In the first chapter of Stanislavski's An Actor Prepares (the bible of "method acting"), an inexperienced actor is late to rehearsal. It is the first rehearsal of a project, and the actor blunders out of bed having slept late, rushes into the rehearsal hall, and says, "I seem to be a little late."
The assistant director lets him have it:
"We have been sitting here waiting, our nerves on edge, angry, and 'it seems I am a little late.' We all came here full of enthusiasm for the work waiting to be done, and now, thanks to you, that mood has been destroyed. To arouse a desire to create is difficult; to kill that desire is extremely easy. If I interfere with my own work, it is my own affair, but what right have I to hold up the work of a whole group? The actor, no less than the soldier, must be subject to iron discipline."
For this first offence Rakhmanov said he would limit himself to a reprimand, and not enter it on the written record kept of students, but that I must apologize immediately to all, and make it a rule in the future to appear at rehearsals a quarter of an hour before they begin. Even after my apology Rakhmanov was unwilling to go on, because he said the first rehearsal is an event in an artist's life, and he should retain the best possible impression of it.
Is this extreme? Perhaps a little. I would not, for this reason, cancel a rehearsal, because rehearsal time is always precious. Things happen, we're all human, and if someone is contrite and sincerely vows to be punctual, the work can move forward on a positive note. It doesn't "kill" the art. It seems strange to complain that the late actor is "holding up the work of a whole group" and respond by canceling the rest of that rehearsal. Goodness gracious!
What is valid, however, is the seriousness of discipline. It is not only a matter of maximizing the use of time. When a company uses the old rule of thumb that being on time for rehearsal means being there early, and getting yourself ready to start working at the appointed time, you are fostering an agreement that the company will arrive prepared for creative work. If anything is more important than making the best use of rehearsal time, it is upholding the right attitude about the work and the other people in the ensemble. It makes a huge difference in the quality of the work.
I remember this ethic even being part of amateur theatre when I was young. In one of my college shows, a student who was late for a rehearsal was told to approach every single person in the cast and make a personal apology to them. In the professional theatre, I could be fined by the actor's union if I was reported for coming late to rehearsals or shows.
It felt strange, not long ago, when I turned up for a "first rehearsal" about 15 minutes early. No other cars were parked nearby and the lights were off. Since I had a key to the space, I opened up and turned on the lights, got the room situated, and since no one had shown up yet I got on the floor and began stretching, relaxing, getting ready to rehearse. A few minutes after the hour, the person directing that rehearsal turned up, and the other actor arrived even later than that. Well, hey -- things happen. Strangely, though, neither person said a word about being late. It wasn't deemed remarkable in any way.
And here's the thing -- being a few minutes late isn't remarkable. Saying nothing about it, on the other hand, came to me as a shock. From my earliest days in community theatre in Providence, Rhode Island as a kid, that would have been completely alien. Rakhmanov's head would have exploded!
It's not about being late and losing a few minutes of rehearsal. It's about setting the tone for the work and for the strength and mutual regard of the ensemble, from the beginning of the process. Being on time and honoring those with whom you are working really does make the show better.
[Image: Constantin Stanislavski]