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Inside the (Virtual) Actor's Studio 

At the University of Utah Actor Training Program, pandemic instruction necessitated radical readjustment.

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click to enlarge TODD COLLINS PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Todd Collins Photography

Over the past year-plus, teachers of all kinds have faced the unexpected challenge of learning how to provide instruction in their subject while everyone is physically separate. But how do you use virtual tools to teach the craft of acting, the very nature of which involves being present with another person?

Robert Scott Smith—co-director of the University of Utah's Actor Training Program, and director of the Department of Theatre's upcoming production of Molière's Tartuffe—has wrestled with this question, along with theater instruction professionals all over the world. Yet while the pandemic raged, classes continued, requiring adjustments in everything from what focus the instruction would have, to how productions would look in a virtual world.

Early on, Smith recalls, it seemed that there might be a simple enough shift to online instruction for a period of time that initially seemed like it might be much shorter. "I think immediately, what I was looking at was that we were moving to a format with a camera, so acting for the camera would be the easiest shift," he says. "Early on, we didn't think this would last into the following year, so we thought, 'How do we pivot online to fulfill our learning outcomes?' It seemed clear we could use the technology, 'oh we're actors, we can work for the camera.' Those things seemed like easy fixes."

As the pandemic stretched on, however, the challenges facing the process of teaching acting became more evident. "Once we realized this would be long-term," Smith says, "we grappled with, 'well, how do we focus on working with students in a space where often we're asking them to live in the moment, and apply what their scene partner is giving them?' Unfortunately, Zoom has delays and lags; you had to allow for the glitches to affect in-the-moment reactions. So how do we navigate that?"

Like many people working in the arts, Smith says that he took advantage of a large network of people around the country and around the world who were facing similar challenges, and took advantage of that collaborative effort. Among the opportunities Smith says that this new form of teaching afforded was a chance to dig deeper into character development. "We've been focusing on getting into the actual script, so we've been able to approach this in an intellectual way and inform ourselves, so we can then embody another character," Smith says. "Often actors are ready to just get up and improv, free-form a character. Because of Zoom, we were able to really get into the language and the text and the intellectual side."

Additionally, Smith feels that the Zoom instruction has been a benefit to students for when they'll have the opportunity to actually act for a camera rather than on a stage. "Usually, when an actor is thrown in front of a camera, they panic a little bit," he says. "I think they will probably reap the benefits when they're on-set. ... The focus it took to communicate through the camera actually gave them great skills."

In recent weeks, the Acting Program has been able to conduct some in-person classes as guidelines shifted. This week, the Theatre Department's production of Molière's Tartuffe will represent a show that was created with unmasked actors working together, with strict testing and quarantining practices, which was then filmed in individual acts and edited together for a virtual presentation. "We didn't really do any close-ups," Smith says of the production; "the camera distance felt like they still had to use their theatrical muscles, so they had to perform like the audience was still at a distance. I had to really remind them that they were still acting for an audience."

Smith believes that the success of this Tartuffe production—like almost everything the program has faced over the past year—is testament to the ability of both students and faculty to adapt, and to communicate about what was and wasn't working. "We're not here to have a pass-or-fail kind of situation," he says. "And we've had students who realized this situation wasn't going to work for them, and decided to take a leave of absence. As much as we try to show up and get them to buy in, at the end of the day, I had moments where I didn't want to buy in.

"What's been really comforting is the students who have stayed with us have really been appreciative of the faculty doing the best we can, and really reinventing what we can do. That's been great that we can have that support. We've also heard their asks where things haven't been working for them—in terms of accessibility, in terms of being overwhelmed. I teach a few classes, but the students I teach are taking four or five other classes. I have to remember, everyone else is also asking the same of them."

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