By David Ertischek ‘01
How do you practice a scene with your acting partner hundreds of miles away? How does a voice coach help correct the body posture of a student? And how the heck do you learn how to slap someone as part of stage combat during a conference call?
These are some of the questions that students and faculty in Performing Arts classes are answering.
“It was a particular challenge for a lot of classes in Performing Arts,” said Assistant Professor Lindsay Beamish, who’s teaching two classes this semester at Emerson: Scene Study and Advanced Skills for Contemporary Actors. “Most of our classes [happen] through teaching acting as an embodied experience in a room together.”
Beamish said she feels obligated to be more conscious of how she teaches, and the current situation has forced creative pedagogy. She’s also had to evaluate her teaching goals, such as teaching a scene with two people.
“That learning goal can’t stay the same. But how do you make a different meaningful learning experience?” said Beamish. “That week we had off was a reinvention of what we can do… There is something about how do you be an artist in a time like this – trapped with parents in the other room, or your little brother – how do you stay connected to art?”
The connection of art that performers provide to society is something that Performing Arts Chair Robert Colby stressed to faculty.
“While artists are rarely first responders in a crisis, we may be indispensable as ‘second responders,’ helping us all make sense and meaning of events,” said Colby.
For Leah Thomas ’22, a student in Beamish’s Scene Study class, leaving campus was very tough for many reasons. She had spent months choreographing the entire performance of the Musical Theatre Society’s production of Pippin, and was the assistant director of the play. She was also in a student film that was postponed.
Once she was back Georgia, she was talking with a peer about meeting up to do their scene together. But stay-home orders scuttled that plan.
“Now we’re doing a lot of the business side of things. We did a huge discussion about agents, managers, unions, that I don’t feel we would’ve touched on in class,” said Thomas. “We made self-tapes and got more feedback on it, which was super helpful. And we moved into monologues and one-on-one coaching over Zoom. It’s been a very surprisingly good thing.”
Kandyce Whittingham ’23 was inspired by an Anne Bogart quote that Performing Arts Assistant Professor Lizzy Cooper Davis told her class: The artist’s job is to stay alive and awake in the space between convictions and certainties.
“I think that’s never been more true than now,” said Whittingham. “I think we’re in a time of great uncertainty. We’re realizing the greatest tool we have as students is to create. That’s where we’re going to find peace, joy, answers, and ways to get through this and to make it less traumatic for ourselves and the world.”
Whittingham said professors are encouraging students to use their anxieties and fears to create art.
Theater and Performance major Eden Ginsburg ’23 said one reason she chose Emerson was to experience the physicality of learning from a teacher in person. Before COVID-19, the only way she knew how to learn acting was in the same room as the teacher. Now she’s learning stage combat in Senior Artist-in-Residence Ted Hewlett’s Stage Combat class.
“We were learning how to do stage slaps – the sound it makes when you slap someone,” said Ginsburg. “Twelve people on a call getting slapped by our teacher. I did learn. I did get a valuable lesson from that, even though it wasn’t in the room doing a physical thing, slapping or not slapping someone. I still learned how to do it. It did work.”
Ginsburg also took advantage of being back home in Vermont. As part of affiliated faculty member Valerie Madden’s Voice and Text class, students needed to record a This I Believe monologue. They’d normally do it in a studio, but Ginsburg deployed her green scenery, especially because her monologue involved nature.
Madden admits the process of adapting her classes to online learning was terrifying because what she teaches is based on movement and a physical experience. She’s working from a room in her house with a piano, and her dog Marco, who’s become the mascot for her classes.
“[In person] I’ll go around and do physical corrections, much like a ballet class. I can feel the vibrations they’re making,” said Madden, who’s instructing 14 students at a time on Zoom calls. “Everybody has to unmute and do it at the same time, which gets a little wacky.”
Along with obvious challenges, Madden also sees surprising opportunities.
“We’re having to vary everything we do,” Madden said. “All the parameters and rules just went out the window. It’s actually a really exciting time to be teaching,”