A Summary of Rehearsal Room Process
(devised by Richard Sarell)
April 2009

The following notes have been up-dated because of the significant changes that have emerged since the last up-date two years ago. These additions bring exciting new elements to the process.

John Higginson has started teaching Introductory Workshops at the Rehearsal Room and he recently explained to a group that to be effective an acting process has to be relevant to its time. Many well established and respected acting processes were created decades ago and, as they are taught now remain stuck in an historical past. The Rehearsal Room is different. It is an organic process that is constantly in development. It grows because of the interactive nature of the workshop sessions where there is a constant flow of ideas within the group. The on-going Rehearsal Room aim is to find simple, clear and functional ways to make our acting process more interactive, efficient and real.

The basic principles explored in current Rehearsal Room workshops are as follows…

Actor Responsibilities
The actor in the view of The Rehearsal Room has two main tasks -

• The first one is to ‘tell the story’ – this is the reason the production is happening in the first place.
• The second task for the actor is ‘to be believable’.

Telling the Story
If the story is clearly identified or labelled then generally the performance will unfold in a way that allows the story to be clearly told. The value of ‘simple’ and ‘active’ labelling is the wonderful and functional gift that Constantine Stanislavski gave the acting world. It is an enormously powerful tool that is often misunderstood and frequently over complicated. When identifying the story content of a scene the main elements to identify are …

• the beginning,
• the middle
• and the end.


• action,
• reaction
• and outcome.

On some occasions a fourth element is present – the turning point. The story structure will then unfold as - beginning, middle, turning point and end.

Turning Point
A turning point is the moment when a clear change in direction of the conversation occurs. Under these circumstances there will now be a new reason driving the conversation. If the story or conversation doesn’t head in a new direction it isn’t a turning point.

Identifying Story
Remember, when it comes to identifying the story of a scene that the real story is always about ‘what transpires between the characters in the scene’. Sometimes, perhaps often, this has little to do with what is being said.

NOTE: The dialogue itself may not be what the story is about. The dialogue is mostly just the content of the conversation.
RR DEFINITION: ‘The STORY is what folds between the characters in the scene while they are saying the dialogue’.

It is also true that often the story of the scene only has a little to do with what has happened to characters in the past, or what might happen to them in the future. It is mostly about what is happening to them now.

An important part of The Rehearsal Room process is to identify the story. One important value of clearly identifying the essence of the ‘text’ is that the actor can then be clear about choices for the ‘sub-text’. Here again there is much confusion in the acting world about what the definition of sub-text and text should be.

RR DEFINITION: The Rehearsal Room definition of text is – 'the dialogue the character HAS to say, the stage directions/big print the character HAS to do and the story the actor has defined'. (Sometimes, some of the dialogue & stage directions won’t be essential to the story. They therefore won’t have to be said or done.)

Rehearsal Room classes constantly demonstrate that clear, simple and active labels of story consistently produce believable performances. Vague labels produce erratic performances and confusing stories.

A Simple Approach to STORY
Actors, as a group, are not great at identifying story. Actors are particularly aware of intuitive impulses and therefore they easily perceive the wondrous complexities of a scene rather than the over-riding simplicity. Both elements co-exist in a scene but too much pre-occupation with the wondrous complexities of life tend to generate fuzzy, complicated story descriptions that are not inaccurate descriptions but are exceedingly hard to translate into performance. Putting effort into simple story definitions is very worthwhile. Rehearsal Room actors who become competent at this procedure make instant quantum leaps forward in their performance capabilities.

Elements of a Conversation
The first thing to consider is that most scenes are a conversation. Conversations have a number of identifiable and simple ingredients. For example, every conversation has an ‘instigator’. A conversation is always started by someone and they start it for a reason. That reason is what drives the conversation forward until they –

  • achieve their desired goal or
  • realize they can’t achieve that goal or
  • give up on achieving that goal for the moment.
    When one of the above points is reached then the conversation ends.

A simple way of thinking about how a conversation ends is that it will result in either be a ‘win’, a ‘lose’ or a ‘draw’. This is an overly simplistic way of labelling endings but it is a very useful starting point.

Over the years The Rehearsal Room has continually explored ways of illuminating the reason that drives a conversation. This exploration has evolved into a very simple formula. It has become plain that there are in fact only three reasons that drive conversations.

3 Conversations Possibilities
In pursuing a conversation the instigator is working on one of three broad processes. They will be pursuing either a –

• a battle for control
• a challenge or
• a test.

In initially exploring this concept at The Rehearsal Room we guessed this proposition had about an 80% success rate. However, after working with this formula for some time we now believe it is much more effective than that. It is another very useful tool.

Could it be too simple?

The elegant simplicity of this idea has proved to be its strength. It is not an over simplification. It is in fact extremely versatile and can produce enormously complex outcomes. The versatility is derived once you add the extra ingredient of asking what issue the conversation process is exploring. Once the actor starts considering that the story could be –

  • a battle for control about ….?
  • a battle for control over ….?
  • a test of …
  • a test to find out…
  • a challenge over … etc

then a vast array of options becomes available even though the path to reveal them is a simple one. This simple process empowers actors to effectively understand the real story issues of a scene very quickly.

One thing is absolutely clear - simple story definitions produce strong performances and complex characters.

This formula (which emerged from a problem solving session with actor Paul Cousins and is known as the ‘Paul Cousins Contribution’) is proving a very simple tool and it delivers very effective outcomes. It takes the mystery and uncertainty out of the process and allows actors to quickly get on with rehearsal. It is also enormously effective in the audition room when decisions have to be made really quickly.

BUT this is only half the formula.

Instigator and Responder
If a conversation always has an ‘instigator’ then it also must have a ‘responder’ or a ‘reactor’. The conversation begins when the instigator sets out to achieve their ‘conversation goal’. The middle of the conversation commences as soon as the ‘responder’ responds. Thereafter these two components continue competing until the conversation reaches its end.

If the instigator is pursuing one of the above options (challenge, test or battle for control) then there are only two options for the responding character. They will either be –

  • doing the same thing back (i.e. contesting the challenge, test or battle for control) OR
  • they will be resisting, avoiding or denying the challenge, test or battle for control.

Read that again, because it looks a little more complicated on the page than it actually is. There are in fact only two options – to do the same thing back OR resist, avoid or deny. (This short cut is named the "Kirsty Lee Principle" after the actor who discovered it.) This is also simple and remarkably effective.

Determining an instigator and responder and the conversation path they are following is a very effective and productive way to identify the story content of a scene.

What’s the Difference??
Initially, it might be confusing ascertaining the difference between the three conversation categories of battle for control, test or challenge. Try thinking of it like this.

1. If a character is instigating a ‘TEST’ conversation it is because they DON’T KNOW SOMETHING AND THEREFORE ARE TRYING TO FIND IT OUT.
2. If a character is instigating a ‘CHALLENGE’ conversation it is because they DO KNOW SOMETHING AND ARE TRYING TO IMPOSE IT.

These options can be grouped together in a great variety of ways. For example,

  • “I might be testing you to see if it’s possible to mount a challenge.”
  • “I might be challenging you to test yourself.”

NOTE: The vast majority of scenes can have any of these options applied to them. The actor is ultimately in total control of the element that’s driving the scene/conversation.

Being Believable
Once the text has been clearly identified it is possible to put in place a sub-text that will contribute to the character’s complexities while they experience the events of the story.

The simplest way that the Stanislavski approach to realism can be explained is this –

“The actor always needs to be doing two things at once.”

Doing two things at once is tricky. The general outcome of such an activity is that we tend to concentrate on one element more than another. The result is that the one we are concentrating on appears to be the character’s conscious thought processes and the less active one appears to be the character’s unconscious thought processes. It is the actor’s ability to ‘appear’ to be functioning on both a conscious and an unconscious level simultaneously that makes the character look real. That is the fundamental trick for creating ‘realism’ in performance.

Unconscious Psychological Desire
An important instrument that drives active listening and generates a significant proportion of intuitive impulses is the character’s ‘need’. This ‘need’ replicates the unconscious psychological desire of the character – it helps create the image that the character has both a conscious and unconscious thought processes. It is a foundation element of ‘realism’ in performance. Other elements such as good levels of relaxation can help fake a performance outcome that may look quite realistic but these sorts of devices have all the attendant risks of any sort of cheating – i.e. a fairly high chance of being unmasked.

The creation of a psychological desire or unconscious mind for the character is a major element in producing and controlling a complex and real character. (FOR MORE ON BEING REAL CLICK HERE)

The “Need”
This labelling of the character’s unconscious desire is The Rehearsal Room’s way of simplifying an often-confusing task. “Need” is elsewhere labelled variously an “intention”, an “action”, an “objective” or the “sub-text” – but these labels are confusing because universally they don’t succeed in keeping the elements of conscious and unconscious thought separate. Actors who use these traditional labels constantly cross over between conscious and unconscious thought processes without realizing they are doing so.

RR DEFINITION: “Need” in The Rehearsal Room context is hidden psychological desire.

The Steps in the Process
The Rehearsal Room’s view of process, in simplistic terms is … if the actor is actively listening and responding in a complex way to the impulses generated by the events of the moment, then the performance will be believable. (FOR MORE ON LISTENING CLICK HERE)

First Things First
It is important to first identify the story or text. If the actor doesn’t have a clear view of the text how can they choose a sub-text that is separate from it? It is important that the sub-text and text are different. If they are the same then the actor won’t be doing two things at once.

Choosing an appropriate and functional method of labeling this ‘need’ is also an important part of The Rehearsal Room process. The most functional labels are the ones that connect most directly to the actor’s own unconscious perceptions. They are the ones that will produce the greatest unconscious responses in the actor.

Selecting a ‘Need’
When selecting a ‘need’ for a character using Constantine Stanislavski’s phrase “I wish to ……… you”, as a guide, is a good way of making sure that the choice is active and simple. Simple choices are best as they are easy to implement. Easy implementation invites a higher likelihood of a successful outcome.

The ‘need’ must be active - there is no point in picking one if it is inactive, as it won’t do anything.

(There is a list of active verbs on The Rehearsal Room website. It is recommended that actors stick to that list as they are highly active and function easily in an unconscious/sub-conscious way. CLICK HERE FOR A LIST OF ACTIVE LABELS)

Checking Functionality
When you have selected a need for your character the following check list will provide guidance as to how functional that choice will be.

If the “need” is ….

A verb …… it will be active
Externally focused …… it will be readable to the audience
Difficult to achieve …… it will be dramatic

Separate from the text ….
it will generate complexity
O.K. for you ……
it will be playable.


This is the fundamental tool that enables quick and effective choice of sub-text. It is a uniquely simple identification of all the essential ingredients of Stanislavski process.

Actors should be able to check the list quickly. An actor who can’t check out these fundamental elements extremely rapidly will tend not to use this checklist. Failing to use the checklist enormously increases the chance of making an ineffective choice. It is therefore essential to learn this and practice using it. For the practiced actor it takes about 10 seconds or less to check this list. It is only a very small effort to significantly increase the chances of a very useful rehearsal or successful performance.

Beware Perfection
We all desire to be good at what we do and this breeds a pursuit of perfection. Experience at The Rehearsal Room and in life constantly demonstrates that chasing perfection is a destructive waste of time. Being able to consistently do the job is a much more worthwhile goal. An actor who can be consistently good (i.e. do the job) will sometimes be brilliant. The actor who constantly strives for brilliance will be terrible more often than they will be good.

So, let’s forget about perfection and make competence our goal.

A Guarantee of Success??
The Rehearsal Room checklist doesn’t guarantee an effective outcome but it will significantly increase the possibility of one. A successful outcome hinges on a good balance of acting process and rehearsal process. Theory will never answer all the questions. That’s why rehearsal is essential. The value of practical theory is that it –
• makes rehearsals efficient and effective;
• it makes change easy;
• it makes communication simple and clear
• it makes complexity of character and clarity of story readily achievable.

The Rehearsal Room checklist works. Use it.

A Little Clarification
The essential concepts relating to “need” are …

1. A “need” is something the actor “knows” rather than “shows”.
2. It is not important that the actor achieve fulfillment of the character’s “need” but rather that the actor understands how much and why the character wants to have this desire fulfilled. i.e. it is about “wanting” and “needing” not achieving.
3. An actor must be comfortable about giving himself/herself “permission” to “own” the character’s “need”.
4. “Need” should always be focused on a person and not an object.
5. It is many times more functional to have a “need” in place for a character who is in the scene than it is to have a “need” for someone who isn’t in the scene.
6. If there is more than one other person in the scene then mostly it is best to only have a “need” in place for one of the people in the scene. This is obviously the most important person for your character at this time. (THIS IS NOT ALWAYS THE PERSON WITH WHOM THE CHARACTER IS CONVERSING)
7. Never have a “need” that is about you. It must always be for someone else.

“Permission”, “ownership” and “trust” are important concepts for an actor to understand.
Out of these ingredients a well-placed confidence can emerge. “Confidence” is also an important ingredient of performance.

It is obviously important that the sub-text verb be separate from the text. This is one of the cornerstones of character complexity. For this to be achievable it is essential that the first element an actor should identify is the STORY. The story is what the director and the producer have hired the actor to deliver. It is of primary importance. Never underestimate the importance of the story.

The second step is to select a “NEED” for the character to carry while they experience and deal with the events and difficulties generated by the story.

Another foundation element of the performance process is the ability to play “moments of surprise”. The Rehearsal Room definition of surprise (based on Stanislavski’s wonderful concepts) is –

“A surprise is anything that interrupts the character’s need”.

This means that “need” doesn't function while the surprise is happening. A new “need” may result from experiencing a major surprise.

Stanislavski says that surprises have four phases –

  • the event phase;
  • the identification phase;
  • the assessment phase - is it 'good for me' or 'bad for me' (which is the moment of fight or flight)
  • and the final phase, where the choice to either return to the interrupted “need” is made (this is the most likely of outcomes) or a new “need” is now required.

If a surprise doesn’t have four phases it won’t be real.

Centre of Gravity
The Rehearsal Room believes that all moments of surprise are connected in some instinctive way to our Centre of Gravity. Centre of Gravity should be an inherent part of every moment of surprise.

Surprises are of GREAT VALUE for the story. They are also moments of great trust for the actor and moments of great reward for the audience.

Surprises are generated by unexpected difficulties. Difficulty is the most active ingredient that drives story forward. The more surprises in a scene the more difficulties and therefore the more drama.

Any time you are excited by a good dramatic scene it will mostly have a surprise a line for the characters.

Surprises also come out of the character’s conscious expectations being interrupted. Everything we do, whether it is action or conversation based has an expectation attached to it – otherwise we wouldn’t do it. When that expectation isn’t met in someway we are surprised.

Helping Surprises Work
In life the character doesn’t know what is going to happen next so, they are constantly surprised. However, the actor is in possession of a lot of information about what the future holds and this provides a significant challenge for the actor. As soon as the actor knows what is going to happen the first phase of the next surprise won’t exist. The first phase is the moment where the character’s expectation is interrupted and the loss of that interruption tends to reveal the actor rather than the character. ‘Pre-knowledge’ or ‘anticipation’ is instant death to the believability of any moment of surprise.

The character’s “need” may be coloured in different ways. The colour of a “need” often changes after a moment of surprise.

The colour is the way that the character is going about pursuing their “need”.

A character might be doing this “happily”, “gloomily”, “sadly”, “intelligently”, “manipulatively”, “dominantly”, “flirtatiously”, “energetically”, “cheekily”, “playfully” etc. It is very confusing if colours are labelled as verbs they are best labelled as an adverb and some actors like using colours. The colour is also the way the character wishes to be perceived by the world.

The element The Rehearsal Room calls ‘colour’ is much the same, would be called an ‘action’ by Stanislavski purists. In their vocabulary actions are the way you go about getting your intention or your objective. In Rehearsal Room vocabulary it’s the way you pursue or go about getting your ‘need’. But they are correct in that it is also the way we pursue our conversation goals or the story. We show colours. They are the conscious way we want to be perceived by the world. Thus they are conscious choices and therefore they can be referred to in the text. The writer may have indicated that your character is angry or happy and so you can go about pursing your ‘need’ or your conversation angrily or happily.

Staying Free
The Stanislavski purists label actions as verbs and they sometimes will have a different one on each line. This is too restrictive and a very impractical approach. It gives the actor too much to remember. Labelling them as adverbs (that’s the word that describes how we go about a verb) or as colours is many times more productive. Keeping labels simple and active leaves a large part of the actor’s conscious brain free to listen.

Listening is the crucial skill that allows characters to freely interact in a believable and spontaneous way.

Rehearsal Room Fundamentals
These are the fundamentals of Rehearsal Room process. They have evolved this way because of

  • the many years spent observing auditioning actor’s who can do a fantastic job at using emotional memory and getting in touch with their feelings BUT CAN’T DELIVER A BELIEVABLE STORY.
  • The Rehearsal Room process developed this way because of years of auditioning so many actors who have done an enormous amount of preparation on the character’s prehistory BUT COULDN’T CHANGE QUICKLY.
  • These principles have become a priority because for so many actors careful and intelligent preparation meant that they couldn’t possibly OPENLY LISTEN OR PLAY TRUTHFUL SURPRISES BECAUSE THEY ALWAYS KNEW WHAT THEY WERE GOING TO DO NEXT. SUCH AN APPROACH ALWAYS LOOKS LIKE ‘ACTING’.

American actor Spencer Tracey’s advice to a young actor was simply, “Never let them catch you acting.” As soon as the audience detects any elements of ‘acting’, believability evaporates. Perhaps the label of ‘actor’ is misleading in itself. Maybe we should think of the task as ‘inter-acting’ instead.

Rehearsal Room process is targeted at producing actors who –

  • trust themselves to listen openly all the time;
  • who genuinely don’t know the future and so always make real choices;
  • who keep the audience on the edge of their seats because they consistently play fantastic moments of surprise;
  • who can take direction, make big changes and be instantly believable AND …
  • who always consistently deliver the story because that’s what they have been hired to do.




Finally – relax, trust and enjoy.

Understanding breeds confidence – confidence breeds trust – trust breeds ownership – ownership allows the intuitive impulses to work freely.

Travel well and keep listening.


First published May 2003; updated January 07 and this version was added in April 2009.

Copyright © The Rehearsal Room 2003. All rights Reserved.

If you are interested to see the changes,
CLICK here for the previous draft






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