Playing the Homework

In theatre, sometimes we talk about not “playing the homework.” What this refers to is when an actor tries to bring all the work they did in rehearsal into a scene.

“Wait,” you may think, “isn’t that what all that work is for?”

Yes and no. We spend days of rehearsal talking about the play, the characters, what’s happening in a particular moment or on a specific line. With some plays, we dig deeply into the language to make sure we know what every word is doing. We try lines and scenes many different ways, over and over again, learning something new each time.

We immerse ourselves into these details so that when the actors step onstage, all of that work is supporting them, providing a rock-solid foundation. But they aren’t thinking about the conversation we had about that one line, or the time we tried it that one way. All that they need to do, should do, is stay present in the moment and trust the work they did.

When actors bring that homework onstage, we can see that they’re not listening to the other actors. Instead, they’re trying to recreate something that happened yesterday, last week, or during the first read-through. They’re thinking about something the director said, or something that worked once. Meanwhile, the play is going on without them.

When you’ve rehearsed well, all that homework is behind you. It has prepared you to take the stage, to bring your whole self to this moment, this audience, this reality. The homework served its purpose—it stays in the rehearsal room. 

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