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Essay: The First Rehearsal

Most theaters have been dark for months now due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Most theaters have been dark for months now due to the coronavirus pandemic. Some are offering their work online. But for people who love the theater, it’s been hard to replace that feeling of seeing a live performance. 

Essayist Marie Kohler recalls her first experience in a theater in her essay “The First Rehearsal.” And she looks hopefully to a time when we all might be able to return.

“Come along and watch a rehearsal tonight while I’m at my theater meeting.”

My mother pushed away from the dining room table and grabbed her purse.

“Let’s go!”

I was a shy 10-year-old and would rather stay at home and read The Secret Garden, again. But I knew there was no use resisting. So I mumbled, “OK” and dragged my feet.

My mother loved the theater. She’d been an amateur actress in her youth, by the time she was 50 she had moved from behind the scenes to throw herself headlong into a multitude of causes and high among them was Sheboygan’s Community Players where she served on the board. I’d seen most of their shows and really liked them, but never a rehearsal.

I fretted. What would that be like? Especially alone? How many strangers would I have to meet?

She led me through the huge, dark auditorium and planted me in a seat.

“Please let me wait in the car,” I begged. “I do not belong here.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she whispered. “Just watch!”

Off she went leaving me to wonder when, when would she come back?

As my eyes began to adjust to the dark, I spied two figures on the wide, bare stage. No costumes, they were dressed in everyday clothes. I recognized one of them, it was Mr. Benson, a nice man who worked with my father. But that night he looked upset and spoke in a herky-jerky kind of way.

“Sleep no more, oh sleep no more,” he mourned.

The other figure stepped forward. It was the pharmacists’ wife, Mrs. Grube. She was speaking strangely too not at all like the friendly person I knew, mother of two cute little girls. She ordered Mr. Benson to go wash his hands. She seemed very angry and then said something about “daggers.” She had turned into a towering force; I could feel it.

A man in the front row suddenly broke the spell he started talking to the actors in normal tones and they responded, chatting, nodding, smiling normally for a while, completely changed from moments before. Then, just as suddenly, the two switched back to their larger than life selves and their fierce debate.

What was going on? These people seemed to be able to descend at will into a different world, a wilder one, where strong currents swirled around and threw them. They felt so much.

As alien as their world seemed, I leaned in and wanted more, more. How could these people say things not usually said? How did they break the bonds of self-consciousness and fear? And if they could leave their small selves and delve into the deep and wild, could I too someday?

I wondered.

Ever since witnessing that evening of Macbeth, so long ago I’ve remained in awe of what happens in rehearsals. For decades now I’ve worked in theater as an actor, producer, playwright and director yet I’m still amazed and moved.

There, actors and director gather to dive deep into their own histories and imaginations. They find clues to playwright’s texts and wrestle with them. And when they get it right, they tap into communal meaning through stories larger than their own. The requirements to enter that sanctum sanctorum? Skill, of course, but equally important curiosity, vulnerability and courage.

These days, thanks to theater's old nemesis: infection, rehearsals aren’t happening in person. Yes, actors can meet on screens in our separate homes but the days of working and transforming together into a Scottish usurper and his ambitions wife are in intermission. Along with our place where we can say, ‘I think I’ll try walking down stage and really give it to the audience with sleep no more.’ Or ‘You can feel free to really get into my face with go get some water and wash this filthy witness from your hand.’

So during theaters long interlude I’d like to offer up the tribute to the traditional rehearsal room. I miss it. And I’d like to say a thank you to my mother. She was right, I did belong.

Marie Kohler is the co-founder of Renaissance Theaterworks in Milwaukee. She’s also a playwright, producer and theater director.