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Practice Makes Perfect?

Emma Cohen considers the perks and pit falls of rehearsal based upon repetition. logo

To claim that practice is the end all, cure all path to perfection is too narrow a mindset. (stock image courtesy of Microsoft Office Images)

You know the saying--practice makes perfect. And in some respects this certainly rings true. Rehearsing a scene over and over makes actors comfortable with their placement on stage and interactions with co-stars. Repeating an eight bar phrase for what seems like ages certainly improves sound quality and pitch for musicians. Constantly listening to my sister practice "Adelaide's Lament" from Guys and Dolls the week before her solo in show choir made her more confident singing in front of an audience. Learning to finally swipe my MetroCard the correct way at the train station was the result of many failed attempts, despite the arrows that clearly point left.

'Repetition is key' seems to be the general motto during practice for a production. After an actor misses an entrance or the spotlight fails to find the soliloquist in time, the remedy is always to try again, not 'take five and think about your mistake.' On my very first day in Manhattan, I attended a dress rehearsal for Swan Lake at Lincoln Center. It was the first time that I had ever seen professional dancers glide across stage in what appeared to be a flawless scene being told to 'take it from the top' until the slight error had been corrected.

And while I do see the merits of practicing something repeatedly to achieve perfection, I can't help but feel that frame of mind sometimes leaves out something exceptionally important.

I will never forget one night of rehearsal in preparation for my high school's production of The Phantom of the Opera in the spring of 2011, for which I played in the pit. We were practicing the fight scene between the Phantom and Raoul following Christine's ballad "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again." The senior playing Raoul was having a tough time conveying the emotion that the fight demanded. Repetition did nothing; over and over again we watched him miss the mark. Then, suddenly and completely out of character, Jeremy, the Phantom, slapped him straight across the face. "Hit me!" he screamed. Rives (Raoul) stood there in astonishment. Then in fury. Quickly, our director yelled 'action' and, for the first time, Rives conveyed such passion--such rage--that the scene was almost real (well, it sort of was). It wasn't that Rives was incapable of acting. It was that lack of practice wasn't the problem; it was lack of true emotion.

During our practice-run on the subway to the TheaterMania office the day before I started work, my dad, noticing my anxiety about the number of stops, winked and said, "Look, by this time next month you will have taken this subway so many times that you'll have every stop memorized!" And I practically did just two weeks later--to the extent that I felt the B was sufficiently 'my train.' But on my day off, when I was meeting a friend for lunch in Manhattan, the B never came. I watched three Q trains whiz by, still thinking that the express would pull in eventually. Finally, I gave up and got on the Q, paying acute attention to where the express and local trains diverged paths. It wasn't that repeatedly taking the B into Manhattan wasn't helpful. It was that only practicing my specific route denied me any outside knowledge of the New York City train system. Repetition meant complacency and comfort, not learning.

I believe that practice is important. In repeating something, we form habits, and these habits are the building blocks for ideal timing in a production and navigation in the city. But to claim that practice is the end all, cure all path to perfection is too narrow a mindset. We miss the fact that what we repeat is potentially faulty or can vastly restrict our point of view to one particular task. It's taking a step back and figuring out what's truly missing--whether it's a certain feeling or simple curiosity--that can make the real difference.

And hey, there's no such thing as perfection anyways.


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