In French, the word for rehearsal is répétition. This is logical. Much of a rehearsal is spent crafting, repeating, and reviewing a series of words, actions, or notes. However, it is my experience that unlike in the music or dance worlds, there is a fear of repetition in the theatre.

I’ll come right out with it – I am deeply repephobic. It is an anxiety that I am grappling with, because it is limiting rather than aiding my artistry. I can pinpoint the day my fear of repetition began. I was probably nine or ten and my acting teacher at the time turned to me. “Sylvie,” she said. “Every time you voice a line of dramatic text, it is the first time those words are spoken. As the audience, we don’t want to know that you are repeating lines you memorized. We want you to figure out what to say as you go along.” I took her advice to heart. I wanted to be a believable actor. I would deliver my lines from a place of spontaneity and discovery.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I think my acting teacher or my ten-year-old self are entirely off base. She was asking me to live in the moment and respond to the situation I found myself in, rather than merely regurgitate lines. My gut instinct to seek freedom in my work was similarly on point.

The problem is that repetition is inherent to the act of being in a play. On stage, I am always saying something that I have memorized and practiced. To pretend otherwise would be dishonest. That doesn’t mean that the play or my delivery is going to be the same every night. That doesn’t mean that I cannot respond in the moment or be surprised by the unfolding of the events. The story is not going to lose its dynamism or become stale. It is simply important to acknowledge that the independent variable(s) in a performance context, the factor(s) that makes a play fresh and new, is not the text. The text is a constant.

Furthermore, repetition is part of day to day life, and can constitute very honest and telling responses. Let’s look at a mundane example:

Say I am at the Columbus Circle entrance to Central Park waiting for a friend to join me on a walk. A young man approaches and tries to strike up a conversation. I’m not in the mood and say to him, “I’m not interested. Sorry.” For the sake of this example we will assume the young man takes the cue, walking away and not bothering me again. This encounter with the young man has now been added to my physical and emotional memory. So, let’s say, two weeks later I am at a different entrance to Central Park, waiting for a different friend, and a different young man approaches me. It is likely that I will respond in the exact same manner. I will look directly at this new young man and repeat, “I’m not interested. Sorry.”

In a theatrical context I can guarantee you I would have spent many hours stressing about and plotting these moments. How will I respond differently to these two men? Am I secretly attracted to one and repulsed by the other? What clues are there in the text to help me understand how the given circumstances differ in these two, seemingly similar, situations? I would be hell bent on being interesting, on making fascinating choices.

In real life, I would never make such a distinction and I would do my best to be as boring as possible. Interesting? I’m trying to deter these men, not attract them! The two situations would appear identical to my brain. Central Park. Man. Unwanted attention. I would deal with these two fellows as if they were cut from the same cloth. In fact, I would probably go so far as to complain to my friend (the one meeting me at the park) that all men, not just these two young chaps, have no respect for women, seem to think they can approach me at any time with unwanted advances, and are generally oblivious to their own privilege. Technically speaking, no the situations were not identical, but my brain, like most human brains, is on the lookout for patterns it can identify. My brain is searching for clues in every interaction I have, that reinforce my values, my world view, and my actions. With this in mind, my identical responses to the two young men do not reflect an underlying dishonesty in my character or insincerity in my actions. Rather, my repetition of “I’m not interested. Sorry,” reflects my most instinctual and authentic self.  

I also want to draw attention to the fact that repetition in my daily life is not only reserved for trivial or seemingly straightforward encounters. I often find that difficult personal stories are the tales which I have practiced telling the most often. Repetition, memorization, and often rote delivery allow me to feel more controlled and less vulnerable when I open up to another person or a group. When my mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer I told my friends:

Things are complicated right now. My mother was just diagnosed with breast cancer. She’s doing okay, her prognosis is good, but it’s still stressful. I’m just glad I can be here for her.

I told my mentors:

Things are complicated right now. My mother was just diagnosed with breast cancer. She’s doing okay, her prognosis is good, but it’s still stressful. I’m just glad I can be here for her.

And, I told my colleagues:

Things are complicated right now. My mother was just diagnosed with breast cancer. She’s doing okay, her prognosis is good, but it’s still stressful. I’m just glad I can be here for her.

My friends, mentors, and colleagues knew the situation was not so simple. I could have given copious details about the struggles of going to chemo with my mother or the stress I felt taking care of her. But honestly, such a description would have been too draining for me to voice. My situation and mental state was best supported and represented by my simple, repetitive, and memorized response.

From the mundane to the extraordinary - repetition is a facet of all my daily interactions and experiences. I assert myself using repetition. I reveal myself using repetition. I also protect myself using repetition. Repetition is part of what makes me complex.

Repetition is also a gift. When I repeat a story or line, verbatim, I give myself the opportunity to become aware of the differences in my person and life. I am able to see how my present moment differs from my past. How my current circumstances either drastically or minutely change how I feel inside, how I perceive the world, and how I internally relate to a story I know very well. Repeating myself allows me to reflect and grow.

If I value repetition so highly in my day to day life and if I see repetition as a key element of human communication, why do I fear repeating myself onstage? Simply put, for no good reason. But, to give myself some credit, repetition is only as valuable to me as I am aware of it. If I am simply waiting for my cue and speaking my lines, then my repetition isn’t really helping me. However, if I am open of body and mind when I act, then every repetition, every rehearsal presents an opportunity for me to connect with my text - for my text to become a part of who I am and how I respond to a given situation or provocation. Repetition in a rehearsal and performance allows me to build a real, rather than, pretend memory. It gives me relational context, emotional context, and physical context for my interactions and experiences onstage. Repetition gives me complexity and it allows me to see the minute differences between my life onstage today and yesterday. Repetition presents the possibility of difference, of dynamism, and of transformation. Repetition gives me a foundation from which I can reflect, act, and grow.

As I work to embrace, rather than fear, repetition in my acting, I have had to spend some time reacting onstage or making choices that feel deliberately rote and calculated. Essentially, I have engaged in mechanical repetition. I am lucky that part of my artistic practice involves training and playing with other artists. In these spaces, where performance, money, or product, is not the end goal, I feel free to stretch myself by “acting poorly.”

I am discovering that by giving myself permission to repeat, to be the same, to be unoriginal, to have no new or blindingly brilliant ideas, I have opened up the possibility that those exciting choices, reactions, and ideas will come to me in the moment, rather than as a product of planning. By embracing repetition, I have embraced infinity. I have begun to authentically achieve the goals I set as a young actor - to live in the moment onstage and to work with spontaneity and freedom.

Before you go…my repephobia research led me to this video. I enjoyed it, so if you have a free moment, I’d give it a watch!