The other night, I was watching the 1937 movie Stage Door – you know, Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers as roommates in a New York theatrical boarding house and both of them eager to make it as Broadway performers. When Hepburn lands a juicy debut role (the one featuring her trademark line: “The calla lilies are in bloom again”) almost all of the rehearsing for the play is done onstage in the actual theater.
This has not been standard practice for quite some time. Nowadays, a rehearsal room is engaged for 3 or 4 weeks before the artists move into the theater where they will be performing. The theater is often blocks or even miles removed from the rehearsal hall. The cast and crew of most Lincoln Center Theater shows have an advantage: they rehearse in the same building where they will be appearing before the public. From the beginning of rehearsal to the end of the run, they pass through the same stage door.
Yet, like all actors, LCT performers must undergo a transition from rehearsal room to tech week in the theater itself. I observed the process the other evening at the start of tech for Dada Woof Papa Hot. Work tables for lighting and sound and had been set up in the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, and these technicians sat at their stations. Eventually, the actors filed in. Cast and crew introduced themselves, establishing their camaraderie for the long nights of the coming week. “Tech hell” is the classic description for this period but it’s more like “tech limbo”: endless waiting. For a brief interlude, the theater resembles a film set.
I asked two of the actors to describe briefly the difference between doing the play in the rehearsal room and doing it on the stage.
“In the theater,” said Kellie Overbey, who portrays the character of Serena, “the play feels more accessible. You don’t have to imagine the world of the play as much as you do in the rehearsal room.” She added: “You’re finally being lit as you would be during performances, and your body feels more at home.”
Stephen Plunkett, who portrays Scott, mentioned another technical element. “There’s more echo in the rehearsal room than there is in the theater. Now that we’re in the theater we have to get used to the sound of things. We have to adjust the tone and volume of our voices for the new setting.”
After I had made my rounds of the actors, and was readying to depart the Newhouse, I overheard two tech-team guys mention other aspects of the transitional week. One said: “I sometimes feel guilty about the number of cups of coffee I drink every day. But then I come to tech rehearsals and some people are drinking even more than I do!”
His colleague responded, “I don’t mind tech at all. In fact, I kinda like it. I live in New Jersey and if we don’t finish till midnight at least the traffic home has usually eased by then.” He paused. “Usually.”
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.