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Embrace the Not-Knowing

What educator Elizabeth “Biz” Freebairn learned teaching Drama classes online.

Illustration by John John Roque

When I first started teaching theatre classes online, I felt apprehensive at best and (in my worst moments) like I had no idea what to do. I was pleasantly surprised to find out just how much of my usual practices adapted easily to a virtual medium. I work with a K-8 school in the area, and all of my students knew each other from previous plays and classes. Starting with a group of kids who are already at least a little comfortable with one another and with you as a teacher is obviously an advantage, but not something you can force if you’re working with a new organization or group. I used Zoom, so exact features may vary based on what program you use for online classes.

Your first-day rituals will almost certainly transfer to online class easily. During our first class or first day of rehearsal, my students and I establish our expectations for class. We create community guidelines and standards, and I share my own “Zoom” rules. Just like in my in-person classes, these often can be summed up with “be kind, be safe, have fun.” At this point, most kids have been in online classes for a while, so they will almost certainly have lots of ideas about Zoom etiquette.

My typical first day is all about setting up expectations and building community. Our world and our students’ world has obviously taken a dramatic shift over the last nine months. It’s important to create and sustain some routines and rituals for students in the class. Just like in person, I always start with a relaxed check-in period. Students who are in online school are missing out on a lot of the norms, like being able to chat with their friends in the halls between classes or at lunchtime.

I try to keep check-in as a time where students are almost entirely calling the shots. They can have a silly virtual background on, or show us their pet (or younger sibling). They can check-in from their bedroom or their trampoline, and they can use as many emojis as can fit in their name. In addition to sharing their name and thumb feelings, I give students turns to provide a “get to know you” question. I like asking for would you rather style questions, as that ensures you don’t get too many rambling answers.

Check-out is an equally important ritual in my classes. I typically use every single minute of time possible for class, so this usually is a “one word check out,” where I ask each student to share a word describing their feelings after class or summing up something they learned or experienced. If time allows, I may ask a slightly longer question, like “what was your favorite game we played?” or “what’s one new thing you learned today?”

An online rehearsal is extremely similar to an in person one. We warm up as a group — I try to make sure that my warm ups incorporate body, voice, and connection to others. Games where you “pass” from person to person in an established order or by calling names work well — anything that relies on vocal unison is tricky unless you keep students muted. Vocal warmups meant a lot of repeat after me style tongue twisters or articulators, and I’d take turns having each student unmute so I could coach them individually.

My best advice for warm ups and games is: try it! I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many games were easily adapted to work online. Along that same line, (just like in teaching in person) admitting that you don’t know is never a bad thing! Tell them you want to try something, and you aren’t sure how it will work. Your students are your allies in this — ask them for your help experimenting with a game in a new way.

I directed a 30-minute play this summer. We had seven students and used a script that was written explicitly to be performed over Zoom. I think my students and I were all pleasantly surprised by how much our online process mimicked our in-person process. Instead of going backstage to wait for an entrance, students turned their videos off and muted their mics. Rather than splitting between two spaces to practice different scenes, we opened breakout rooms where actors could run lines with each other.

I was fortunate enough to have a partner teacher/director. We normally went to different rooms on our own devices so that one person could work on blocking or rehearsing scenes while the other hosted a breakout room and guided all the students who weren’t “onstage.” This also leads me to what was the most different about doing a play online: sets.

Obviously, we weren’t all in the same place, and we used a script that worked with this convention rather than fighting it — the characters themselves were video calling one another and interacting over the internet (with the exception of a pair of siblings who shared a device). This created a fun opportunity for students to have much more of a hand in creating their costume and set than actors normally do. We’d discuss the character’s personality and style, and ask students to go look for things that fit. We had students set up their rooms to look more like their character’s spaces — hanging art on the walls, arranging props around their bed or desk, and of course adjusting and readjusting exactly where their device needed to be to frame their “shot” correctly.

One of the most fortunate differences came from the fact that every student had their own microphone. We never had to worry about being loud enough — rather, a few times, we had to bring down our volume or direct students to move further from the mic on their device.

Doing a play online also offered students a chance to learn a little bit about the differences between film and theatre. We talked a lot about how in a play on stage, our blocking helps the audience know what to focus on. When the audience sees a few people who are all looking at the same character, that helps them know who is most important right then. Over Zoom, the audience sees all of our boxes equally. It’s a lot easier for them to notice if an actor is zoning out or wiggling around when they aren’t supposed to be, and that movement is going to draw their eye even if another person is talking. We also talked about how sometimes our “listening” faces look a lot like a bored face. We worked on really listening and reacting to what our scene partners were saying and doing. Our blocking became less about crosses and entrances and exits and more about how we shift our position or change our expression at a specific moment.

There were some places where we got to be really creative about how characters could interact in realistic ways. We had two pairs of sibling characters in our play. One pair of siblings was played by real life siblings, so they were able to interact with each other physically. The second pair was played by students who did not share a house, so we’d have a student walk across their room, open their door, and yell to their sibling as though they were in a room across the hall.

Our audience experience was pretty magical. We elected to invite family, friends, and community members to join our performance through Zoom. The cast got settled in a breakout room and my co-teacher “house managed,” letting guests in from the waiting room and instructing them on how to turn off their video and hide non-video participants (honestly, one of the best Zoom features). At the end of the show, we invited our audience to turn on their videos and/or mics to give applause, and we held a Q&A so our students could share what the experience was like. While we all agreed that we missed some of the joy of hearing an audience react out loud, it still felt a lot like a live experience.

  • Embrace the not-knowing. Be open to learning new things and trying something that doesn’t work. I tell my students all the time “dare to fail.” This is a perfect opportunity to model that for your class or cast.
  • Be flexible and understanding. Everyone, teachers and students alike, is more stressed and anxious than usual. Cut your students slack and cut yourself slack. Offer chances to share worries and celebrate victories together.
  • Try and find ways you can make the medium work for you rather than spending all your time fighting it.
  • Keep true to your goals and values. Theatre is (for me at least) is all about community and coming together as a group to create something. We are all more isolated and separated than usual — enjoy the fact that you get to create a safe space for students to come together right now.

Elizabeth “Biz” Freebairn (she/her/hers) is a teaching artist, director, and arts administrator who has been working in the greater Seattle area since 2016. She works with multiple local organizations including Seattle Children’s Theatre, Parachute Players, and foundry10. Biz also runs an after-school theatre program at a Seattle K-8 school. She brings joy and empathy to her classrooms and stages, and believes strongly that theatre can and should be a place for everyone.

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foundry10 is an education research organization with a philanthropic focus on expanding ideas about learning and creating direct value for youth.