What is “marking,” and when is it all right to do it?
I remember early in my career as a musical theatre actor/singer/dancer, a choreographer jokingly reminded us to go “full out” in a run through of a song they had just staged, by exclaiming, “Mark’s a boy’s name, not a way to work!”
They were right. Mostly.
What does it mean “to mark” in rehearsal? What is “marking?” When is it alright “to mark” something? When should you definitely not “mark?”
“Marking” means to practice or run something in rehearsal at less than full energy, full voice, full detail, and/or full commitment. In other words, “to mark” means to execute the rehearsal at less than your “full out” performance level.
In rehearsal, if you are going to be running a musical number several times that is long, complicated, and exhausting, you may be invited “to mark” the number for some of the run-throughs, to not drain your stores of energy, to reserve some amount of your energy for delivering it “full out” later for the final run, or for the upcoming performance.
If you’re doing choreography that involves partnering (dancing with and possibly lifting or being lifted by a dance partner), the choreographer, or whomever is running the rehearsal, will determine for you when you are to do the partnering “full out,” and when you are “to mark” the partnering.
If you’re in an extremely long rehearsal process, or perhaps in your 8th hour of that day’s rehearsal, you may be invited “to mark” as needed, to protect yourself, to avoid overuse or physical injury.
“Marking” also applies to your voice. If in a long rehearsal session, your musical director or vocal team may invite you “to mark” the high notes, or do the normally fortissimo section pianissimo. Marking the vocals may help you protect your voice from fatigue and overuse, enabling you to deliver at full performance level when it is needed.
If you are rehearsing a scene, there may be times in the rehearsal process that your director finds it beneficial to “mark” certain moments of staging or blocking. With theatrical intimacy, the director or intimacy director may invite you to use “place holders” for marking intimacy choreography; this is frequently done with a high five or a fist bump. If the scene contains fight choreography, that, too, may be marked in order to not fully tax the performers each and every time the scene is rehearsed, or while the fight director or fight captain is away or unavailable.
You may also be invited to “mark” in a scene for other reasons. If the scene contains extreme emotions, for example, and the stage manager or director simply needs to run the scene in order to check blocking, lighting, or other technical aspects, you may invited to “mark” the scene.
Do you notice what all these examples have in common?
In each one, you, as the performer, are being invited to mark.
This is an important distinction. The performer is not deciding when to mark; the members of the creative team are offering the performer the opportunity to mark, if needed. Of course, as a performer, you know your body and your instrument better than anyone, and if you need to, you may ask to mark. As we move more and more toward “consent based” practices in theatre, you may start noticing creatives asking, “How would you feel about doing it again, ‘full out?’” which gives the performer the right to express their boundaries, and allows for “No,” to be as legitimate as “Yes.”
But deciding to mark on your own can be problematic for several reasons.
First of all, we get good at what we practice. If you regularly rehearse at less than performance level, you are going to get good at performing at that lower level, with low energy, lacking in details, or vocally soft and unsupported. None of these are going to help you in performance, when being “full out” needs to be familiar, comfortable, solid, and confident. You may also find yourself missing the stamina needed to successfully execute the entirety of the performance, when suddenly it is time to be “full out,” and you’ve not practiced that way! You build that stamina by practicing “full out” in your rehearsals. If you want to get good at performing “full out,” you must rehearse “full out.”
Secondly, deciding to mark on your own, whenever you wish, can cause others to perceive you and your efforts as not committed, low energy, possibly even lazy. While this may seem unfair, sadly, the way you do one thing is how you are perceived to do all things.
Allow me to explain. Let’s imagine you are part of a company, rehearsing a musical, in a studio, and you are regularly marking through the material. One of the many producers of the musical, someone you have yet to meet, happens to be in the building for a meeting and they stick their head into the window of the studio to watch a few minutes of rehearsal. You are in there, marking the entire section that they see, with low energy and commitment compared to other company members who are bringing “full out” energy, and the producer notices this. What impression have you most likely made on that producer?
Inside the rehearsal studio, too, if you regularly “mark” all the material, the directors and choreographer may also perceive your work in a less than desirable manner. Plus, they may have no idea what they will get from you when in performance you are finally “full out,” because they have never seen it in rehearsal!
That brings me to the third reason deciding to mark on your own can be problematic: it impacts your fellow performers. When you mark while your castmates are doing the same song, dance, scene, or show “full out” with you, they are not getting to “play off of” the “full out” version of the performance you are planning and hoping to deliver. They cannot do their work in rehearsal, because you are not doing yours. Delivering “full out” commitment in the rehearsal room shows your castmates what to expect, what they can work with, and it impacts what they in turn, create and bring. Withholding your performance level efforts stalls their process, delaying them from practicing their performance level efforts.
When is marking alright? When you know that you are near overuse and injury; when, if you did the material “full out” again, it would be unsafe. Do not wait until the damage is done! You know your body and your instrument. Ask to mark when you have to in order to avoid injury or self-harm. Ideally, this would be at the end of a rehearsal session, after significant, consistent high energy effort has already been made to execute the material at performance level. It is alright to ask to mark if you have already shown and practiced at length what you plan to bring to the performance. In other words, after you have earned it.
In conclusion, “marking” can help keep you and your instrument safe and healthy, but it should be used sparingly, and at the invitation of your creative team, or by your request for your safety or self-preservation only after it has been earned: when you have already adequately practiced delivering your material consistently “full out” at performance level, for the directors, creatives, and for your castmates.