Academic journal article About Performance

The Emerging Field of Rehearsal Studies

Academic journal article About Performance

The Emerging Field of Rehearsal Studies

Article excerpt

Theatre Studies, the academic discipline that sets out to explore the whole phenomenon of theatre, has been an accepted part of the humanities' curriculum in universities in Europe and North America for the best part of a century, increasingly so in the last 50 years. In the circumstances, it is somewhat surprising to realise that, while theatrical performance is the central concern in this discipline, scholars have to date paid relatively litde attention to the nature of the rehearsal practices that lead to performance. A great deal of work in Theatre Studies departments involves academics and students engaging in the practice of rehearsal and performance but this practical engagement has not produced a significant body of scholarly analysis and theoretical reflection concerning the performance making process.

Things are beginning to change, however, as indicated by the publication of historical studies such as Tiffany Stern's groundbreaking Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan (2000), her more recent Making Shakespeare: From Stage to Page (2004), Shomit Mitter's Systems of Rehearsal: Stanislavsky, Brecht, Grotoivski and Brook (1992), and a small but steady trickle of published accounts of rehearsal by directors, playwrights, actors and other observers (e.g. Hiley 1981, Selbourne 1982, Sher 1985 and 2005, Stafford Clark 1985, Letzler Cole 1992 and 2001, Wesker 1997). Another straw in the wind is the decision by the International Federation for Theatre Research to establish a working party under the leadership of Josette Féral with the objective of exploring "le processus de création théâtrale",1 and the establishment of a research network, convened by Tim Fitzpatrick and based at the University of Sydney, with the self explanatory title "Rehearsal Past and Present: Former Practices and Contemporary Approaches to the Study of the Creative Process".2 This issue of About Performance, dedicated to the theme of "Rehearsal and Performance Making Processes" is a contribution to the growing field of rehearsal studies.

Teaching and research in Performance Studies at the University of Sydney has, since its inception in 1989, been particularly concerned with rehearsal process. My own interest dates back to an even earlier period, and began in the late 1970s when I was teaching theatre in the Department of French Studies at the University of Sydney. With the assistance of Derek Nicholson and the Theatre Workshop, we organised a number of so-called "Page to Stage" courses in which the French students, for whom a play was a book to be read, observed professional actors in rehearsal, working with play texts to create performance. The intention was to reveal to students of literature that the meaning of a play was not to be found in the words on the page alone, and to demonstrate how theatrical meaning was a dynamically shifting phenomenon that emerged from the collaboration of artists and craftspeople working with texts and many other elements in a given space at a given tíme. Watching a director like Rex Cramphorn rehearsing plays by Racine with actors like Kerry Walker, Gillian Jones, John Howard and Robert Menzies, I realised that this way of working also had a great deal to offer students in departments of Theatre Studies whose experiences of rehearsal (and even of performance) so often derived from what they themselves were able to achieve. Performance Studies, as we are developing it at the University of Sydney, is concerned first and foremost with the work practices of professional performance makers, and the observation and analysis of rehearsal process is a foundational element in the research training provided by the Sydney department.

In the early days of Performance Studies, the observation of rehearsal process served largely to deepen our understanding of the complexities involved in any piece of performance. My concern at this time was overwhelmingly with the performance that emerged from the process and it became clear as I observed the gradual coming together of the material signifiers, taking note of the discussions that surrounded the selection and elaboration of major elements in the performance, noting the options tried and discarded as well as those selected, that every theatrical signifier observed in performance was like the tip of a semiotic iceberg, with depths of meaning beneath the observed surface. …

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