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Concordia professors take final theatre assignments from the stage to the laptop screen

‘We were looking for ways to give our students a sense of completion’
April 1, 2020
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By Kelsey Rolfe

Jessica Carmichael, assistant professor of theatre. Jessica Carmichael, assistant professor of theatre.

Much of the magic of theatre is that it’s a live form — each day’s performance is once in a lifetime, and each audience brings a different energy to the event.

Many students in Concordia’s Department of Theatre were expecting to be part of that magic in a few weeks, as they prepared to perform scripts, scenes and full productions for their final course assignments. Faculty were therefore presented with a profound challenge when they were asked to move their classes online due to the COVID-19 university closure.

The department runs a wide variety of courses, with topics ranging from acting, playwriting and directing to puppetry, gender and sexuality, and oral history storytelling — and each class’s needs are different. Yet there was one consistent through line as faculty prepared to go virtual.

“We had a lot of discussions, especially for the practice-based courses that make up the bulk of our department’s course load. Two of the big words that we kept tossing around were adaptability and flexibility,” says Jessica Carmichael, assistant professor of theatre.

“We were going to have to adapt considerably to go online, and we were looking for ways to give our students a sense of completion with the changes we would take on.”

The audition process for next year’s cohort of first-year students also had to be adapted — but the department already had a template it could work with. In the past, it has held in-person auditions in Montreal, but prospective students who lived far away and couldn’t travel could instead film a three-minute self-created performance and submit the YouTube or Vimeo link for review.

“We have to ask everyone now to audition by video,” notes Luis Carlos Sotelo Castro, Canada Research Chair in Oral History Performance, who is involved with auditions. Any interviews will be held over Zoom video conferencing.

Online prompts, visualization exercises and more

Carmichael is currently teaching two courses on playwriting and directing. Her 15 playwright students had all written a rough draft of a play by the time the university closed, with four having already had workshops on their drafts and the remaining 11 set to do so over the next few weeks.

“Normally I help facilitate conversations around their play. We read it, we often do activities where we draw, we get up, we build sculptures. So that part of the course needed to be adapted.”

She held Zoom one-on-ones with the students who still had upcoming workshops in order to talk about how to reconfigure them and also set up writing forums online for students to engage with each other. For the workshops, which started last week, Carmichael says students have begun reading through their full plays as usual and attempting to make the class as interactive as possible.

“All of them were very flexible,” she says. For the students who wanted to build something, they proposed having them create a collage on their computer with images they find that respond to one of the prompts, she explains.

Carmichael, who likes to get students up and moving during class, also plans to give them exercises they can do in a chair and visualization exercises while standing. “They’ll all be in their various rooms and kitchens, and we’ll just do some movement work so they can try writing on their feet, just so that some of the time is split between sitting and standing.”

‘I gave them a variety of options’

Her 16 first- and second-year directing students faced an even larger adaptation, as they had been working toward presenting scenes at the beginning of April in front of an audience.

“They’ve been rehearsing already for the past few weeks with actors on the weekend,” Carmichael says.

Initially, the directors would have been assessed for the scene itself as well as a 3D installation of their play. Instead, Carmichael will grade students based on the rehearsal logs they’d already been putting together plus a five-minute solo piece that captures the essence of the play.

She offered suggestions of involving the people they’re quarantined with or inanimate objects, or even creating a radio play or puppet show.

“I gave them a variety of options, because I know that it’s a very overwhelming time for them,” she says. “A lot of them were very excited about presenting their work, and to not be able to do so left quite a few students gutted. So, this was an opportunity for me to help them imagine how they could be creative.”

Sotelo-Castro was tasked with revising a different type of performance for his introduction to performance studies course. In the class, students examine the performance inherent in some elements of everyday life, such as court proceedings, citizenship ceremonies or politicians’ public events — the 2012 boxing match between Justin Trudeau, before he was Canadian prime minister, and Senator Patrick Brazeau is one example.

The eight students were initially asked to develop their own performance scores or instructions that would help audiences become participants and perform them as their final project.

“Some students were thinking of redoing the citizenship ceremony to remove the oath to the Queen. Others were thinking of changing that initiation rite for students who are new to a university and trying to be critical of how these types of welcoming ceremonies happen,” Sotelo-Castro says.

Instead of leading their classmates in the performance score in person, students will now present their ideas over Zoom.

Sotelo-Castro is also planning to host a virtual closure ceremony at the end of the term for all his students.

“It’s simply to share a drink, eat and spend some time together.”

Concordia’s campuses and libraries are currently closed, and courses have moved online as of Monday, March 23. Follow along with updates and info on COVID-19.

Check out online resources from Concordia’s Centre for Teaching Learning, developed to help professors move their courses online. And consult the schedule of live information sessions.

 



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