By Megan Paradis Hanley

My Facebook feed is filled with theater professors, suddenly faced with the prospect of trying to teach our classes online, panicking. Here’s my plan for my now-remote Movement for Actors class at the New School. If you’re at home due to social distancing (thank you!) and are bored out of your gourd, you can even take my class from your kitchen. 

I share these resources freely because we’re all in the same boat. We need to adapt, quickly. We need to offer our students something useful so we don’t waste the time and resources that they’ve poured into education. But to do this well, we have to treat our online classrooms as a totally different learning space than our physical studio spaces. 

In some ways, The Syndicate has been preparing me for this challenge for years. We produce in two cities, New York and Chicago, and our seven members currently live in four different places. Since our very first show, CIVILITY!, we’ve been navigating how to work together across distance. And we’ve tried a lot of stuff that didn’t work. We held online rehearsals that spanned three time zones (the lag time made it impractical for all actors to participate). We’ve had the “satellite” company members watch rehearsals, sometimes in the middle of their night, while an understudy stood in for them. We’ve met online in just about every online platform we could find: Skype, Google Hangouts, Google Docs, Zoom, via someone holding a cell phone up to a computer speaker… Zoom works best for us. We’ve planned an ambitious theater festival online in order to savor a few precious weeks together; driven back and forth between New York and Chicago a total of eight times for tours and residencies; and created a piece called LONG DISTANCE, an online collaboration that can be performed anywhere. 

Our company’s work online hasn’t always gone smoothly, but it has taught me a lot. I’ve learned how to slow down, to expect that we each will have different access needs, and to build in the time to help each other with those needs. I’ve learned to take a deep breath and embrace surprise when our online meetings don’t go as planned. I’ve become a better listener, because you do have to work harder to listen well online. And I’ve seen my collaborators doing the same. 

Ultimately, the way we choose to be together online reflects our values as a community. This is true when we share physical space, but perhaps the novelty or the difficulty of gathering in digital space forces us to examine those values more thoughtfully. If we are a community that leaves some members behind (for instance, folks who don’t have access to fast internet), that’s going to show up in our online gatherings. If we’re a community where a small number of people do all the talking, that will also become clear quickly. But if we’re a community that works hard at our communication, if we see HOW we create together as equally important to WHAT we make, and if we are a community that trusts each other to learn/explore independently, then these values will shape our online rehearsal rooms in profound ways. I’ve seen it happen in The Syndicate, and I hope to bring those values into my online classroom. 

So here’s what I’m planning to do on Day 1 online of my Movement for Actors class. This is fairly specific content– I’m teaching a Suzuki and Viewpoints class, two forms of actor training that focus on the body, voice, and imagination– but you can borrow from it if it’s at all useful. Please make sure to cite the artists whose work I’m sharing and, if you end up using any of this material, I’d appreciate a link back to this blog post. Below you’ll see what I am posting on our class website, which all of my students already use regularly. Something like this could also be shared over an email or a google doc. What’s key is to put all the links your students will need in one place so you don’t lose class time while people search for it.

A few principles I’ll be following in each class:

  • Make time for students to share how they’re doing. This is a scary/isolating moment. Change up how we do these check-ins to accommodate different students’ communication styles (full group discussion, partner breakout groups, small group discussion, individual check-ins, or sharing journal entries/art/selfies are all options). Opting out is also always an option. 
  • Don’t try to replicate my in-person class. Normally I like to keep us up on our feet and moving for most of the 100 minute period. If we stop to talk, it’s brief and often at the end of class. Online, with students working in less-than-ideal spaces, that’s just not going to be practical. So:
  • Mix it up. I follow the experiential learning cycle: do something new, reflect on what you just did, generalize/apply the experience to other aspects of your life and work, share it with someone else. Offline, I ask them to do the generalizing work as homework through writing periodic reflection papers. Online, the “doing” portion of class is quite short — a 20 minute video, a 5 minute interview. We will spend more class time talking together, since the reflecting/generalizing work is more well-suited to online learning anyway.
  • Don’t assume that everyone has a computer, internet access, or a quiet place to work. Offer support, alternatives when they can’t make it to class (I’ll send absent students the links so they can complete much of the work on their own time), and compassion.

 

March 30: Basic Four Practice/ SCOT History

In today’s class, we will:

  • Insure that everyone knows how to use Zoom & can access our classes
  • Discuss our expectations, hopes, and worries about our time learning remotely
  • Speak your personal texts aloud to test your breath choices
  • Practice Basic Four individually
  • Learn about the history of the Suzuki Method of Actor Training & the Suzuki Company of Toga

Before class, please:

  • Send Megan a copy of your personal performance text
  • Test your connection to Zoom from whatever device you’ll be using & from the place where you’ll be taking your call

You will need:

  • A laptop, tablet, or cell phone with a stable internet connection (Laptops are available to check out from the library, which will be open during remote learning time)
  • Enough space to squat and to extend your arms fully
  • A hard copy of your personal performance text 
  • The Zoom link for today: [insert link]

 

Here’s my class plan:

(Note to reader: I might end up moving the second video to our next class if we need more time for that initial go-round.)

  • 10:00: Zoom trouble-shooting
  • 10:10: Go-round: hopes/fears/expectations for our remote learning time
  • 10:30: Each student reads aloud their personal monologue & receives some feedback from me. Note: This is our first day working on the monologues, so mostly I’m looking for their technical decisions (when are they breathing?), not acting choices.
  • 10:50: Basic 4 instructional video (students will leave Zoom room during this part and practice with the video on their own)
  • 11:10: Break
  • 11:15: Students return to Zoom, quick group review of the Basic 4 content they just practiced
  • 11:20: Watch Tadashi Suzuki interview and excerpt of SCOT’s Trojan Women individually, followed by discussion
  • 11:37: Next steps/closing

Links for today’s class:

  • Technique instructional video: Basic Four (20 minutes). 
    • Full disclosure: I’m not planning to make this video public. Suzuki training is a method that I began practicing with my teachers at SITI Company, and that they learned with their teachers and colleagues in the Suzuki Company of Toga. I believe it’s meant to be transmitted person-to-person, and fortunately my students and I have already been practicing together for the last two months. I would feel strange making a superficial tutorial of this work widely available, since I think it requires a lot of time and energy to pass this material on. So, I’m only planning to make these videos for my students, with whom I already have a training relationship. But “technique instruction” could be anything: vocal training, yoga, a dance (one that works in a small space), stretching, body weight exercises, etc. Bonus: a lot of this stuff is already widely available online— check YouTube!—  if you don’t have time, expertise, or desire to film it yourself.

 

  • Interview with Tadashi Suzuki, translated by Kameron Steele  (6 minute excerpt; please watch from 1:01-1:07:10).
      • This video comes from SITI Company’s 2017 Symposium on the Suzuki Method of Actor training, held at Skidmore College (I helped plan this event, so it’s near and dear to my heart). In the video, director Anne Bogart asks director Tadashi Suzuki about his relationship to actors and how the Suzuki method affects the actors’ work. Kameron Steele translates. 

 

  • The Trojan Women, performance documentation from 1982 production by the Suzuki Company of Toga, directed by Tadashi Suzuki. (5 minutes; please watch from 2:42-7:30).
      • The Trojan Women is the story of the women who are left behind after their army has lost a long and bloody war. In the SCOT version, the story is influenced by memories of post-World War II Japan, after the US firebombed the country and dropped two nuclear bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. This is an excerpt from the beginning of the play, in which all of the actors enter the stage. First, a God, the protector of Women and Children, enters. He will remain in the same position for most of the rest of the hour-long play. Next, the townspeople come into the space one by one (do you recognize their walk?). Then, a chorus of soldiers surveys the town. Finally, Hecuba, fallen Queen of Troy, joins the survivors. Please pay close attention to how the actors use their feet; their use of stillness; and what each group’s entrance tells you about their characters. This is not psychological (Stanislavski-informed) acting; it is really grounded in the actors’ physical, not mental, state. Nonetheless, what do these actors’ bodies tell us about the characters, even before a single word is spoken?

 

That’s class one. I’m still working on class two, but that one will be focused on Viewpoints work. In my ensemble class, I primarily teach the 9 Viewpoints, which I’ve studied and teach with SITI Company. But my online course is going to need to skew towards solo work. So, I’m thinking that during the 2+ weeks that we’ll be learning online (for now my college is saying we’ll reconvene after April 12, but I’m preparing to teach the rest of the semester remotely), I’ll give students several prompts from Mary Overlie’s book Standing in Space. If you’re looking for Viewpoints exercises that your students can do solo, I strongly encourage you to buy this book! Here are just two exercises that I plan to use with my students; Mary offers many, many more.

From Mary Overlie’s Standing in Space, p. 168:

“Practice 5: Developing Courage (solo and group practice)

Setting up the practice: Set up studies in which time is the center of the exploration.

Do five gestures in five minutes.

Do 13 movements or gestures in one minute, one movement or gesture in the next minute, and use this cycle to build a scene.

Make a scene or dance that is slightly slower than normal, but not in slow motion.

Give yourself permission to take a long time to think about what you want to do and then finally do it.

There is a common belief in theater and dance that you must keep your audience ‘entertained.’ This usually translates into an urge to fill every moment of the performance with activity and information. Actors, dancers, choreographers, and directors have a fear of stillness. Many people see stillness as emptiness. In working with time it is very important to get past these ideas and establish an authority with timing, stillness, or non-activity so that your range of expression is not constantly in high gear.

Benefit: This practice breaks down unconscious prejudices and fears about time. This may sound funny, but it really works to build confidence as a performer, director, and choreographer.

I’ll experiment during the class with whether it makes more sense to stay on Zoom together while we do these exercises, or to give the students an electronic copy of the instructions above, ask them to use a timer on their phones, and to log off or turn off their videos while they practice. I trust them to do the work whether or not I’m watching them. I probably won’t ask them to film this practice– it’s for them, not me– but will build in plenty of time for group discussion and breakout groups after solo practice so they can articulate what they’ve learned.

Here’s another of my favorite exercises from Mary.

From Mary Overlie, Standing in Space (p. 190):

“Practice 1: Doing the Unnecessary (solo and group practice)

Setting up the practice: Enter the studio practice room. [Note from Megan: in remote learning, this will be whatever room each student is in.] Acknowledge that in life we carefully and slowly learn to be effective and efficient in accomplishing daily tasks, such as walking, sitting, leaving a room, dressing, drinking from a cup. Then acknowledge that you are about to practice forgetting how to do these daily tasks. If you should reach out to turn the doorknob as you prepare to leave the room, turn yourself instead, try singing a song to get the door open, try to get someone on the other side to open the door. If you want to sit in a chair to read a book, stand near it and read your book upside down and backwards while pushing the chair out of reach every time you attempt to sit in it. When this work is done within a group, performers are permitted to be obstructive, non-cooperative, or just minimally cooperative. I allow this practice to extend for at least 40 minutes to over an hour. Our ability to find and perform the unnecessary is practically inexhaustible once you catch onto the idea. 

Benefit: The discovery of the Unnecessary was my final epiphany, bringing about the Laboratory of the Original Anarchist. Many aspects of making art are very hard, sometimes even grim: searching out a subject, choosing the right logic, caring for the details, the physical labor of production. And while these are labors of love they are labors nonetheless. Doing the Unnecessary is a totally joyous holiday for the artist. Yet, while ‘on vacation,’ the mind is trained to be incredibly alert– because if we are not vigilant, we will automatically return to the necessary. We have labored hard in our lives to be efficient, coordinated, and practical. Throwing this ingrained habit overboard lands us in a world of invention that is infinite and secured in ‘right action’ because it is allowed to function simply on a level of physicality.

I actually think giving this prompt to students remotely, and telling them they have 45 minutes to complete it and should keep working at it the whole time, even if they get bored or frustrated, might work better than when I’ve tried it in a group setting. When in a group, many artists will default to imitating other people in the room or working rather tentatively, afraid that they’re “doing it wrong.” Working alone, with no one watching them, I think my students might start to explore freely.

Important note here: when I send students off to work alone, I’ll remain on Zoom the whole time that they’re off exploring. I’ll tell them that if they get lost or don’t know what to do, they can always come back into the Zoom room for my help. My job is to be there to catch them if they need it. But one of the most important lessons I’ve learned as an educator is that when I set high expectations for my students and trust them to meet those expectations, they almost always rise to the occasion. That’s true for 5-year-olds, 15-year-olds, 65-year-olds… 

As we head into these next few weeks, I’ll be offering my students opportunities and challenges that I personally find artistically interesting. I trust that they will then leap into the unknown in ways that will surprise and teach me.

Good luck to all who are designing online extensions of your courses this week. Please share your own resources, ideas, and questions in the comments of this blog post or on The Syndicate’s facebook post! As we move into this time of social distance, let’s hold onto each other.