I have started taking photos within seconds of arriving at a rehearsal. I have also read the play in advance and gone on to discuss scenes with the director. Every production is different.
Typically what I like to do is arrive several minutes before the start and check out the venue. I’m looking to identify the orientation of the stage — or maybe it’s to be a promenade performance. What will make a good background, what will be distracting, what will be well lit, where will be in shadow? Where can I walk, where’s off limits? Are there low beams, cables, scaffolding, bits of set or actors to be avoided? What’s on the floor? That’s an important one, especially as I tend to work in bare feet. I recently shot a dress rehearsal with a set made up of over two tonnes of soil. Footprints, bare or otherwise, weren’t welcome.
Moving around an auditorium with only stage lighting is vastly different to traversing it with the workers on. I check and plan the routes beforehand and make sure there are no bits and pieces of set, actors’ gear or resting actors in my way. If they are then I’ll move them.
What light levels can I expect (dim ones, usually)? How bright will it get? How dark? Any sudden lighting effects to anticipate, explosions, pyrotechnics, glowing braziers? A chat with the lighting director can be useful, especially if she can run through the board to demonstrate some of the more extreme lighting set-ups.
What of the action itself? This is where a chat with the director, AD or SM can be useful. Or, even better, observing an earlier rehearsal. Knowing in advance where a key sequence will unfold increases the chance of being in the optimal location for the best shot.