With much of the world in quarantine for half of the spring 2020 semester and some portion of the fall, educators have had to rapidly adapt to teaching remotely using online conference platforms like Zoom. Each subject has its own challenges, but theatre is perhaps the most singular. Translating a process that often hinges upon person-to-person interaction and other physical work online takes creative thinking and ingenious problem solving.
As we are preparing to start a new semester with many teachers still working remotely or in hybrid in-person and remote models, it’s clear that this new world will be around longer than we initially thought.
“A lot of teachers are wondering what frame of mind kids will be coming back with, and what degree of care needs to happen,” says New York City Department of Education Theater Director Peter Avery. “How do teachers balance being there for kids with getting into the work of theatre, because that itself is therapeutic.”
Broadway Teaching Group, which supports and enriches arts educators worldwide with professional development and networking opportunities, is looking to answer those questions and more with their two-day online Back to School Series, offering sessions that will cover everything about teaching theatre online. We talked to Avery, who will lead the teaching theatre online session September 13, and Peter Flynn, leading a session on directing online theatre September 20, about what they’ll be passing along to attendees.
“When I began having to teach online, I learned quickly that I had to get more rigorous and more specific with what I had been asking my students and actors to do,” says Flynn, a celebrated Off-Broadway and regional director and associate professor of musical theatre at Montclair State University. “The fundamentals I have my students focus on is what are your impulses telling you, what is your environment telling you, and what can you discover either through the text or your circumstances. When I realized we wouldn’t be in the same space with each other, I then flipped to the contrast of what is in their space and who is in their space and how does that factor into the work they’re creating. Rather than come from a place of compromise, it was about re-focusing the lens so that the work they’re doing is more centered in their environment. How does the text resonate differently for you having to quarantine with your family in a two-room apartment?”
In this way, Flynn views teaching in the current moment not nearly as different from more traditional circumstances as one might think, and he’s found that it has some particular strengths as well.
“Well, the act of listening to engage action has gone through the roof because sometimes listening is all you have. When Zoom enters the mix, listening becomes really important. I talk so much about what you respond to now that you can’t play a scene traditionally and know when your scene partner is going to finish speaking, because Zoom might cut out or the timing might be off. The magic trick we do as actors is to make impulse seem immediate and new in a script or show that is very set. In this new medium, we are relying on that impulse moment more than ever because the script and how it’s delivered isn’t the same. Listening and impulse have to sharpen up—and these are things I’ve been working on with students and actors since I’ve been working and teaching.”
As for practical tips, Flynn has learned that it is best, unexpectedly, for students to not look at their scene partners on screen while rehearsing and performing.
“The camera wants to become your collaborator. The camera is the way your voice and your being is being shared with not only your acting partner, but the listener or the audience, so we want to empathically lean into the opportunity the camera is giving us. I say look at your camera if you can. It’s going to help you more if you put your script on your screen on top of all the cells of faces in Zoom, because it’s human nature to look at all the faces but the audience wants to see you engaging with what they imagine to be your acting partner, so play the camera.”
Ultimately, both Flynn and Avery agree that teachers shouldn’t view this time as a challenge, but rather as a moment for growth and creativity.
“As artists, we don’t approach making art as ‘I need to do this now because there’s a problem, but it will go away and become irrelevant,’” says Avery. “We should always look at every challenge as an opportunity.”
“If we look at this as a challenge, we are only going to get a limited number of options back,” adds Flynn. “It’s much more useful to think of this as a circumstance and look at your resources and at what is possible. That’s much more engaging and interesting to me.”
Both Flynn and Avery will go far more in-depth on these topics in their sessions with Broadway Teaching Group’s Digital Theatre Back to School Series, set for September 12, 13, and 20. For more information and to register, visit BroadwayTeachingGroup.com.