We're about two weeks in...Macbeth is a terrifically hard play to stage. Did I mention that before?
In the first days of almost any production there's a certain amount of table work—that is, work done around the table, actors sitting with books in hand, discussing the play and the characters, their motivations, the overall themes of the piece, echoes in the world around us... whatever comes up. Different actors respond differently to this kind of work; some love it, some hate it. I happen to enjoy it, though I can get sucked in to the trap of talking too much about the play, which can be its own kind of distraction. Barbara Gaines likes to talk, but she's adamant about getting up on our feet fairly quickly. We spend two or three days around the table and then commence staging. In order for this to work, Barbara has asked us to learn our lines in advance, so that the first day we're on our feet we're ready to go. Again, some actors like this approach and some don't. Mostly, as North American actors, we're not used to being "off-book" quickly. It's an approach I learned from Terry Hands, the ex-Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director who directed me as Hamlet at CST. I now find it quite useful to do, especially when playing the mammoth roles—it allows me to concentrate on what I'm doing, rather than what I'm saying, which is very important. You have to learn the lines so well that you can forget them. That sounds strange, but that's how it works.
Of course, no amount of learning of lines can adequately prepare an actor for the first time they move around the rehearsal hall without the book. It almost always feels awful. You're hearing yourself speak, you're trying to listen to the other actors (and probably failing because you're too self-conscious), figuring out where to go and trying to figure out what you're actually DOING in the scene, which according to most modern acting theory is the most important thing of all. Usually, the actor is doing too many things at once. I NEVER feel good my first time through a scene on my feet. This is something we just get used to as actors; rehearsal is painful. You're working on a piece of text that you hope (or, in this case, know) is good, and it's not coming off the page yet, and that feels horrible. This is what rehearsal is for, however. With great plays you need time. At CST we have about 5 1/2 weeks. In Europe, they sometimes work on plays for years before presenting them. Oh, to have that luxury.
All that said, Barbara's rehearsal room is a nice place to be, for a couple of reasons. First, she's open to ideas. Some directors have no time for the ideas of actors, and most of those directors are no fun to work for at all. Barbara actively wants to try different approaches, take different tacks on scenes, and keep exploring as much as possible. This is a great antidote to actors—myself included—who tend to get an idea in their heads and stick to it in the face of it's own horribleness. The spirit of experimentation rubs off on you, and that's a good thing.
The other reason I'm having fun in rehearsal is that the material, which is after all pretty grim, though treated with reverence is also discussed with humor. I know some people disagree with me but I don't think it's all that healthy to do a play about madness, suicide, regicide, infanticide, etc etc without having a good sense of humor about it all. Plays tend to rub off on you however you work on them. You have a much better chance of getting to the marrow of the work if you're able to laugh at it at the same time. Oddly, the inverse is true when working on a comedy: the situations must be taken deadly seriously if the comedy is to work. The theater is full of contradictions like that.
So, we learn our lines and we learn our blocking (our movement). Eventually, these should fuse together to give us a kind of map for the production. Then the real work starts...