(David Jays’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/13.)

A martinet director barking at chorines in 42nd Street. An imperious ballet impresario in The Red Shoes. Philip Seymour Hoffman, full of avant-garde angst in Synecdoche, New York … I have images of rehearsals in my head and they are probably all misleading. Rehearsal is the work that the public never sees. So what does take place behind closed doors? And how much does genre make a difference? I lurked in the corner of three rehearsal rooms – for a new dance piece, a rare Shakespeare play and a light-hearted musical comedy – to taste the atmospheres and compare the conversations.

From what I saw, the most accurate fictional portrayal of the process may be Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. Not for the amorous misunderstandings, slapstick mishaps and screwball sense of doom – but because most of the discussion I hear isn’t about the grand themes of the art, it’s about how to make the work … work. As Frayn’s director sighs while his befuddled star blunders around with a plate of toast, it’s about “getting the sardines on, getting the sardines off”.

The performing arts are precious, but pragmatic. Whether it is a knotty classic text, a wordless dance piece or a song-studded musical, it must work on stage, in front of an audience. Everyone is ferocious about detail in the rehearsals I see, but there are still big differences between the atmospheres in each. How much paper is in the room and how many people watch you at work? Who makes the decisions, and how? These are three random afternoons, three fly-on-the-wall glimpses of processes that are rarely seen.


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