One of the foundations of theatre improvisation is to embrace the mindset of ‘Yes, and…’
“Is that a squirrel over there?”
“Yes, it is. But why is it dragging a suitcase across the lawn?”
“Maybe it took it from that student. After all, it’s move-in day at Luther.”
Teaching in the COVID-19 world is like doing improv theatre ... You show up, take stock in the moment, and say ‘Yes, and…’
In mid-September a faculty member in my department learned they couldn’t come to campus to teach class. They’ve worked out how we can project their image in the classroom so students can see and hear them. Each morning I show up and turn on the computer and projector, say good morning, and then leave until class is finished.
A student notifies me that they will be in quarantine because they may have been exposed to COVID. We agree that they will join class virtually. Now it is a mix of in-person students present in the classroom and students projected on a screen—we can all see (mostly) and hear each other. Another student notifies me that they are at home—they may or may not have the virus. They’ve seen how to join the class online. Two days online and they are back—they tested negative. I now have students who join the class online when they wake up late. The conversation is just as rich as if they are there in person. I find it is nice to see students without masks as they join class from their home, residence hall, or hotel room.
A third student is home for two weeks. They are in the Lighting Design course—a lab-based class. We’re covering the section on circuiting, dimmer, and light board control systems in Jewel Theatre. I connect with them through Zoom on my phone and carry them around in my shirt pocket as we tour the lighting grid and control areas. When it’s their turn to hang and power a lighting instrument, I act as their avatar, taking orders as ‘they’ hang, circuit, patch, and focus the light. (I find it hard not to give them hints when they are about to make a mistake.)
The Hidden Craft of Improvisation
Over the years I’ve seen some great, and not so great, theatre improv. Students often think you can just jump in and do it. But like any art form, there is a craft or skill to learn. Those that are great at improv have taken the time to hone their skills—things like being in the present and using the moment, or providing memorable details.
These moments during COVID while teaching improv—finding ways to keep students engaged when they physically cannot come to class—are mostly pre-planned. Ideas that we thought of this summer as we prepared to teach in-person classes … with the thought that maybe not all could join in person. If we had to teach all courses virtually, I had planned to use a live-stream when introducing the Jewel lighting system. So, the last minute idea to carry around a student Zooming in on my phone wasn’t that far afield.
What’s next? Producing a concert version of the musical, My Fair Lady, with a masked, physically-distanced cast. But how do you stage the ballroom scene where everyone is dancing but no one can be touching? And what if a cast member has to quarantine or isolate?
Those are the next scenarios we must contemplate. It’s time to prepare the best we can, use the present moment, and work on creating some memorable details.