If Carol Mayo Jenkins has learned anything from her six decades on stage and screen, it’s how to adapt to changing conditions. When the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, announced just before spring break that classes were moving online because of the pandemic, Jenkins said, “we had one week to figure out how we might teach acting classes online.”
A colleague sent her a tutorial from the head of acting at Juilliard. “She was marvelous!” said Jenkins, an artist-in-residence in the School of Theatre. “She led us through the basic Zoom setup and then showed us how students could work in a two-person scene by hiding self-view, so they see their partner on the full screen and don’t have to watch themselves act. That’s a big help!
“The teacher from Juilliard encouraged us to ask our students to make a set for their scenes by finding appropriate photos to be backgrounds for their scenes,” Jenkins continued. “Some of the students were incredibly inventive on this. I had one scene from Anna Christie that took place on a boat. They had two different locations on the boat, and I totally believed they were on that boat! I also required them to dress for their roles, just as I do in the classroom, and to come to each rehearsal and presentation of their scene dressed with needed props. They learned to hand each other props and to do physical contact—well, fights mostly—on Zoom. Some, of course, were bolder and more invested than others, but if I can help them with the technology, I can ask more of them in the fall. All in the process of learning.”
A class of advanced students studying Shakespeare faced different challenges. “They continued their work on scenes, which they had barely started before the shutdown,” said Jenkins. “And for their final they had to self-tape two monologues, meeting all the requirements that professional casting directors look for. David Alley co-taught that class with me and he is expert on self-taping, which is certainly the wave of the future.
“I doubt that an actor will ever do an in-person audition again, or at least not until the final callbacks,” she said. “So the online work fostered a very important skill for our students that we might not have implemented otherwise. That class worked like an on-camera class, in that we recorded their scene work then looked at in class, discussed—all very important steps in their training.
“For my advanced acting class, I did not record their work. I didn’t feel they were quite ready for that. But just being on camera was a very good step in their work, because with the camera there is nowhere to hide. It demands total concentration, and as they were all watching each other they could see when the concentration slipped, when the energy wasn’t completely focused.
“The students were terrific. We were all together during class time on Zoom. Two scenes would work, and then I would give notes and we would discuss the work, just as we did in the classroom. The advantage, of course, was that we had been together for nine weeks before the online class began; we knew each other and trust had been established. It may be more difficult starting with a new group from the beginning. I also felt the students were getting tired at the end of the five weeks. The quarantine was hard on them. They were missing their friends, their freedom,” said Jenkins.
“The funny part was that learning lines is always a challenge for some students, and I insist they know their lines when we go to work on a scene. On Zoom, I could see their beady little eyes flicking over to one side, and I would ask, ‘What is to your immediate left?’
“‘Oh,’ they would answer, ‘Some books, a lamp . . .’
“‘And your script?’
“‘Uh . . .’
“‘Do you think I can’t tell when you are reading from your script?’
We quickly got over that ploy! Essentially I think the classes were both quite successful.”
Lecturer Steve Sherman also converted his acting class into an on-camera acting class. “The students worked on their same scene for a play,” said Sherman, “and sent me a file every other week. Then we met on Zoom for notes. The main difference is not thinking about it in terms of more or less energy or the size of the theatre but simply that the camera lens is the audience. Some students who are more subtle actors on stage benefited from this and gave very truthful performances on film.”
For Sherman’s introductory theatre course, which had been held in a 120-student lecture hall, he adapted a group project into an individual assignment in which each student read a play and turned in a presentation as if they were a dramaturg—a literary advisor in a theatre. “They chose two of the five options—to act out a monologue, design a set model, design three costume renderings, design a mood board for lighting design, or design sound,” said Sherman. “I don’t expect professional work, but some of the models and renderings in particular were incredible.”