'An exercise' is just a label for 'doing'
I was lucky enough to work with a wonderful director, Missy Hernandez, and a talented actress, Angela Washell, on a directing 'exercise' for Missy's Columbia University Film MFA. Missy's mission was to take a pre-written scene and materialize it in a cozy NYC apartment, with a DSLR and minimum crew. The thing that struck me as interesting is that this was an 'exercise,' but we were all doing the same work we'd be doing on any film set. So what differentiates a filmmaking 'exercise' from actual filmmaking? In my opinion, nothing.
The dictionary definition of 'exercise' is "the use or application of a faculty, right, or process." To me, that sounds more like the definition for 'living.' Nothing is an exercise... or, everything is an exercise. Both are probably right since we're always doing everything for the first time - that's something that those involved in the arts are especially aware of. One might play the same piano sonata fourteen nights in a row, but each time one does it, it is a different experience than the ones before - the sonata is played for the first time in that incarnation, each time.
This awareness gave me both comfort and freedom that day. The freedom to live each moment as a discovery. We weren't practicing anything. We were living something. It allowed me to take in everything Missy was guiding me through, and to connect to this woman I had just met with more intimacy than I've offered people I've known for years (another challenge actors face on such one-day shoots). As is always when I get the chance to do what I love, this was a good day!
Oh, and here's some of that experience, courtesy of Missy Hernandez.