Five Ways to Keep Digital Classroom Performances Vital

August 14, 2020

Randy Wyatt, author of Disruption: A Pandemic Decalogue and Chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance at Union College (Schenectady, NY), discusses his own experiences taking acting class online.

If we had a nickel for every time we as theatre teachers have heard the word "unprecedented" to describe our contexts lately, we sure would have a bunch of shiny nickels. It feels like our classrooms and rehearsal spaces have gone virtual overnight. We had to adjust very quickly to Zoom rooms and other digital formats without much of a guide for exactly how. 

This past spring, I was slated to teach a physical acting class. When we went online, I remember thinking "How in the world am I going to teach this course with any vitality?" At the beginning, I believed Zoom to be "anti-theatre." All of the visceral nature of theatre seemed absent, trapped in something that wasn't quite film nor theatre, but some electronic netherworld. My students admitted to having Zoom-fatigue after day long sessions in other disciplines. I sure knew how they felt, listening to meeting after meeting of people reminding each other to turn themselves off MUTE. I watched some performances streamed online, trying to keep myself from yawning. Why was some dramatic material, which was so energizing to see in person, just plain boring when watching it on a screen?

The class became a laboratory where my students and I tackled this question head on. I also got to devise some streaming work through the scenes that became my latest YouthPLAYS piece, Disruption: A Pandemic Decalogue. Through these playful labs and rehearsals, we were pushing ourselves towards honest responses, both comedic and dramatic, trying to keep our digital performances fresh and lively. We also explored new ways to learn skills such as physical choices, Viewpoints, improvisation and keeping character. Here are some of the variations we discovered that held keys to keeping distanced classroom laboratory work fresh, interesting and vital.

Keep It Real. Watching one recent Zoom-based performance of a play by an erstwhile company, I realized that I didn't believe a word of it. After it was done, I wrestled with why. I realized that digital contexts are photorealistic —like film, but still streaming, not entirely live but with no editing or film tricks. This play had a scene with two lovers kissing in a cave —but there they were, in separate bedrooms, unable to touch each other. So when they both leaned into the camera to smooch, it just seemed silly, not romantic. Not theatrical. 

Our lives are currently flooded with the digital, so why not lean into it? Maybe Alice and the Cheshire cat are talking over a Zoom call for their scene. Maybe your Shakespeare characters are commiserating over Facebook video chats from their bedrooms. Maybe you can build your own scenes from actual moments you all have experienced with these kinds of calls —muting, the frame freezing up, the awkwardness of ending a call. Leaning into the real can help the viewer focus on what you want them to focus on —your student's characterization.

2. Go bonkers with masks. 
My physical class was an experiment with masks. I shipped masks out to my students, had them do physical warm-ups off of an asynchronous warm-up video I made for them, and then got to watch them play. One exercise —adapted from the work of the trailblazing Jacques LeCoq —had a student in a neutral mask discovering their surroundings, as if they had never seen their own bedrooms before. This sense of newfound discovery allowed the actors to see their surroundings through new eyes. We also made our own masks from paper forms, which allowed them to transform movement and improvise dialogue. Masks are magical, and the dramatic discoveries they allow actors to make are honestly in the moment. There's something about the digital world that punches up maskwork —the alien in the overly familiar. 

3. Explore soundtrack pantomime.
Like mask work, solo pantomime work is enhanced by including a soundtrack. The rhythm shifts in the music chosen can be reflected through rate, repetition, emotional arc, and a variety of physical choices the actor makes. Many students are adept at recording technology on their phones as well as through laptops. (Note: Zoom tends to be less effective in "hearing" music, though you may have better luck than we did. If you go this route for live rehearsal/performance, keep the sound source close to the performer's Zoom device.) Solo pantomime exercises allow for one student to be coached by an instructor but allow the rest of the class to focus on the physicality of the performance married to a musical choice. What happens to the exercise when the music is changed? Spotify can be your best friend for that. 

4. Devise from reality (four lines from life): 
Ask your students to bring to class four lines (two exchanges) of dialogue they recently heard or participated in from their actual life. Have them bring these mini-scripts to class and challenge the students to interpret them differently, exploring pauses and silences, intonation, and characterization. After each interpretation, have the rest of the group reflect back what they saw and felt through that particular interpretation. These short scripts coming from reality can serve as "contentless scenes" and allow performers to see the creative spaces between the lines of dialogue.

5. Embrace the random
One acting skill that can prove challenging to young performers is the ability to keep from breaking character, especially when something unexpected happens. If there's one thing that socially-distanced acting teachers know, it's that actors digitally streaming from home are inviting chaos from the universe to interrupt their performance. This can be frustrating when a performance has to be stopped because a younger sibling or a parent or especially a curious puppy is suddenly sharing the performance space. But the theatre is not exempt from the unexpected. Why not embrace it? Bring the pets into the room and test the concentration of your performers. Pets tend to be (at least temporarily) fascinated with masks on the bodies of their masters. Younger performers can practice keeping composure. Older performers can interact with their random elements and improvisationally build a character or a scene based on the whims of their pets. Animals —precisely because their behavior is unpredictable —make for compelling viewing. And one cannot deny the "cute factor." 

Our current context presents so many challenges for those of us who teach performance. However, we are still fortunate to work in an art form that can (as Anne Bogart might say) magnetize us in ways that other disciplines can't. At a time where true engagement is in short supply, our work can still stimulate vitality in our students and audiences like few other disciplines.

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August 15, 2020
P.S. I plan to use the 4 lines from reality as well. Very cool. N

August 15, 2020
Randy... These are some great ideas. Thank you for taking the time to share. Can you tell me a little more about the mask experiement. Were these N95 type masks or character masks? I like this idea, I just need a little more info about it. Thank you! Nancy