The show must go on(line) for this summer theater course


By Jill Schaefer

Shakespeare wrote that “all the world’s a stage,” but what happens when your world is a pandemic living room and your stage is a computer monitor? If you’re Clare Arena Haden, lecturer for the University of Wisconsin–Madison Department of Theatre and Drama (which is housed in the School of Education), you do what any good actor does: You adjust.

Clare Haden
Haden

Like thousands of other Summer Term courses offered in 2020, Theatre 200 Acting Skills for Life was unexpectedly transitioned to an online format. For Haden, who was hired to teach four sections of the course, it posed an interesting challenge.

“I had no idea how to create an engaging and enriching theater course entirely online,” she says. “I’d never done it before. I’ve always taught theater courses in person and been able to work directly in the same space as my students.”

Haden developed the course as an asynchronous online offering, so that students could participate at whatever time and place worked best for them — a boon to those who lived in different time zones and countries. She also believed her course could offer her students something more than credit hours.

“I knew these skills would be of benefit, especially during the pandemic,” she says, “so that inspired me to find a way to get students off the computer when possible and in their bodies, minds and voices.”

Skills for life

Housed in the Department of Theatre and Drama, Theatre 200 is a popular course for non-theatre majors interested in using acting techniques for “real-world” applications such as presentations, interviews, pitches, and teaching. Students learn to connect on a personal level with themselves and others and how to better manage or overcome stage fright.

“Actor training is human training,” Haden explains. “It demands a broad range of skills including a well-developed imagination, emotional facility, physical and vocal expressivity, clarity of speech and projection, and the ability to interpret drama. It also demands authentic presence in the actor. I refer to this as the mind/body/voice connection.”

To help her students develop this authentic presence, Haden assigned homework including yoga, meditation, vocal exercises, and improv games with family or friends. Utilizing online group discussions, self-made videos, and voice recordings, students actively observed themselves and one another, responding to each with honest self-reflection or thoughtful feedback.

Working within the confines of a computer monitor offered opportunities for students to work on mimicking gestures, facial expressions, mannerisms and vocal qualities.

“It’s a fun way to use the camera to still push the boundaries on what you can do as actor,” says Haden. “We still work on projection and vocal support as if we were on stage. It’s not quite the same as [being] in a more expansive space, of course, but we make it work.”

Showing a quirky side

Haden has continued to teach Theatre 200 online over the fall and spring semesters and is currently teaching the course online for Summer Term 2021.

Shivani Peddainti
Peddainti

Shivani Peddainti, a rising senior at UW–Madison majoring in biology, took Haden’s course online in fall 2020 to balance her STEM-based schedule. She says there were definite advantages to taking a theater course online.

“As an amateur, practicing these exercises in the privacy of my home let me take risks in my acting choices, and it built my confidence quickly,” says Peddainti. “The yoga and meditative exercises were also more peaceful to do at home as it is easier to get into a deeper headspace, and I also really enjoyed the flexibility of the schedule.”

She describes Haden as a wonderful, caring instructor and the course as one that fosters kindness, freedom of expression, and fun. She says the course taught her internal and external strategies for speaking confidently in a way that grabs an audience’s attention.

“I also learned that it’s essential to embrace your randomness,” she adds. “Whether it was [through] storytelling, imitating a famous actor, or creating an elevator pitch, when I applied my creative energy and showcased my quirks, that made me stand out.”

Transformation scene

Haden says that while she’s eager to share a space safely with students in person again soon, she hopes she can continue to teach Theatre 200 as an online course as well.

“For many students, the online course offered a way to connect and still grow through this work while having the flexibility of being anywhere in the world and adjusting with their already busy schedules,” she notes.

Haden describes her experience of working with students from a variety of backgrounds and majors as inspiring: “I love learning about what they are pursuing and how to better help them communicate with clarity what they’re passionate about.”

Overall, she was pleased to see how much her students’ confidence grew, especially during such a challenging year.

She adds, “I’m amazed at how much more poised, comfortable, and self-assured almost every student was in bravely putting themselves out there again. The honesty and commitment to the work was truly awesome. It’s so wonderful to see and experience.”

This story originally appeared on the UW–Madison Summer Term blog