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It may consist of nothing more than faded

It may consist of nothing more than faded linoleum, rickety tables, and mismatched chairs, but the rehearsal room is still considered a privileged place of mysteries and miracles. After all, it is where actors perform a most personal and often soul-baring kind of work. It is also—due to the demands of budgets and schedules—a place that needs to be incredibly productive and efficient.

But increasingly, theatres are throwing open the doors to these sacred spaces, allowing students, apprentices, and even enthusiastic donors and subscribers observe this intimate labor. One of the most ambitious of these programs is Steppenwolf Theatre Company's First Look Repertory of New Work, which this year invited 101 trustees and subscribers to observe the development and rehearsal of three new plays. For Ed Sobel, the company's director of new play development, the program is a response to recent calls—from former Theatre Communications Group executive director Ben Cameron, among others—for "greater transparency" in the work that theatres do.

"We wanted to create a pool of theatregoers who were educated about the new-play process," says Sobel. "In doing so, we give them a deeper, richer, and more interesting experience in the theatre."

First Look is in its second year and, according to David Hawkanson, Steppenwolf's executive director, it reflects the growing importance of new plays to the company's mission. In demystifying the development process, Hawkanson hopes to create enlightened donors as well as savvier audiences. "The more they're engaged, the more they understand and the more they will support it, as an audience member or as a contributor," he says.

Here's how it works: Steppenwolf selects three plays it considers ripe for development, then builds a short repertory season around them, giving each a full (though small-scale) production and eight performances. The theatre also offers a group of donors and longtime subscribers the chance to follow the plays on their journey to the stage. Last year the program was limited to around 30 observers, but, impressed by the idea's success, Steppenwolf expanded the number to 101 this year, informally modifying the program's name to First Look 101. Participants pay $60, and all available slots sold out in a matter of days.

The 101ers, as they are called, do not get carte blanche access. But they do get a substantial taste of the rehearsal process during its three and a half weeks. They start by attending a read-through of the script, and then are allowed into designated rehearsals (including technical rehearsals), where they observe whatever the actors happen to be working on at that moment. They can stay with one play or move between them. And they receive tickets for the performance of their choice.

A casual survey among theatre professionals about the idea of "civilians" in rehearsals yielded responses that ranged from "interesting" to "horrifying"; even Hawkanson admits to being "very nervous in the beginning." But the idea is not new. Eager to create a similar "transparency" for audiences, other theatres have issued similar invitations to donors and loyal patrons.

In its Page to Stage program, for example, Actors Theatre of Louisville gives major donors access to rehearsals for its annual Humana Festival of New American Plays. At the Cleveland Play House, a project called Play Team allows "civilians" into first rehearsal presentations, designer run-throughs, and a tech rehearsal, along with a dinner with the cast and director. Many small theatres—and development houses like Minneapolis' Playwrights' Center—open their rehearsals to members and supporters.

But in terms of scale and concept, the idea is taking a big step forward at Steppenwolf. Trish Pugh Jones, director of Page to Stage, admits that about a dozen patrons actively participate at ATL, spread out over four or five plays. By contrast, a First Look rehearsal might have 20 or 30 observers dropping in for a couple of hours.

"It's not as terrifying as you might think," says Kate Fodor, whose play 100 Saints You Should Know is part of this year's First Look program. "They do a lot of prep work with the 101ers. And they did a lot of prep work with us to fill us in on the prep work they did with the 101ers. So the audience knows what it's there for, and we feel confident they know what it's all about." Indeed, Steppenwolf takes great care to provide its observers with information and to keep an open dialogue throughout the process. The 101ers meet several times with Sobel and other Steppenwolf staff to talk about what they are seeing and to discuss their reaction to the plays. As Hawkanson says, "It's structured like a curriculum."

As for results, Hawkanson's nervousness appears unwarranted. Dexter Bullard, director of Marisa Wegrzyn's The Butcher of Baraboo, another play on this year's roster, says observers are similar to "imbedded journalists"—people who take things in yet remain apart from the process. "It actually felt really exciting," he says. "It's clear that these people are ready for whatever happens."

Annabel Armour, who plays a woman with a fondness for meat cleavers in Wegrzyn's play, is back this year for her second First Look repertory. She recalls the odd sensation of seeing "an audience" at a first rehearsal: "I thought, 'Oh, my God, how do you not perform for them?' The rehearsal process is about exploration, and I can feel my performance adrenaline kick in. But the people in charge are very adamant that the 101ers understand their role: They are flies on the wall. And we understand that our role is to ignore them. It feels a little rude in the beginning, but you get used to it."

Invisibility can only go so far, however. Observers are going to react to a scene just like an audience at a performance does, be it with laughter, attention, or inattention. Armour finds that reaction valuable. "It's great to have them there because you get their responses," she says. "You get immediate feedback."

As a playwright, Fodor finds the presence of observers particularly valuable—a bridge of sorts between rehearsal and performance. "I thought it was going to be very scary," she says. "But having these people in the room has really helped me. It's like a low-pressure way of feeling what it's like to have living, breathing people hearing some of these lines."

Few will deny that observers complicate the process. During rehearsals, Fodor would encounter people outside the rehearsal room—in hallways or even bathrooms. "For me those are almost the most interesting conversations," she notes. "Even if people are just asking questions about your play, you can tell what caught their fancy, or confused them, and what didn't. It's really helpful information, but you also have to know how to filter it and keep it from influencing you when you're still feeling things out. It's both a blessing and a challenge."

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