When theater moves online, actors get creative

Students perform their final projects for Movement for the Actor, in which they interpret a dramatic piece of literature through a school of movement discussed in class. Clockwise from top left, Donovan Holt performs from Lord of the Flies, Sydney Love and Bianca Vranceanu perform Antigone, Devon Whitney performs Sonnet 34, and Erin Fitzpatrick performs The Crucible. Screenshot by Northeastern University

The final projects for Movement for the Actor looked starkly different this semester. Normally, the students are filmed in a studio space on Northeastern’s Boston campus—a pristine, open, environment. This spring, they were filmed from beyond Boston: in backyards, empty living rooms, and wherever else the students could find space. 

Jesse Hinson, associate teaching professor of theater, taught the class and adapted with the students as classes moved online as Northeastern, acting on the guidelines of public health authorities, responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“For those of us who are working in physical methodology, we understand flexibility in the body—now you have to be flexible in a different way in terms of how you work with students,” Hinson said.

Portrait of Jesse Hinson

Jesse Hinson, an associate teaching professor of theater at Northeastern, taught several classes that moved online during the spring 2020 semester, including Movement for the Actor. Photo courtesy of Jesse Hinson.

Teaching theater classes remotely presented a particular challenge, as classes often rely on group performance and physical interaction. Professors at Northeastern have adapted their classes in unique ways, focusing on flexibility and community.

Students in Hinson’s class typically learn about different styles of movement and how to physically express their emotions while they’re acting. For their final piece students interpret a dramatic piece of literature, through the lenses of the movement styles they discussed in class.

At first, students struggled to perform in cobbled-together locations—it felt like a limitation, Hinson said. But after discussing it over Zoom, the students came to embrace the new environments and found ways to use their surroundings to enhance their performances, he said.

“They were taking what they had around them and instead of it being a limitation, they were using that to tell the story they wanted to tell,” Hinson said.

Hinson said that the students helped him figure the best ways to have class virtually, and the students helped each other in meaningful ways.

“The students taught me how they wanted to be led on this new medium and they did all of the work, I just did a little gentle facilitation. But they were far less fearful than I was,” Hinson said, adding that the students brought energy and camaraderie to the challenge.

Antonio Ocampo-Guzman, chair of the Theatre Department, and an associate professor, echoed the sentiment. 

“At the core of what we do in theater is build community, so whether we do that online or in-person, we’re still building that community,” he said. 

Ocampo-Guzman taught Acting III this semester and said that he encouraged students to disable their cameras during online classes, so that they might pay more attention to each other and to the rhetorical devices embedded in the text of a play. 

“A lot of people think that [acting] is about learning their lines; they think it’s about the speaking of lines. But the real art is listening to the other person,” Ocampo-Guzman said. “Without video, the listening deepens.”

Similarly, Hinson said his other classes have each changed in unique ways. In his Acting I class, students usually work in pairs to perform a scene; this semester the class shifted to performing monologues, instead.

There have been surprising benefits to having class online, Hinson said. Professional actors usually do auditions live, but because of the pandemic they are filming them instead, a skill with which even seasoned theater actors may not have any experience. Students now get hands-on training to practice that skill before they graduate. 

“Mostly it’s been just getting them to trust themselves and do it and then having them be brave enough to say, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’ when in truth they do,” Hinson said. “They know better than they give themselves credit for.”

Molly Callahan contributed reporting to this article.

For media inquiries, please contact Jessica Hair at j.hair@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718.