Putting Together a Production: A Rehearsal Strategy for Design

By Traci Lepore

Published: June 8, 2009

“The first rehearsal always demands an overwhelming amount of observation and synthesis.”

A couple of weeks ago—after finishing work and putting my UX designer hat away for the day—I drove to the first rehearsal for a new theater production. Both the theater itself and the theatrical group were new to me. I had been to the theater once before, but as with all hazy memories of auditions, I couldn’t have told you much about the space. As I got out of the car and started walking to the theater it happened—as usual: My stomach starts jumping. I get anxious, and my shy side kicks into full gear. Yes, even actors get anxious and shy. The director greeted me as I walked in and handed me a script. She introduced me to the other actors who were already there. As we all sat in the lobby, waiting for the rest of the cast to roll in, we eyed each other nervously, wondering what the night would bring.

Finally, our group gathered in the theater and table talk began. (If you don’t know what table talk is, see my UXmatters column “The UX Designer’s Place in the Ensemble: Directing the Vision.”) The director gave us her speech and went over some logistics. Before we knew it, we were up on our feet and moving—creating the beginnings of our crude iteration number one. The next three hours flew by, in a blur of awkward stumbling—both physical and linguistic—as we worked through our first scenes. Once the rehearsal was over, we headed home to absorb the experience and begin our preparation for iteration number two the next evening. Some of us might have felt a little disoriented, but we have enough faith in the process to know this feeling will pass. Our rehearsal process had begun.

I feel the same anxiety and excitement at the start of every production in which I’m involved. It’s a nerve-thrilling, stomach-knotting, self-conscious roller coaster ride. The first rehearsal always demands an overwhelming amount of observation and synthesis. What is the director’s vision? What is our plan? Who are the other people I’m going to be working with? How do they interpret their characters? What does that mean for mine? We get on our feet and start moving and reading, laying out crude blocking. Sometimes, it feels like the pieces may never fit together. Usually, when rehearsing, you aren’t even in the space in which you’ll eventually be performing. But you improvise, stumble through, and somehow it works.

The RRI (Not the ROI) of Rehearsal: Representation, Repetition, and Iteration

“Innovation emerges from iterative process.”

Actors have a faith in the process that lets us work through our discomfort. Eventually, the play’s structure develops and a production emerges, but it doesn’t happen all at once or overnight—or even over a week. It takes multiple iterations to move from the first stumbling rehearsal through getting the blocking down, memorizing our lines, working through the characters and the scenes; adding our costumes, stage settings, and lighting; and finally, arriving at the final production.

As I began this seemingly chaotic and crazy process yet again, I reflected on what makes this process we call rehearsals work. How is it that innovation occurs so easily in this setting? The amazing thing about a rehearsal process is that—despite its seeming chaos and disorganization, which, at times, makes it feel poorly managed—it is actually quite exceptionally well managed. In a wonderful book called Artful Making, the authors describe this process as one in which individual acts of creation—as actors work on their own—are punctuated by arduous episodes of bringing everything together—during rehearsals. Through this process, actors can transform many conflicting ideas, actions, and constraints into one unified form: the production.

In a previous column, “The UX Designer’s Place in the Ensemble,” I talked about Brooks’s idea of Immediate Theatre, which he defined as theatre that is a reflection of the here and now and evolves from observation of the world around us. This fits in nicely with the ideas of Austin and Devin who believe innovation emerges from iterative process. Looking again at the three activities by which Brooks says we can achieve this kind of emergent outcome, shown in Table 1, we can begin to see the overlap between the rehearsal process and product development.

Table 1—Connections between the rehearsal process and product development

Activity In the rehearsal process In the product development process

Representation

Actors’ character choices, sets, and technology (lights, sound, etc)

Concepts and prototypes

Repetition (or Iteration)

Bringing individual actors’ work together and working iteratively during rehearsals and runs of the show

Iterative development and evaluation of use cases, storyboards, and prototypes

Assistance

Director, ensemble, and audience feedback

User and stakeholder research and cross-disciplinary help from the product team

Developing a Rehearsal Strategy

“Rehearsal is structurally similar to agile software development.”

The authors of Artful Making were not the first to ponder the transferability of the concepts of rehearsing, or playmaking, to business processes. In an article on the metaphor between theater and organization, Cornelissen says that the idea of theater as an analogy for business, while not ground breaking, “has just provided a language of theater (actors, scenes, scripts, and so on) for framing and communicating identity and role enactment within organizations.” In another article on the same topic, Boje says this perspective “draws on the theatrical metaphor as a means of studying and illustrating social processes in which organizational members are essentially human actors, engaging in various roles and other official and unofficial performances.”

So, if we want to entertain the idea that innovative product or software development is just a social process, in which members engage in roles that lead from the unofficial performance of prototype testing to the official performance of product release what then? What does that mean for how we approach the process? In their book Artful Making, Austin and Devin talk about the relevance of rehearsals as an iterative creative tool, when thinking about innovative product development. They look, in depth, at the rehearsal process of a particular group of actors—the People’s Light—to understand how certain business processes, like agile software development, are similar to the rehearsal process. In my mind, the two don’t differ much at all.

If we observe with an open mind and consider the facts, we can see that rehearsal is structurally similar to agile software development. The script isn’t the play—any more than design specifications are the actual product. The script guides, but is not the totality of the play. If it were, what would we need the actors for at all? Most of what a theatrical group needs to do to make a play come to life needs to be created anew for each production. There are the director’s and actors’ interpretations and choices and the overall production to take into account. That is why successful playmaking results in such varied productions that do not resemble their predecessors at all. It is also one reason audience members continue to enjoy productions of scripts—such as those of Shakespeare—that have been done countless times.

What makes a script come to life is the work that occurs during the rehearsal process, which results in a living, breathing performance. So should it be with the specifications for a design—bringing concepts to life in a prototype, putting the prototype through the motions, and iterating the prototype to bring forth a living, breathing product that is sure to be innovative and unique in every instantiation.

Breaking the Straight Line

“The problem with many current approaches to the product design process, though, is that they tend to be linear.”

The problem with many current approaches to the product design process, though, is that they tend to be linear—the traditional waterfall methods we have all become accustomed to following. Making the change to work in an iterative manner requires a more helical type of process. In Figures 1 and 2, I have illustrated what translating an iterative rehearsal process to a traditional user-centered product design process would look like. (Just remember that cheap and rapid iterative design requires enabling technologies such as version control systems and automated testing systems to help support the process.)

Figure 1—A rehearsal process

Rehearsal process

Figure 2—An iterative design process

Iterative design process

Two Processes, One Phenomenon

“What does excite me are the possibilities for supporting a design process that works more organically and in line with other creative processes.”

The parallels between rehearsal and software or product design processes, shown in Table 2, aren’t really all that extraordinary—after all, they are both creative processes. What does excite me are the possibilities for supporting a design process that works more organically and in line with other creative processes—allowing artists of all kinds to be just that, artists. For all of us, the phenomenal implication of such an advance is that we will find our way to much more innovative outcomes.

Table 2—Characteristics of an iterative software or product design process versus a rehearsal, or playmaking, process

Note—This is a recreation of a table from Artful Making.

  Product or Software Development Playmaking

Iterative cycle

Prototype build and test

Rehearsal

Distributed, independent, simultaneous invention

Individuals work on separate pieces

Individual actors prepare between rehearsals

Unifying action

Build

Rehearsal run

A director who facilitates

Project Manager

Director

Forum for conversation

Meetings, collaborative forums

Rehearsal room

Way of setting structure

Code holds structure

Actors hold structure

Rehearsals are progressing for our production. The way things always manage to come together is amazing. My stomach has stopped jumping, my nerves are calmed, and my shyness has worn off. We continue to work iteratively as an ensemble toward our opening night—gulp—with creativity and spark that becomes more finely tuned with every iteration. The excitement is building—just as it does before a product launch. While our work will end when the show closes, iterative product design continues, as teams move forward to create future versions. The evolution of the product continues.

References

Austin, Robert, and Lee Devin. Artful Making: What Managers Need to Know About How Artists Work. Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press, 2003.

Boje, David M., John T. Luhman, and Ann L. Cunliffe. “A Dialectic Perspective on the Organization Theatre.” American Communication Journal, 2002.

Cornelissen, Joep P. “What Are We Playing at? Theatre, Organization, and the Use of Metaphor.” Organization Studies, Volume 25, Number 5, 2004.

4 Comments

Traci, I have added my response to this: Iterative process and the need for play making in design.

Thank you for a great read; the analogy with acting and the process around this is great.

Thanks for sharing it, Traci. It’s a very interesting article about all actors involved on a design process. An iterative design process is better from my point of view, but as you said, rapid iterative design requires enabling technologies such as version control systems and automated testing systems to help support the process. Many companies are not prepared for such a process, not only because of technical issues, but also because of their own business structure—too many actors wanting the leading role.

Thanks, Kevin, for a great response. Posted a comment on your blog about your thoughts!

Yes, while technology can be important to support a fast-paced and completely iterative process, there are things you can do without the supporting systems. Paper prototypes for testing concepts are a great and easy way to be iterative! And the only version control needed is a folder to keep previous rounds in. Another thing that also helps to show clear value is saving time and money in development for an organization that may be resistant.

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