While it gets lost easily in the noise of the WIC, the truth is that the wedding is the ceremony, and the reception is the party that happens after the wedding. In a similar way, the rehearsal dinner has become a big deal in the American Wedding Machine, and the rehearsal itself is often an afterthought. But I have witnessed time and time again how much smoother ceremonies run when they’ve been rehearsed.
Now, there are obviously going to be times when you may not need a rehearsal. If the ceremony involves just you, your partner, and the officiant; you have a straightforward entrance and aisle; and music that doesn’t need super specific cues, you can probably skip it. Quaker ceremonies also generally don’t need rehearsals, and my guess is there are other religious traditions out there with ceremonies simple enough to not need rehearsing.
However, the typical American wedding ceremony is at least slightly more complicated, and this is where the rehearsal comes in. You probably need to rehearse your ceremony if you have people who are:
- Walking down an aisle
- Standing or sitting somewhere specific when they get there
- Possibly moving mid-ceremony
- Other people who may be standing somewhere specific half way through
- Walking back up the aisle at the end
None of this is necessarily particularly complicated, but doing a run-through of it before it happens in front of a crowd will make it seem natural and help avoid some common pitfalls.
Now, what doesn’t happen at a wedding rehearsal is a full read-through of the entire ceremony. If you want to do this, you certainly should do it with your partner, your officiant, and anyone else who’s speaking (and, regardless, you should all practice your parts out loud individually). But you shouldn’t read through every word of the ceremony at the rehearsal where you have a decent-sized audience of people who are going to hear it all again the next day (efficiency and protecting the emotional impact of actually hearing the ceremony and your vows out loud are the reasons for that). So what exactly are rehearsals for? Choreography and blocking.
When I say choreography, I don’t mean dance. What I mean is “a bunch of people have to move from one place to another smoothly,” which mainly comes into play doing the processional (entrance) and recessional (exit), or, as a client of mine called them “the cessionals.” The aisle walk is probably pretty (literally) straightforward for most people, but the things you need to cover when rehearsing it are:
- Order of Procession: I’ve discovered many people don’t think about this before the rehearsal. So—do you want both partners to process, or one to start at the front? Should your officiant process? If neither of you are being escorted by your parents, should they process on their own? If you have a wedding party, what order do you want them to go in? There’s no wrong answer to any of these, but you have to make a decision.
- Pace of the Walk: Please, please, don’t do “left, together, right, together.” It looks…silly. A nice, normal, walk—in time to the music—is perfect, and something everyone should be able to do without thinking about too hard.
- Spacing Between People: If you only have four sets of people processing, you may want to space them out so that you can get more of your processional music in there. If you have eighteen people processing, you’re probably going to have to put them fairly close together if you want them all to get to the front before the song ends. Plan accordingly.
- Order of Recession: Often this is slightly different. The couple recess together first, followed by wedding party, often in pairs, and the officiant. Parents, who are generally sitting on the aisle in the front row, often recess next, followed by the rest of the guests.
Now, let’s move on to blocking: where people are positioned (and repositioned) during the ceremony itself. Some things to think about:
- Where Parents Sit: I always have parents sit on the first row aisle, which is standard, but—here’s my non-standard trick—on the opposite side of the aisle from their child. If they’re on the same side, they’re looking at the back of your head the whole time, if they’re on the opposite side, they’ll be able to see your face.
- Wedding Party: You ideally want them to be close to the couple, but not too close, and evenly and symmetrically spaced. Wedding party members on the left should have the same distance between them as those on the right, and be in the same general shape: straight line, diagonal line, curved line, whatever makes sense in your ceremony space.
- Couple: At rehearsals, I do a lot of yelling, “Pretend that you like each other!” from the back, because people have a natural inclination to stand with enough space between them that their officiant has plenty of space. Nope. I suggest holding hands if it feels natural to you, or just standing close enough to each other that you can easily look into each other’s eyes. Related: remember to look at each other, especially during vows, and not your officiant!
- Readers/Readings: Blocking for these people is going to be dependent on your microphone situation (how many you have, if any). If you have two mics (one for the officiant and one for the readers) then the readers should be in front and to the side (I usually put them stage left) of the couple. If there’s only one mic, I usually suggest both members of the couple move to one side (for ease, toward the person who has a dress with a train on it, if applicable) and swivel slightly to face the reader. It is definitely appropriate for the couple to look at the reader while the reading is happening!
- Officiant: Should be standing behind the couple, centered, but should make sure to take a big step to the side for the first kiss, so as to avoid any awkward first-kiss photobombing.
This all, of course, comes with the caveat that everything should make sense when done at your particular ceremony site! Which brings us to my last important piece—as long as your ceremony site and setup are relatively straightforward, you can definitely rehearse off-site. I’ve done rehearsals in hotel rooms, backyards, hotel conference rooms, and, once, a parking lot. Anywhere you have enough space to create a faux-aisle and line up everyone who’s going to be at the front at the same time, you’re good. If you have a particularly unusual ceremony site, aisle arrangement, or entrance, it may make more sense to make the effort to rehearse at the actual site, but even then don’t panic if your venue isn’t available at a time that works for your wedding party. Most grownups can figure out how to adjust things to another site, especially if it’s only one day later.
And, a final note: I generally schedule an hour for rehearsals. Fifteen minutes to gather and explain things to people, thirty minutes for the first run through, and about ten minutes for the second run through, because at that point everyone gets it and you’re just proving it to them by having them practice.