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This question comes from Lisa Morey of Salt Lake City, UT.
Question: I teach middle school theatre and my students complain that they must attend every rehearsal in which their character is involved. What are the attendance rules for professional performers during the rehearsal process? How much notice must they give for a conflict and does the union provide for a certain number of absences? Answer: A typical Broadway show rehearses six days a week for eight hours a day — from around 10 AM-6 PM. The actors work for seven of those hours, and the rest is breaks. Big musicals rehearse in the studio for four to six weeks, while plays rehearse for less — David Mamet's new Broadway play November, for instance, rehearsed for a little over three weeks. The company then moves to the theatre for tech rehearsal — which can last one-and-a-half to two weeks for a big musical — where the hours get longer. (See the Sept. 21 column for more information about rehearsal rules.)
Musical rehearsals tend to go for all eight hours every day, but plays tend to be more flexible. "We would rehearse sometimes five- or six-hour days," says Jill Cordle, November's production stage manager. "That's the preferences of the director as well as the actors. If you got really good work done in the morning hours, you may not want to do a full afternoon. Nathan Lane is in every scene and never leaves the stage. A rehearsal day for him was very long and very intense, so some days we wouldn't rehearse a full day because it would be an overload."
Some actors don't have to be there all the time. One actor in November, for instance, isn't in the play until the final scene. On some days he was allowed to come in late. Some days he could miss altogether. "In the first week, when we were really working through the play slowly, piece by piece, we didn't call him for three of the days that week," Cordle says. Later in the process, when they'd be running through the whole play, "he would come the whole day, every day, so that he would be ready to go into the rehearsal when we got to his scene."
On a musical, however, it's more difficult to make such accommodations. "Pretty much everybody is called all the time," says Ira Mont, the stage manager for Young Frankenstein (who happens to be Cordle's husband). Musicals might rehearse in three rooms at a time: "You can be blocking one scene in one room, and learning a dance in another room, and in another room the music director could be teaching a solo," Mont says. Plus, understudies sometimes need to be watching rehearsals even if they're not actively rehearsing. Plays rarely use multiple rooms, especially since there's no music director or choreographer — only a director.
There are situations in which musical performers get time off. Some may get to come in at 11 AM or so, on occasion. Very often with musicals, principals don't have to show up for the first few days — or even the first week — of rehearsals, while the chorus learns the music to the group numbers, and then the choreography. The principals can be added into the group numbers later. And, when you're working on smaller numbers, like Young Frankenstein's "Roll in the Hay" — which uses only five actors — and you need the director, choreographer and music director all in the main room to help out, with nothing going on in the other rooms, the rest of the performers can take that time off. But stage managers avoid situations in which a performer is needed but isn't there. "You always do err on the side of the need of the rehearsal as opposed to the need of the actor," Mont says.
Now, onto the question of unexpected absences. Actors are allowed some paid sick days. Technically, according to a spokesperson for Actors' Equity, when a performer is absent from rehearsal for seven days for an illness, the producer may terminate the actor's contract. But Mont, who is also the third vice president of Actors' Equity, says that he hasn't experienced this ever happening. He has experienced situations in which a performer is injured, making the performer unable to play the role.
Another rule is that if a performer is absent from or late for rehearsals without a good reason on more than two occasions within 12 months, the performer's salary will be docked for the time missed. That, Mont says, does happen occasionally, but "it depends how strict the management wants to be," he says. In practice, "To some degree you have to cut somebody a little slack."
"We live in New York City — there really is no such thing as on time," he adds. Instead, everyone's either early or late. "Actors are good about calling and saying the Number One train isn't running — I'm going to walk 15 blocks," he adds. But "if it became a little epidemic and you needed to make a point, because of the nature of your company, the management could make it a financial situation."