News of canceled productions and uprooted programs is heartbreaking for all of us. We've been challenged to change the way we live and create, and with little notice.
Playwright and theater educator Peter Royston has been teaching remotely for the past year and has mastered the art of Distance Learning. Spoiler Alert: It's not easy!
How can theater educators thrive in the new digital classroom we all— teachers, kids, parents, the world— suddenly find ourselves in?
Because no matter how long Skype, Zoom, Newrow, LearnCube, or any of the other platforms have been active, the transition to online learning has been very sudden, precipitated by the COVID-19 crisis. Whatever your age— whether you’re a kid or adult, single citizen or worried parent— you can’t escape the idea whose time has finally come: Distance Learning, the use of the Internet and online platforms to take the place of the living, breathing classroom. Up to now a tool of convenience and a chance to learn from remote or far-flung areas, Distance Learning has become a dire necessity in keeping educational momentum flowing during emergencies like the one we’re living through now.
While most of the attention has necessarily been focused on the needs of the average classroom— with teachers heroically altering their lesson plans for online consumption with just a few hours to spare— performing arts educators will also need to adapt to this new paradigm. How do you take an art form, and the pedagogy that goes with it, that is so tied to its live presentation, and force fit it into the frame of a computer screen?
Over the past twelve months, I’ve gotten a crash course in this new reality.
Last year (it seems like a decade ago), I began working with an American-based company offering online classes and workshops for kids in China. I taught Shakespeare, acting, play and story writing, public speaking, persuasive writing and more to kids in elementary, middle and high school, and some fascinating seminars with some wonderful college students. What began as a hopefully fun way to complement their own school work and get better at speaking English became more and more vital and scary as the Coronavirus hit China. I worked with kids who couldn’t leave their houses, whose only contacts with their friends and family were in online forums like the ones we shared.
And now that these same conditions are affecting classes and kids not three thousand miles away but in our own communities and down our own streets, I’ve had a chance to think about how to make Distance Learning a tolerable experience for performing arts classes. Tolerable. Because it WON’T be optimal, it WON’T be “just the same.”
Stranded: Views from Quarantine
You can read (and produce!) Peter Royston's work FOR FREE in our special monologue collection STRANDED: VIEWS FROM QUARANTINE.
Just as the performing arts depend on a living breathing interaction between audience and performer, the performing arts classroom thrives on a living, breathing interaction between the teacher and students.
While nothing can replace that (who would want to?) my main thought on making Distance Learning as enriching as possible can be summarized in three words:
Watch your weight!
Don’t worry, this isn't a dieting tip (who needs that these days?), but an interesting “shrinking” side effect of the online rehearsal room. You may not be aware of it on a day to day basis, but when you’re there in the classroom, or on stage, or in the rehearsal room, you have a presence, a weight that invites attention and, with the right persuasion, interaction. That presence is diminished during the online teaching process. Like looking through the wrong end of a telescope, you become smaller, just another tile image. You suddenly find yourself in a battle for your students’ attention far more strenuous than in any classroom, fighting against the stuff in their rooms, their bored younger siblings, even their parents who are often sharing their study space.
How do you gain that attention?
Be prepared: I’ve found that the platform is not kind to improvisation; hesitation can allow for that loss of attention. Your lesson plans should be plotted out on a minute by minute basis, at least for the first few sessions. Front-load information to parents and kids: Get them outlines, notes, worksheets in advance.
- Find the right fit: Remember that upside down telescope: your rehearsal room is now the dimensions of your screen and on the other end of the connection, the miniature tile through which your student sees you. The frame lends itself to analysis and face-to-face discussion, not so much the on-your-feet learning that an acting class requires.
Be available in-between class sessions: Set times when you are available for online one-on-one discussions and be available for email (all with parents’ permission and guidance)
Increase interaction: Theater is by definition an interactive artform and the same holds true for the theater classroom. In Distance Learning be prepared to push the Interactive toggle to 11. Assume that the young people you are working with are already light years ahead of you when it comes to technology; even elementary school kids are already young Greta Gerwigs and Bong Joon-hos, creating videos and short movies through TikTok and other platforms. Don’t fight that information gap— use it. Create a space where they can come to you with their work. As Professor Bill Pelz posits in “(My) Three Principles of Effective Online Pedagogy,” (available online, definitely worth a read) become more your class’s “designer” than its teacher— create a safe and welcoming space for your students and let them play. Your experience and judgement are more important here than your knowledge of the latest tech. As Pelz writes, you need to transition from “‘sage on the stage’ to ‘guide on the side.’”
The essence of Pelz’s ideas boil down to remaining “in charge,” retaining that weight, while at the same time creating a trusting atmosphere where “students can do (most of) the work.”
Finding your weight, balancing leadership and trust: Sounds like lessons for all of us in these crazy times.
Peter Royston is the Director of The Music Hall Academy, the education and enrichment program at the historic Tarrytown Music Hall. He teaches workshops both onstage and online. His adaptation of A WIND IN THE DOOR by Madeleine L’Engle will be available from Stage Partners later this year.