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Finding a way to be in the room

Theater education moves online

A production of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea at Nichols

Jerry Theresanathan, Nichols School


“Asking how much theater classwork is hands-on is like asking the milkman how much of his job involves milk! All of it!” says Chris Handley, Artistic Director of Alleyway Theatre and teacher of both directing and acting at SUNY Fredonia. “When the rumors first started that classes would move online, we started asking ourselves... how? How would it be possible? Even if it's just a discussion day, theater is this communal experience. I always say in my syllabi that attendance is so important because you have to be in the room. ‘You can't learn to act or direct from a book’ is my go-to statement. Well. Now this has flipped all of that on its head.”


Indeed. With all education online for the foreseeable future—or at least until the end of the current terms—teachers at all levels have been scrambling to implement lessons plans online. For some disciplines, theater among them, the hands-on nature of instruction has proven tricky. While Buffalo State College’s Anthony Chase says teaching Theater History online is a fairly straightforward switch, others are employing theatrical innovation to have the material translate. Idea sharing, a Facebook group called Theatre Teaching Online, and widely circulated professional resources are all helping bridge the gap between classroom and computer.


Josie DiVincenzo is teaching Acting Shakespeare to Niagara University students throiugh distance learning.


When schools closed, Josie DiVincenzo was teaching Acting Shakespeare to sophomore theater majors at Niagara University, a class in which ninety-five percent of the work is hands-on with students splitting up to do scene work or exploring exercises, often with DiVincenzo moving about the room to advise. “The lack of a person-to-person vibe in the room and the unspoken back and forth is missing; the theater experience is complete when this silent collaboration happens,” the Artie Award-winning (Dai) teaching artist says. “[One way we’re addressing that] is ti have them film their monologues in site specific venues—a corner in their basement, a backyard, park or forest, inside their car, etc.-and upload them to NU’s conferencing site, where we watch as a class and discuss via video chat.”


It sounds like a reasonable facsimile and DiVincenzo admits she thought it would be, but “even my own energy, the need to stand up, demonstrate, have them discover the words in conjunction with their physicality is a hard thing to try to translate over video chat,” she says. “It’s one thing to film a monologue and discuss choices, intention and emotion; it’s another to have us all in the same room physically free, finding new character choices and emotions. The physical exploration attached to text and character is more important than most folks would imagine—until it’s not there.”


 At Nichols School, Artie Award-winning teaching artist (Time Stands Still) Kristen Tripp Kelly is having the same online growing pains with the four theater classes she teaches. “The majority of what we do during the class period is on our feet,” she says. “The greatest challenge has been keeping students connected to one another. Theater is so obviously dependent on human interaction. I’m using Zoom for rehearsals, group feedback sessions, and sharing work with the ensemble. I’m also using the school’s Microsoft office suite—One Drive and Stream specifically—to create shared galleries of written and recorded performance work so that the class can see and respond to what their classmates are doing.”


For Handley, the challenge has creating flexibility that can accommodate all student situations—because no two are the same. “Our students come from all over and have gone back home to all sorts of varied situations, so the challenge is balance,’ he says. “I want to take advantage of all of this time to say, ‘Okay, watch these forty-seven versions of Streetcar and compare and contrast in a twenty-five-page paper.’ Well, that's just not practical. We can't require that everyone meets on a conference call at the same time each day because maybe they don't have Internet, or they have to babysit because their parent is an essential worker, or any number of things. So, it's been about creating a new flexible syllabus that allows for everyone's circumstances, still challenges the students creatively, and meets some sort of academic standards.”


This time has also been an opportunity to innovate the best out of a bad situation, these teachers are discovering. DiVincenzo has, in effect, combined her Acting Shakespeare class with another class she’s taught at NU: Acting for the Camera. “There is a lot to learn from each technique and I’ve never had a chance to combine the two,” she says. “With physicality is an important component in dealing with the language of Shakespeare, having to experience it in front of the lens where the distance of communication is much closer, it seemed the understanding of the words really hit actors in a more intimate way.”


Tripp Kelly says her most successful projects are those that acknowledge our unprecedented collective circumstances. “I’ve created observation exercises that ask kids to study and embody the people in their homes,” she offers as example. “I’ve created scene writing prompts that focus on obstacles that stand in the way of communication and connection. I’ve had students do Meisner repetition exercises with a partner via FaceTime to highlight the challenges of responding and reacting when you are not in the same space. Why pretend everything is normal when my students know everything is upside down?”


Chris Handley iteaches acting and directing at Fredonia. (Photo by Tall + Small) 


“I went back to the drawing board and thought, ‘okay, what things are the absolute requirements that these students need to learn before the end of the semester?’” Handley says. “And now how can we talk about those things based on materials that are already out there? I went looking for podcasts, articles, videos, interviews, old footage, things that everyone would be able to access. I've had to reset and really focus on what the core values are that I'm trying to get across. I discovered these great SDC podcasts and rediscovered the American Theatre Wing's Working in the Theatre series. There are so many great interviews and documentaries available all for free. All of the theaters around the country streaming their latest or archived shows has been great as well. We've never had this opportunity to see shows from major theaters without having to travel. They let the students see a variety of work that would previously have been unavailable to them.”


In addition to the challenges of providing education in this format, there are also logistical challenges to spending an entire day in a chair in front of a screen. For starters, “We’ve all had to learn a lot of new tech overnight,” says Tripp Kelley. “And all of this sitting has definitely taken a toll. I am spending so much time sitting in front of my computer fielding questions from students that would normally be handled face to face. I’ve had headaches and back pain. I’ve ordered some computer readers and an orthopedic cushion. I’m taking advantage of yoga instruction offered on-line through the dance teacher at school and exercises posted by the school’s athletic trainer. I really miss being able to move, talk and laugh with my students. Their energy is everything; it’s the fuel that gets me through the day.”


But as happens when we are forced into new ways of thinking, there have been delightful discoveries that could well survive beyond this crisis. “One student who had significant issues wrapping the language around his tongue while in front of folks found solace and freedom from fear in taping his monologue alone,” says DiVincenzo. “The result was beautiful, and I’d say once he gets back in front of a live audience, he’ll carry the confidence he found. Another student found the boldness in his character by taping in front of a public fountain. Folks were walking by and wondering what the heck he was doing. He had to do it anyway, and it fed into his character’s personality who doesn’t care what folks think. He ended up with a more exciting and informative experience, which [may not have happened] in front of a class with whom he feels comfortable.”


In Handley’s acting class, a big feature is “mock audition day” and Handley’s first thought was that his students would miss out on this. “But then I thought this could be such a great opportunity for the students to learn how to create a really great self-tape. It's practice for a real-world application, rather than just some busy work to fulfill a grade requirement. They're stepping up; sending some top notch auditions, and it's something I probably will add to the syllabus in the future.”


In so many ways, beyond the educational platform, this crisis has driven home how essential the arts are to our well-being. The creativity online has been almost overwhelming, and Tripp Kelley says this is really being driven home to her students in this new milieu. “Some have shared with me that they do their arts assignments first so they can get through the day. The arts help them process and express their feelings and help them to reflect on and learn from the experiences of others. It has made me double down on assigning projects that come back to the ensemble either through reflection or group critiques,” she says. “My advanced acting class was working on a student written and directed one-act festival that was postponed indefinitely when the school closed. I decided the first assignment should be related to that production. I asked the kids to record their lines individually and upload to our class drive for their partners and directors to respond to. The students came up with an infinitely better idea. They FaceTimed each other and rehearsed as teams. I went to the drive and opened up recordings that had actors’ faces in the middle, directors’ faces at the bottom, and a stage manager at the top. It brought me to tears. They get it! We can’t do this alone.”


“What’s surprising is the things that we can take away from all of this and use,” says Handley. “We're being forced to turn everything around and inside out in a totally new way. Some of it probably will be garbage but there will be gems. And the exciting thing is now being open to using those gems once we return to some sort of normalcy again.”



Donna Hoke is Spree's theater writer, editor of Spree Home, and a successful playwright. She is currently writing a play on her blog:  EPISODE 1: FINDING NEIL PATRICK HARRIS, A Play In Process


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