towards short breaks. Generally, Chorea doesn't take 5s and 10s, but allows actors to take very short breaks whenever they wish, as desired, unannounced, as often as needed. In general, I have found that this leads towards actors taking fewer short breaks, and feeling a greater sense of ownership over their own schedule as well as more continuity in rehearsal.

In the next post, I will discuss a technique that throws all these breaks out the window: the controversial, powerful Breakless Rehearsal.


Images from Teatr Chorea's Bachantki (The Bacchae), 2012. Many of the rehearsals for this piece used the break-scheduling techniques discussed in this series. All photographs by Kailai Chen. 


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Thoughts from the curator

Dara Weinberg reports from rehearsal rooms and interviews with directors in Poland on how US artists can modify or adapt Polish techniques for their own kitchens.

A Polish Theatre Cookbook


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Digging these posts - can't wait for the next one. Hurry up! I begin rehearsal in one week. :)
(she says lovingly)

I recently participated in one of Patsy Rodenburg's "Second Circle" workshops. All of these ideas/techniques, which I love, seem to me to be ways of fostering Patsy's second circle which is all about connection. Good stuff. The Equity piece can be easily solved once everyone understands the objective and as long as the total hours (and break time) adds up. Take a vote.

Jeff--Thank you for the recommendation of Patsy Rodenburg's work, I will have to learn more about it.
I agree that fostering connections is central to these practices. The word "connection" is the word Teatr Chorea uses most often to describe their work: connection between text, music, and dance, as in the ancient Greek chorus, and also connections between performers.
I too feel that the Equity piece is solvable if everyone on the team wants to try this approach. Not easy, perhaps, but solvable.
Thank you for reading.

Well, not exactly as practiced in Poland, certainly, but heavily modified--I hope and think that some of them might be.

For example, I've mentioned that Chorea often lets its actors take short breaks whenever they wish, instead of scheduled 5s and 10s. In an Equity production, ***if the normal 5s and 10s were kept***, the director could, for example, also say, "If anyone really needs to leave the room for any reason, just do so as long as you come right back"--effectively letting people take a few more water/restroom breaks if they needed to. For example.

Or, for the Loose 20-Minute Break, if you're taking a regular 20 in the middle of a straight 6, I have sometimes seen, in US Equity work, a director just decide to make it longer, and the break lasts 25ish minutes. That is, effectively, the same as one of these techniques. Yes, we have to note the time and adjust the rest of rehearsal accordingly, but it is *possible* for us to have a longer, more flexible break if the team desires it.

In terms of modifying for Equity, the important thing is to keep the old structure as is and make these extra breaks *additional* to, not in place of, the breaks and rehearsal scheduling rules we must abide by.

This is something I'd love to try. But at the same time, I wonder how that would fit into a theatrical community where venues charge by the hour. How to work around the expense of rehearsal space while working with flexible rehearsal time.

RVCBard--this is a question that comes up often whenever I discuss US rehearsal scheduling with Chorea's actors. In fact, some of them cooperated in Los Angeles on a production a few years back, and they experienced working in a rented venue where the clock--and the checkbook--were ticking. They understood that this changed the circumstances, and modified their typical flexible practices to show up and leave exactly on time. They didn't enjoy it, but they recognized that they had to deal with it.

I don't have a great answer to this for US practitioners struggling with time constraints and rental costs--I can only tell you how I've worked around it myself. My own approach has often been to rehearse in a space with fewer resources (an unused university classroom, a high school gym, even my own living room) but with more time flexibility. I realize that this can't be practical for everyone. But I have come to choose having a lot of flexibility with time over having the perfect space.

I'd also say that much of what I have called "rehearsal" here--unstructured hanging-out and talking time that surrounds rehearsal--can also take place in non-typical venues, like coffeeshops, bars, or parking lots. I think many US casts often wander together to a nearby restaurant after they rehearse. This is a form of a flexible end to rehearsal, and valuable.

Thanks, Dara.

"But I have come to choose having a lot of flexibility with time over having the perfect space."

That's what I'm looking for, too. Now it seems that my job is to find directors and actors who would be on board (and be able to play the characters I've written).