In New York, a new off-Broadway or Broadway production generally has three or four weeks of previews before an official opening night. Even regular theatergoers may wonder: what specifically happens during that period? I myself got to mulling this question over the weekend while watching an afternoon rehearsal for The Rolling Stone

That, in fact, is the most basic thing that happens in previews: the cast keep rehearsing. The scene I watched that day involved the setting of light cues during a song at the top of the second act. Japhy Weideman, the lighting designer, and his associates were perfecting the intensity and shape of light pools on the stage. The play’s six actors would perform the number and then lie back in wait as Weideman, with suggestions by the director Saheem Ali, made adjustments. 

Technical adjustments make up a large part of the preview period. During nightly performances, directors assess how the lighting and the set transitions are working in front of an audience. They make notes and then work through these notes with technicians during the afternoon rehearsals. 

The Rolling Stone has minimal scenery so previews have been much more about lighting cues than about moving set elements around the stage. This tends not to be the case for a musical production. There, a great deal of time can be given over to changing the moving of a flat or a piece of furniture. Musicals also tend to have more complicated choreography and the perfection of it can claim hours of preview-period rehearsal.

With a new play or especially a new musical, a great deal of preview effort is expended to make the storytelling clear to the audience. Musical numbers or book scenes may be shortened or cut altogether. With a revival, the material has already been found to work with audiences, so the labor is not on text but on clarity of interpretation. The Rolling Stone is a relatively new piece – it has had successful productions in the U.K. and stagings in Australia and Brazil – so the LCT preview period has not involved dramatic changes to the text. 

And what of the actors? For them, the preview period entails work they do in private – internally processing the cues they are getting from the audience nightly in performance – and with the production’s director. At the beginning of each Rolling Stone afternoon rehearsal, director Ali gathers the cast and gives them specific notes he has made about performances the night before. Not all notes are given collectively. Actors usually get notes privately as well: sometimes in written form, sometime in direct one-on-one with the director. 

Perhaps the most important thing actors need from a preview period is to build confidence. Even the most accomplished actors can experience self-doubt as they get used to playing new characters. And many of them will tell you that the degree of self-doubt doesn’t abate over the years; sometimes, it becomes more acute.

In the case of The Rolling Stone, I could already see a difference between the level of pre-performance jitters before the dress rehearsal and before the fourth public performance this past Sunday. Those jitters don’t necessarily lessen at a regular rate. They sometimes spike again on opening night. But opening nights are a subject requiring an entirely separate blog entry.

 

Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com