Why is the first day of rehearsals so terrifying for me?

It’s the one point in the entire rehearsal process that I wish I didn’t have to go through. Give me the nerves of opening night any day. At least then you have an idea of what is going to happen to you. The play is hopefully cast in stone: you know your moves, your lines. And there is a troupe of actors you have come to know pretty well, reflecting your terror back at you. You are all in the same boat.

The Welcome pack for Hamlet with a bottle of water and two plastic forks
The RSC Welcome pack
© RSC – Image Licensing

First day of rehearsals feels like the ship is sinking. There is no guide for what is about to happen to you, you have a map, of sorts, clutched in your tight sweaty hands called 'The Script' but other than that, the waves beckon and the sharks are circling. And slowly you are being eaten up by so many different emotions and thoughts and questions: ‘I am finally here!!!’ (Elation) ‘Am I dreaming?’ (Disbelief) And what if I say something stupid? (Fear) ‘I shouldn’t really be here!’ (BIG FEAR) ‘Everyone is going to hate me’ (Ridiculous) ‘I can't act!’ (Terror) And you know your fellow actors are in the same boat, but it feels like you are alone in a plastic dinghy while those hungry sharks circle.

I am an introvert and slightly paranoid in time keeping, so I left my bed and breakfast way too early. You have to when you are not from London! I scoped out where the rehearsal rooms were before the sun had properly risen, relieved that I had found it without too much trauma. As it was so early I decided to find a place to have a coffee as there was no chance of keeping breakfast down. I eventually went upstairs to the top rehearsal room a full hour before the call. In the rehearsal room was me and a prompt copy of Hamlet.

I set my bag down in a corner of the room and nerves galvanised me to that one metre square surface area. I could have ventured out but no Hercules was going to move me far from it. It was my safety zone. My dinghy.

People trickled in slowly then it became a roar and suddenly the room was full. A sea of creative people brought together by the RSC and circumstance. The noise was deafening. It’s the one thing I remember about that first day. The beautiful noise of excitement and fear and there I was adding to it by talking too loudly, gesturing wildly with a manic grin of happiness on my face - still in my metre square of rehearsal room floor though.

The Hamlet actors getting to know each other in the first day in their rehearsal room
The cast of Hamlet in their rehearsal room on the first day
© RSC – Image Licensing

Everyone sat in a large circle and introduced themselves by saying their name and what show they were in. Each time a person in Hamlet said their name, I wondered what it would be like working with them.

There was a surreal moment when Greg Doran told the Hamlet and Midsummer Night’s Dream casts that we were the RSC. For this year. You don’t think of it like that when you are being consumed by all those first day of rehearsal fears. I am the RSC. For this year at least. And you say over and over to yourself: MAKE THE MOST OF IT!

After the speeches and the coffee break there came the moment when both casts split up and we were ready to begin our rehearsal process with our director, Simon Godwin. A bunch of strangers in a room about to get to grips with one of the best plays ever written – Hamlet.

I don’t think any actor begins a rehearsal process with just one emotion. There is equal parts terror and excitement. Underneath that is the hope that this will stretch you, that you will have some degree of creative input, that you will matter and be part of the storytelling experience with your fellow actors. That we will work together to make something great. Better than great - something happy and personal to us. And something that the RSC can be proud of.

Looking around the room I saw so many open, excited faces. Also full of fear and trepidation like me. I didn’t have names to those faces yet. But I was going to be sharing a year of my life with these human beings. And the fear melted a little and I couldn’t wait to begin. Then we did.

The fear melting a little didn’t stop me hiding in the loos at lunch though.

Byron Mondahl

Byron Mondahl

Byron Mondahl is an actor who enjoys thinking about and writing about the elusive art of acting. He is from South Africa where he first began acting but has lived in the UK since 2005 when he studied at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. He has taught English in Taiwan, and also lost six stone and transformed his life for the better. Follow him on Twitter @ByronMondahl

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