THEATRE PERFORMERS AND TEACHERS are social beings. But how does a high school theatre performer train while social distancing, wearing a mask, or communicating remotely? Never fear! There’s an activity that actors can do together while remaining socially distanced, a classic theatre game called “Repetition.”

Repetition exercises help student actors develop focus. Based on the theories of theatre giants Konstantin Stanislavski, Sanford Meisner, and David Mamet, repetition is an early step in actor training.

A successful performance happens when two actors are so focused on one another that the scripted lines they deliver seem like improvisation. When that happens, the scene feels alive. Repetition gets actors to that point and can be practiced with or without a teacher.

REPETITION EXERCISE ONE

One of the most difficult things about repetition is getting started, mainly because you may find it feels silly. Keep in mind that many acting exercises that develop crucial performance skills seem silly at first. Embrace the silly, laugh, mess up, and have fun developing your performance skills.

First, get a partner and sit six feet apart. You’re already in position if you’re using a video communication system. Let’s say you’re Partner One. Start by closing your eyes. When you are comfortable, open your eyes and say the first thing you notice about Partner Two. You might say something like “You have a yellow shirt,” “You have brown hair,” or “You are wearing jeans.” You cannot say something mean, and you must identify something you perceive as true in the moment. Being “in the moment” is the key to success and especially helpful to learn early in your actor training.

With opened eyes, Partner One observes: “You have a yellow shirt.” At this point Partner Two repeats what Partner One said with a simple word change: “I have a yellow shirt.” Partner One repeats, “You have a yellow shirt.” Partner Two repeats, “I have a yellow shirt.”

This repetition activity should go on for two or three minutes.

Girl interacting with someone on computer
Repetition exercises can be practiced in person or online.

Two or three minutes may sound like a short period of time, but it will not feel short while repeating an obvious statement as you stare at your partner. It’s a long time to hold focus, but as performers onstage or screen, we must train endurance focus. Again, the main goals of the exercises are to develop your ability to focus on another person and identify what’s true in the moment. That is what actors do onstage, but with memorized lines.

After two or three minutes, it’s Partner Two’s turn to lead. Partner Two opens their eyes, observes Partner One and identifies what’s true in the moment. Partner Two might remark, “You are wearing a gold necklace.” Partner One must repeat, “I am wearing a gold necklace.” Even if Partner One knows the necklace is not real gold, Partner One must repeat, “I am wearing a gold necklace,” since Partner Two noticed the necklace and believed it to be gold. This follows the basic “Yes, and …” tenet of improvisation, in which nothing can be negated, in this case because it would interrupt the exercise.

Now Partner One and Partner Two both close their eyes. After a verbal count of three, they both open their eyes. The first person who notices something says it. Perhaps Partner Two says, “You are wearing a sweater.” Partner One may either repeat, “I am wearing a sweater,” or state a new observation, for example, “You have brown eyes.” Partner Two can then repeat, “I have brown eyes,” or state a new observation. The exercise goes on with each partner either confirming their partner’s statement or verbalizing something new. This is more difficult than it sounds because both performers are living in the moment. So, don’t worry about messing up. Just laugh and try again. Remember this is challenging for everyone.

Continue Repetition Exercise One for about 15 minutes, or until you get into a smooth back-and-forth in which you see and respond to the moment. Remember, this activity is not as simple as it sounds. Expect lots of laughing but try to stay focused.

REPETITION EXERCISE TWO

First, take a break. After all, staring at another person for an extended period can be challenging.

Now, resume the positions of the previous exercise. Take a minute or two to practice Repetition Exercise One.

In the second exercise, not only can you identify physical characteristics of the other performer, you also can look deeper. This time, when you open your eyes, you can either make a visual observation, such as “You are wearing a hat,” or you can identify Partner Two’s perceived state. For example, you might say, “You are happy.”

If the latter, Partner Two might repeat, “I am happy,” (even if they are not happy) or notice and state something new about Partner One. Practice Repetition Exercise Two for 15 minutes or more, then take another break.

Girl waving at tablet computer
Repetition exercises can increase comfort with scene work and cultivate a sense of improvisation.

REPETITION EXERCISE THREE

Keep an open mind when transitioning to Repetition Exercise Three. This step goes beyond both physical attributes and simple states of being. In this round, performers close their eyes, count to three, and open them together. Whoever notices something about the other performer first makes a statement beyond a state of being.

For example, Partner One may say, “You are dressed nicely to go to dinner,” “You hate this game,” or “You are ready for this to be over.” The idea is to look beyond the physical, beyond the state of being, and into what the state of being might indicate. Partner Two may repeat, “I am dressed nicely to go to dinner,” “I hate this game,” or “I am ready for this to be over.” However, they can also identify something new or repeat elements from Repetition Exercise One or Two.

The lesson continues with new observations or repetitions. If you have time, repeat these exercises for an hour each day.

CLOSURE

While training future teachers, this three-part Repetition exercise has become my bedrock method of teaching performance. If you practice it with a friend, you’ll find it increases comfort with scene work and cultivates a sense of improvisation by training your focus on the other performer instead of on yourself. Even in this time of social distancing and video communication, you can still hone your performance skills for the stage and the screen with this deceptively simple (though not easy), somewhat silly, but surprisingly useful game.

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