The French word for rehearsal is répétition. I’m a fan of most things French, but I’m not crazy about that word. To me, “repeating” means doing the same thing over and over again without change, like playing scales on the viola when I was a kid, or doing endless tendus in ballet class: “five, six, seven, eight, turn and again!”
I prefer the English word rehearsal, which means the same thing but has an interesting twist in its origins. I found this entry in the Online Etymology Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com :
rehearse (v.) c.1300, “to give an account of,” from Anglo-French rehearser, Old French rehercier “to go over again, repeat,” literally “to rake over,” from re- “again” (see re-) + hercier “to rake, harrow”. Meaning “to say over again” is from mid-14c.; sense of “practice a play, part, etc.” is from 1570s.
“To rake over.” The image of rehearsing as “raking or harrowing” pleases me. In rehearsal we are going over the soil of a play with all the tools we have — analyzing the script, saying the words aloud, getting on our feet to find a physical shape for each scene. With each pass of the metaphorical rake or hoe, we turn up something new. Maybe we find rich soil, maybe a rock or weed that needs to be tossed aside. This is what we do again and again: we turn the soil, we plant the seeds, we tend the garden.
There is a time for simple drill-like repetition, but it comes later, when we’ve found what works and we’re ready to learn it in our bones. Then we must practice each scene or moment as many times as it takes to make it utterly natural, as if it grew of its own accord.
First, though, we need to dig. And rake, and harrow. We need to play in the dirt.