Running the Online Drama Class

By Lucy Clements & Emma Wright

Jump StART Youth Theatre was a company born in COVID. As the pandemic escalated, performing arts of all shapes and sizes shrunk, with youth drama classes quickly cancelled to avoid risk of COVID spread. It was then that we came together to create Jump StART Youth Theatre, which would specialise not only in in-person drama workshops, but online ones too.

This article is designed to share some tips and tricks that we’ve learnt when it comes to lesson planning and teaching drama online, including warm-ups, main topics, and structuring performance tasks on Zoom.

Warm-Ups

When it comes to warm-ups, your usual vocal and physical favourites will likely still work a treat. Remember that some students will not have access to great amounts of space, or may be relying on wired headphones for their audio, so we’ve found that activities that are active but can be completed on the spot in front of the computer work best. For some of our warm-up exercises we choose to instruct students to mute their microphones and step away from their screens, and to not focus on watching us or being seen but just listen to and follow our vocal instructions, trusting they will work through the exercises independently. Vocal warmups are super effective, though we suggest asking students to take a few steps back from their cameras so that they feel more free and less self-conscious.

You may find it difficult in Zoom to run warm up games that require students acting or speaking in a specified sequential order, for example as if they were standing in a circle and directing a sound or movement to the student to their left. This is a problem as the order of video streams in Zoom will be different for each student, as the program doesn’t lock in a uniform screen order. To solve this, you can ask students to work in alphabetical order, or assign them each a number that they can put in front of their screen-name and get them to work in that order. It requires a little more effort, but if you keep the order consistent throughout the class the students will learn it quickly. This way you can still play your ‘one sentence stories’, or your ‘fortunately/unfortunately’. Games like ‘what are you doing?’ still work well, though for ease we adapt them slightly so that the tutor calls freeze and calls on a new student for each change, rather than working in a set order.

Main Lesson Topics

Moving onto main lesson topics. The most obvious direction in which to steer an online class is monologues. We’ve explored this in three forms: asking students to bring a monologue to the class to workshop, exploring an allocated monologue together as a class, and writing original monologues in the class after introducing a selection of character archetypes and conducting some improvisation-based exercises. Workshopping text is as it would be in person, and all your standard techniques and directions will be in play. You can combat fading at the end of thoughts by asking students to throw an imaginary ball or drop down into a squat or lunge at the end of the line, ask them to draw out the imagery spoken in the text whilst speaking in order to solidify their inner images (you can also screen share and search Google for images, particularly if the text references a specific landmark or a historical figure), introduce some viewpoints work asking them to walk the text on a grid and pivot sharply on punctuation to understand rhythm, speak the character’s inner monologue out loud to explore subtext, give them an animal to stretch their physicality, and experiment with altering the given circumstances and applying actions to the text. We’ve found that brainstorming the given circumstances of a text together as a class to be a fun, interactive activity, and a great way of demonstrating the power of interpretation.

We’ve also found success exploring duologues using the breakout room function. We’ve usually preceded this with some class text analysis, and then split the group into pairs and sent them away for a maximum of fifteen minutes to read through, discuss, block, and prepare the scene for performance. As the tutor hosting the workshop you can drop into these breakout rooms at any point to ensure students are on track. You may also choose to maximise and utilise the online platform and the fact that we are working with cameras to explore the differences in performing for stage versus screen, to talk about the differences, and for students to then prepare and perform the scene for both mediums. This exercise has been particularly popular with our high school students, who don’t often get opportunities to explore the world of acting for film and television.

For a more physical class, we recommend working with theorists such as Laban, Lecoq, and Michael Chekhov. These techniques provide exercises that are great for getting students up in the space, working individually and without relying on interpersonal interactions. You can explore Laban’s eight efforts (float, glide, dab, flick, wring, press, punch/thrust, slash), his motion factors (weight, time, space, flow), and major categories of movement (body, effort, shape, space). Lecoq’s seven level of tensions is a fantastic exercise to run online, and works as effectively as it would in the classroom, as is an exploration of Chekhov’s psychological gesture applied to character or text. Chekhov also has exercises such as the stick/ball/veil for accessing the three inner motive forces, and a lot of archetype-based work that translates well into the digital space.

Devising can be difficult over Zoom, but we’ve enjoyed replacing this with a playwriting focus, including a detailed exploration of story structure and the work of Joseph Campbell, Christopher Vogler, and the more modern Dan Harmon. Zoom can be an enjoyable way of introducing the concept of a “writers room”, and you can work with your class to develop both short and long form plays. Start with some theory, then delve into a class brainstorm, assign particular beats of the story to individuals to write up, allow some time to piece it all together, do a table read, then discuss and edit as seen fit. You may even have time to send students off to gather props and costume items, and come back to perform their original work.

Improvisation is still worth investigating, though you’ll likely find that exercises for individuals and small groups work best. Hot seat is a great solo way of creating characters through improvisation, and if you’re looking to improvise short scenes you can send students into breakout rooms to quickly discuss before returning to complete the exercise. It may feel clunkier than it would in-person, but if the students are enjoying themselves and you’re learning outcomes are being met, why not push the limits. 

Structuring Performances

Finally, we arrive at the performance aspect of online drama workshops. Obviously we cannot recreate the in-person experience of students giddily waiting ‘backstage’ as their parents and friends file into the room to watch the product of their hard work, and we are missing out on that adrenalin-fuelled communal experience of performing for an audience. However, students can still perform, whether that be a monologue, a scene, or a read of a play. There is the option of recording performances for students to share with their loved ones, however appropriate permissions need to be obtained – consent forms need to be completed, and it must be stipulated as to what the rules are surrounding sharing (i.e. the recorded content is not to be published anywhere publicly). You may talk to your participants about parents sitting in on the Zoom for younger participants, though this isn’t something we’ve yet explored at Jump StART. Regardless, it’s important that you let students know that they are each other’s audience, and be sure to give applause to support your young performers. Ask that students mute their microphones and turn off their cameras when not performing, and encourage them to give feedback and peer-critique.

Wrapping Up

We love to wrap up our online sessions with a quick check-in as to what students learnt or loved, and to finish up with a class photo which we capture to send to participants and use on our socials (we are sure to attain approval for this in our permission forms).

This article was originally written for and published by Scenesaver – a new, free to use one stop hub like Netflix but for cutting edge theatre performance from all over the world, who like Jump StART launched in lockdown – at:

https://www.scenesaver.co.uk/blog/running-the-online-drama-class/

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