Theatre Tech 2.0

By Kelli B. An ’04, September 8, 2020
Theatre professors embrace new technologies to give their students an interactive experience.

In theory, bringing college courses online sounds easy. In practice? Not remotely.  

Always prepared to lean into a challenge, Ithaca College faculty are using a variety of cutting-edge technology and tools to maximize the possibilities of learning in a virtual environment.

“Like all of us, I'm, re-envisioning what that looks like,” says Marc Gomes, an assistant professor of acting. “I have a studio set up in my home. I've got a web camera. I've got my camera from my computer. You know, really rethinking what's possible — and I think there's a lot possible for studio acting classes.”

One of the keys, he says, is to use technology to “make a distinction between online teaching and remote teaching.”

“So much of the time, in a studio acting class, you might be sitting around looking at somebody else work,” he explains. “Which is a great way to learn, but in this medium, we don't have that luxury.”

That’s where online teaching, which happens asynchronously outside of class time, comes in. There'll be discreet packages of information that I might give to students: warmups, exercises, things that I film and send to them as videos,” Gomes says.

“You film yourself, and you deliver it for the rest of the class to see,” he says. Those efforts help heighten the remote teaching during class time, as he and the students view and discuss the work together.

“I believe that it opens up avenues of communication and delivering content, engaging the students and the material in ways that might have not been possible in the regular classroom.”

Saviana Stanescu Condeescu, Associate Professor of Theatre Arts

In some cases, technology creates new learning opportunities.

“I believe that it opens up avenues of communication and delivering content, engaging the students and the material in ways that might have not been possible in the regular classroom,” says Saviana Stanescu Condeescu, an associate professor of theatre arts.

For example, students in her playwriting class can share the screen to look at the pages to review characters and dialogue, to give feedback to each other in very specific ways, while her Contemporary Developments in Theater class may have guest artists joining video lectures from around the globe.

Condeescu expects to use tools like Jamboard (a digital whiteboard where students can post notes and images) and Fishbowl (a group discussion tool where some participate and others observe) to help students collaborate and build off each other’s ideas.

“I think it’s essential to give the students the sense that they belong to the class,” Condeescu says, “that they can engage with each other as valued members of a community of learners and thinkers, as well as writers and artists, in my case.” 

Acting professor Cynthia Henderson has been working with colleagues at the college and members of the National Alliance of Acting Teachers to assess best practices for teaching acting via Zoom. Being creative with that technology’s capabilities — playing with depth perception, shifting the location and angle of the camera, and incorporating entrances and exits — can add layers that help the actors engage with each other and their spaces.

“Students will be discovering the spaces that they're in as potential theater spaces, and … learning how to not just take in the person in the screen, but also taking in the person in the screen as well as their surroundings as part of the interaction between characters.”

“I want to get them excited about communicating and being in character relationships via this technology,” she says.

Henderson’s biggest challenge for the semester is doing a stage-to-Zoom adaptation of the play she was slated to direct, “She Kills Monsters.” That’s no easy feat, considering the action-oriented play features fight scenes and giant monsters.

Her aim: Elevate the medium, so the production becomes more than just faces in boxes.

“A lot of that is storyboarding and figuring out, maybe there are times when we have to do voiceovers and the monsters are in a different frame and we don't see the actor who is voicing the monster,” Henderson says. “Or the fight scenes, maybe they're going to be choreographed more as a modern dance fight scene because the actors won't be interacting in the same space.”

The right technology can also help with lessons that would normally be hands-on. In a typical semester, theatre arts lecturer Rose Howard’s Production and Scenic Technology course would include a weekly lab. Now, she has to make the scene shop virtual.

“I can't give you a table saw in your house,” she says. “But I can walk you through what it looks like to use a table saw. I can teach you about the safety. I can show you a video of other people using it. As much as I can simulate the experience for those who are far away, I will.”

Rose Howard headshot

Rose Howard '04, theatre arts lecturer

Howard, a 2004 grad of the program, is up for the challenge. She served as a faculty consultant for, and participated in, the Center for Faculty Excellence’s Summer Institute. She has also been brainstorming with faculty and alumni, and “snapping up” technologies to incorporate.

Howard is currently using VoiceThread to post her syllabus, with videos of herself talking through it to explain assignments. “The students can watch, and even respond if I set it up that way,” she says.

During class, she’ll use a tool called Mentimeter to incorporate real-time polls, quizzes, and other interactive elements. Video discussion tool Flipgrid, she expects, will lend itself to collaborating on coursework. “I can post a video introducing them to an assignment with some short guidelines, and they can upload videos of themselves responding and then respond to one another,” Howard says.

As faculty test out new tools for online learning, they are also being mindful of students’ needs.

Howard is following accessibility best practices to ensure that materials can be read with a screen reader, and that all videos have closed captioning. 

“I'm testing everything on my mobile device, because it's possible that some students will have more access to a phone than they will a desktop or laptop,” Howard says.

“Working remotely helps me instill in students that an education is not something that you just pay for and get. An education is something you have to reach for. You're making a decision that you want to be here, and you have to keep making that decision every day.”

Marc Gomes, Assistant Professor of Acting

“I've even added a survey to the first day of class where I ask [students], confidentially, to tell me, do you have a safe place to do your work? How often will you have access to the internet? If you’re in California, will you to be able to join us at 9 a.m. [Eastern]?” she says. “That way, if there are accommodations they need, I can start thinking about that immediately.”

Gomes says he reminds students that the challenges they are experiencing with virtual learning are not unique to them: Professional actors are doing the same things to hone their craft. To succeed, the students will need to make the most of that opportunity.

“Actors, people who graduate from acting schools, there's 1-2% who will actually work in the industry. It's a brutal industry,” says Gomes. “One of the things that it requires, beyond building your skills and learning your technique and getting a chance to implement those in shows and performances, is building resilience.”

This time outside the classroom is an exercise in that. “Working remotely helps me instill in students that an education is not something that you just pay for and get,” he says. “An education is something you have to reach for. You're making a decision that you want to be here, and you have to keep making that decision every day.”