Acting Directing Production

Rehearsing in Layers

Written by Kerry Hishon

Creating a theatrical piece is a bit like baking a cake – choose your recipe (the show), add ingredients (cast and crew), stir together and bake (practice and rehearse). At the end, you’ve got a fabulous cake… I mean, production!

Following this analogy, it would seem that, just as adding decorations to the cake (icing, sprinkles, cream, cherries, and so on) comes at the end of the baking process, it would seem that adding theatrical “decorations” (costumes, props, lights, sound effects, set pieces, furniture, and so on) would come at the end of the rehearsal process. And, for many time-crunched teachers and directors, that often happens. But, while that works for baking, adding the theatrical “decorations” during the final few rehearsals – or, worse, at tech and dress rehearsals – creates a very stressful atmosphere when working with student actors.

Add too many new elements at once, and all the initial progress on entrances/exits, lines, character work, movement and choreography seems to just vanish, leaving the actors stressed out and the director frustrated. It’s hard enough for students to remember their lines when they aren’t worrying about what prop they’re supposed to be using, what costume they’re supposed to be wearing, or what scene comes next in the show.

So, going back to the baking analogy, I suggest that, instead of “decorating” at the end of the process, directors and teachers “mix their decorations” right into the rehearsal process in layers. Rather than adding the extra elements right from book-in-hand rehearsals or leaving them all to the end, use a calendar to figure out what layers to add when.

Here’s how you do it!

First layer: Figure out when off-book day will be.

Off-book means that the actors must have their lines fully memorized and are no longer holding their scripts onstage. Depending on the show, I usually make off-book day halfway to two-thirds of the way through the rehearsal process. This gives students a specific date that they must adhere to, but also provides a little leeway in case someone slacks off in the lines-learning department.

Second layer: Determine when you will add furniture, props, and costumes.

Whenever possible, sooner is always better! My preference is to add furniture first (to assist with blocking and transitions early in the process), props second (to help with muscle memory for bringing items on and off the set), and costumes third. The exception to this is if a student is working with a specific prop or costume piece that is vital to their character or that they need to get used to (for example, character shoes). You should incorporate those items as soon as possible. Work with the various design teams to get started on acquiring/making these items as soon as possible, and get them into rehearsal. Use stand-in rehearsal props and furniture if the actual items are not available right away.

Third layer: Start planning your technical elements early.

If you know you’ll need sound effects or scene transition music, start planning that as soon as possible. Use them in rehearsals as much as you can. That way, when your actors get to tech rehearsal they won’t be totally distracted by strange sounds they’re hearing for the first time.

If you are directing a musical, you will of course be working with your music right away (whether that be with accompaniment tracks or a rehearsal pianist). If your show employs a band or an orchestra, you will need to add a sitzprobe to your rehearsal layers schedule so the actors, technicians, and musicians can hear what the others sound like.

Fourth layer: Make your schedule.

For one of my previous productions, we had a 14-week rehearsal schedule. We devised a schedule that added a new element on each of those 14 weeks, beginning with basic blocking and character work, then adding (in this order) furniture, off-book day, props, costumes, and technical elements (sound effects/music and lights). Below is a sample schedule as well as an exercise your students can use to try making a schedule of their own.

Adding show elements in layers allows your student actors time to adjust to each new aspect of the show. It can be overwhelming to actors and crew to have everything thrown at them at once. Help your students by making the process as easy and streamlined as possible!

Want more info?

Click here for a sample rehearsal schedule and an exercise that your students can use to create a schedule for their show.

Kerry Hishon is a director, actor, writer and stage combatant from London, Ontario, Canada. She blogs at

About the author

Kerry Hishon

Kerry Hishon is a director, actor, writer and stage combatant from London, Ontario, Canada. View her blog at


  • I really like how you broke the rehearsal process down into layers. It can be really overwhelming when you first begin working on a show and look at all of the work that you have to do.

    I’m currently working on a blog that focuses on being a student and someone involved in theatre. One of the things I want to focus most on is how to bring real life into theatre and how to bring theatre into real life, especially school. I think this post is very helpful in regards to how students can use theatre skills to become a better student. For example, your first layer, “Figure out when the off-book date will be”, can apply to school, “Figure out when the assignment is due”. The other three layers talk a lot about making a plan, having a schedule, etc. and that definitely applies to school in regards to planning, starting early, breaking it up, etc.

  • I’ve sung lots of opera chorus and stage directed lots of Gilbert and Sullivan. In opera chorus we were not allowed to sing a note until our Italian or French was absolutely flawless, but as a stage director I’ve had many music directors, who have been trained by the same opera chorusmaster, who say that once the singers learn the notes, THEN they may sing in Received Pronunciation — like every American can recognize that the “a” in “band” is not the same as the “a” in “command”; like every time “r” is pronounced, it is pronounced exactly the same. Where does pronunciation come in the layers?