A Brave New World of Teaching Live Theater Online
By March 7, 2020, with the global COVID-19 outbreak in full swing, most US colleges and universities had released their students for spring break. On March 12, with students scattered across the country, the President of Occidental College informed students they needed to return by March 20, pack up their belongings, and go home “to prepare for the transition to digital platforms” in order to “complete the spring semester remotely, using online methods.” This pattern would be repeated by college and university administrators across the country.
The brave new world of Zoom teaching had begun.
Around this time, I began noticing postings on social media by friends teaching theater in various disciplines – acting, voice, dramaturgy, musical theater, directing – all struggling with this daunting new challenge. In a form that defines itself by its “liveness,” where a voice teacher might lay hands on a student mid-exercise to pound on a back or refine a posture, where the essentials of contact enter into every aspect of the craft, how on earth could this be done? What adjustments would need to be made? And for those working with students on track for a career in the theater, or in film or TV, how would they factor in the reality of cancelled seasons and productions abruptly shut down, with no hard reopening dates in sight?
Theater and film director Brendan Hughes, who teaches Acting II at Occidental, has tried in his sometimes-frantic, sometimes-inspired teaching journey to “reimagine the very act of what theater is”. With a dozen students watching via Zoom (their audio and video muted), two students were to perform the Gentleman Caller scene from The Glass Menagerie. They were confronted with challenges unlike any they had encountered before: how to make contact with each other, interact with the “third character” of the camera, and somehow hand props back and forth, even though the two actors were in different locations.
This worked surprisingly well, they found, with one actor handing a prop past the camera and the other actor reaching past their camera to pull the prop into frame. The most difficult challenge was managing eye contact, or rather, creating the illusion of eye contact. Techniques of “eye line” placement and direction are familiar territory in the medium of film, however, and luckily, Brendan has skills won by experience in this arena. He agreed that his theater scene study class had, in fact, been transformed via Zoom into a class on “acting for the camera.”
In another instance, McCaela Donovan of Boston University has found that moving her musical theater classes online has proven, in some ways, beneficial. Music students record their own performance over assigned digital tracks. “Then we have them all watch the tapes together and we all share our feedback. Then they do a second pass, and I have to say - my colleagues and I have been commenting on how their work is so much more specific. The beats and moments are clearer and precise in a way that they are not in the studio. They’re able to really see and analyze their work from the outside.”
For McCaela and her students, the question of what comes after graduation is more complex and fraught. “No one even knows which theaters will come out of this still standing. So, all we've been doing is connecting them with industry people and alumni who have been willing to answer questions. And then we wait to see what comes out the other side...”
Of this question, Peg Denithorne, who teaches at Johns Hopkins, says, “I don’t think the new employment world is sinking in…Many are going to grad school or already have jobs...but I do see some bewilderment in the eyes of those taking that infamous ‘gap year.’” Meanwhile, she forges ahead with a daunting syllabus for her course in 21st-Century Female Playwrights. Her extensive professional contacts allow her to “Zoom in” guests like Lexy Leusler, Literary Manager of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. YouTube videos featuring David Foster Wallace, Brené Brown, and Daniel Goleman come into play, as do Zoom “breakout rooms.” She reports, “The class is actually thriving.” All told, it’s clear that Peg’s students are not shortchanged in this new world of online learning.
The logistical and emotional landscape of this new reality can be complicated, as in the case of Producer/Director Jef Hall-Flavin, a mentor of Masters candidates at the Mountview Academy of the Arts in London. Jef described an array of challenges, some pedagogical, some in the realm of mental health, for both he and his students. Some students expressed a sense of despair about working to complete a degree in preparation for a profession that might not be there to welcome them. Jef also described his own struggle with distraction and occasional mood swings, which he then redirected back into the work and helping his students migrate live performance projects to video. He wondered if “virtual learning” is an oxymoron. There is, according to Hall-Flavin, an added performative element for the instructor that didn’t exist before, at least not consciously. “Seeing your own face splits your focus… you need extra energy to remain focused.” (A recent article in National Geographic labels this phenomenon, “Zoom fatigue.”)
Some related adjustments have come up for Marya Lowry, who has been teaching voice in the Theater Program at Brandeis University for many years and will soon retire. She explained to me how a class with 14 students that met twice a week in 45-minute sessions had moved to one-on-one remote sessions, which multiplied her workload exponentially. Some of her students are theater majors, some are not. I asked if she found herself performing for them in the Zoom environment. “Not so much performative as it is a different way of reading people. ‘Are you getting me?’ Are they reading MY signals, are they really listening to me? …So many obstacles that I’m navigating that I wouldn’t have to navigate in a room where… let me see what happens if I pound away on your back, to release tension and resonance, so, my brain has to double and triple the work…” But there may be an upside: after 60 hours of teaching in this way, she realizes that she now has new skills that are valuable.
This was a thread that ran through all my conversations: new challenges create new opportunities for invention and creativity. Perhaps even new forms will emerge from this moment we’re all living through. Live theater – being in the same room, breathing the same air, with no opportunity to cut or edit in real time – is unreproducible in mediated formats like film and TV. But good acting is good acting on any platform. Same goes for writing, scenic design, and direction. Even the “live” TV professionals – the cable news and late night comedy shows, including Saturday Night Live – are adjusting to a world of low-fi/low tech video, where even the famous pundits are forced to think about DIY backgrounds, hair and makeup, framing, and audio. Some do it well, some badly.
In his thin but seminal volume, The Empty Space, Peter Brook famously sketched out four essential modes of theater: Deadly, Holy, Rough and Immediate. I have always been drawn to the rough theater: small, simple spaces devoid of the plush upholstery and glossy sets that can accompany the worst deadly theater of the mainstream. Maybe what is emerging now is a kind of rough video aesthetic of selfies and Zoom, of unedited first takes and brilliant mistakes. Maybe this new aesthetic has a lot to teach us. One can only hope.
Jeff Zinn is best known as the former Artistic Director of Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater (WHAT) and the author of The Existential Actor: Life and Death, Onstage and Off (Smith and Kraus, 2015).