Lights, Webcam, Action: How UMass Theater adapted to remote learning
By Abby Charpentier '20: article; Tom Kelleher '20: video | Friday, May 8, 2020
By Abby Charpentier '20: article; Tom Kelleher '20: video
Friday, May 8, 2020
On March 11, the University of Massachusetts community was informed of the decision to suspend all in-person classes and implement remote classes after spring break. While this transition was easy for some departments, many members of the Theater Department found themselves asking the same question: How?
Many of its courses are hands-on and rely heavily on class members working closely with one another and with their faculty and staff mentors. This applies across disciplines, including performance, design and technology, and dramaturgy.
Acting and Directing
Professor Milan Dragicevich — who taught Actor/Director Collaboration (TH 494AI) alongside Professor Gina Kaufmann's Graduate Directing Studio — explained they were able to creatively move their scene assignments to Zoom.
“Zoom cannot replace live in-person experience. Still, given the reality of today's circumstances, the course has adjusted fairly well to this new platform,” he said.
Kaufmann said she was proud of her acting students and the way they embraced Zoom and its limitations. On top of making choices regarding lighting, such as using flashlights and cellphone lights on a dimly-lit screen for a nighttime scene from Hamlet, students played with their use of their space.
“Rather than just sitting in front of their computers, they moved about, crossing in and out of camera at times,” Kaufmann explained. “In my 100-level acting class, when one character handed another character a beer, one actor passed the bottle out of the screen and the second character reached out of their screen and, when their hand reappeared, it had a beer in it.”
Dragicevich also taught Stage Movement (TH 341), which focuses on the rigorous movement exercises developed by Japan's Tadashi Suzuki. This course proved more difficult to transition online, since involves very active physical work on stage where students need to work as an ensemble.
“With everyone now scattered in different home environments (on Zoom), much of this work needed to be completely changed or adapted,” Dragicevich said. “Some of it we could not do at all.”
Despite the challenges presented in his Stage Movement class, the class was still able to execute some of the key exercises that are more focused on "in-place" gestures, like the Suzuki "statues" where actors strike various statue poses while developing core strength, and the yoga warm-ups that they typically use before Suzuki work.
Still, Professor Gilbert McCauley, who taught Directing II and Black Theatre Workshop, perhaps put it the best: “Live theater is a unique experience. You can do things ‘like it’ but nothing replaces the ‘live’ aspect. The experience is being ‘mediated’ by something else, in our case Zoom technology.”
Design and Production
Not only did acting and movement classes have to adjust, but so did classes that focus on design and technology.
Professor Michael Cottom taught Technical Direction (TH 365). This spring, he was leading a trans-disciplinary project with Professor Charles Schweik of the Department of Environmental Conservation. Together, their students were creating a 20’ planet Earth to be placed next to the campus pond. Leading up to the structure that people could enter would be a line of 2’ by 3’ posters focusing on positive actions to fight climate change. The plan was to have the project completed by April 22 for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, “and then the virus hit…”
Cottom and his team decided to adapt the project, called “Earth! One,” rather than scrapping it completely. “Our deliverable will be a nice packet of technical designs, ready for fabrication,” Cottom said. It will have a Creative Commons copyright that will allow others to build the project. Another university, for example, might be intrigued by the project and “make it happen,” with the ability to make their own revisions.
The department team that teaches lighting design and technology were also able to adapt for the online space, albeit in a different way.
Master Electrician Michael Dublin reported that students in Penny Remsen’s (TH 361) Lighting Design class were able to execute their light lab musical cuing projects with the aid of a lighting visualization computer program. In conjunction with attending Zoom lectures, demonstrations, and individual meetings, students worked on lighting a virtual three-dimensional stage space in the program Capture. Lighting instruments can be placed in this digitally rendered environment, and designers can preview the effect of different lighting angles, colors, intensities, and fade times — a measure that has real-world applications outside the current situation as it can be expensive and/or time consuming to pre-program lighting cues in a real space.
Dubin explained the class’ teaching assistants had access to the program and shared their screens with students so they were able to see changes in the lighting as they asked the TA to manipulate the control channels of the virtual light plot. The lighting changes were all recorded as cues in the same manner as they would be in an actual stage space. Video clips of the light cues running in time with the student’s chosen music were made in order for the work to be shared and discussed among the entire class via Zoom. Dubin emphasized that without the hard work and skill of graduating senior Tom Kelleher and Graduate Assistant Sydney Becker, it would not have been possible to pivot so smoothly to retain the light lab component of Professor Remsen’s class syllabus.
Another professor who was successful with remote learning is Megan Lewis, who taught Drama and the Media: Performing Mythologies in the Contemporary World, Honors (TH 105H) and African Performance (TH 332).
“I’ve been using technology in classes… to film messages to my students, online lectures, and make dynamic content,” she said.
Lewis decided not to use Zoom as a regular form of instruction because she did not want to contribute to Zoom fatigue. Instead, she uses a Moodle forum and focuses on self-driven assignments. Lewis also changed the final project for her Drama and the Media class. The original plan was for the students to all make a documentary, but after surveying the students about the logistics of doing this remotely, she decided to change it. Students could complete a final project and process what is currently happening: Create a piece of art that responds to this moment in time.
One thing she particularly enjoyed about using online spaces, such as forums on Moodle, was the same thing she enjoys about the classroom dynamic: the community. Now, it is more visible in her students’ written comments.
“Everyone is kind and loving and able to express that while isolated,” Lewis said.