A few Fridays ago, just before what I had come to think of as “showtime,” I lined my eyes, stepped into my costume, readied a prop and adjusted the lighting, which mostly meant fiddling with a bedside lamp. Then I logged into a Zoom meeting.
That meeting, an online recital for friends and colleagues, capped a brief and frantic curriculum of voice, movement, scene study, stage combat and some dubious dialect work. After the spring closure of theaters and studios, nearly every training institution adopted a remote learning model. Artists, suddenly unemployed, could advertise their services on new online agorae, like Arena Stage’s Theater Artists Marketplace and Hire Artists. Which means that theater training, at a variety of price points, has never been more available or accessible.
Screen-to-screen classes don’t exactly parallel in-person ones. They are shorter and often smaller — three-hour classes have shrunk to 80 minutes, and breakout groups are the new norm — with altered methodology. “Zoom has its own vocabulary,” said Laurence Maslon, associate chair of New York University’s graduate acting program. “It isn’t live. It isn’t in the room. That doesn’t mean you can’t achieve something.”
I wasn’t sure. As an undergraduate 20 years ago, I had majored in theater and back then, our training was exclusively and incontrovertibly face to face. Good acting happened in the moment, in the room, in the space between bodies and breath, action and intention. You couldn’t teach that online! (Admittedly, “online” back then meant “dial-up internet.”)
Or could you?
‘We have work to do’
For two humbling and sometimes humiliating weeks, I tried. With the help of friends, social media, frantic Googling and enough Disney+ shows to keep the children occupied, I designed a mostly live, all-remote conservatory training program. I wanted to see if someone like me — busy, amateur, with an instrument almost fully oxidized — could learn theater skills.
I started with vocal work, arranging a voice lesson via Broadway Plus, a concierge service that used to arrange V.I.P. access to Broadway performances and has since pivoted to online meet-and-greets and private lessons. As part of a publicity push for the “Hamilton” movie, Denée Benton, a Tony Award-nominated actress and a replacement Eliza, had volunteered to do some coaching. I am not a singer, which is less false modesty than true and harrowing fact, and Benton, whom I had interviewed during her run in the Broadway production of “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” seemed extremely sympathetic.
After polling friends about a good song for a nice lady with a Playbill-slim range and a shaky grasp of pitch, I picked “Sonya Alone,” from “Natasha, Pierre.” Because I love it, because you can kind of talk your way through the opening, because it hadn’t been one of Benton’s numbers. I rehearsed when I could — in the shower, cooking dinner, under my breath at various playgrounds. By the time the lesson came around, I had it down.
Then, sitting at my desk, with Benton smiling back at me from somewhere in the Midwest, I didn’t. My shoulders tensed, my throat closed, a chipmunk hijacked my voice box. The piano intro started, and I sang as only a squeaky toy can. But worse somehow.
“We have work to do,” Benton said when the song let me go. “That’s the point.”
Gently, she helped me break apart the song — unlocking character and emotion — then put it back together. “When you focus on the storytelling, it can make anyone a singer,” she said. Not quite. But by the end of the hour I could approach the chorus with emotions beside dread.
Can’t fake a rond de jambe
Though I once won a limbo contest at a classmate’s bar mitzvah, dance has also never been my thing. Still, I figured that Beginner Theater Dance, which I signed up for through Ailey Extension, couldn’t be so hard. I figured wrong.
We warmed up to selections from “The Lion King” and “The Prince of Egypt.” I even learned a Fosse hip roll. But as we danced to “No Day but Today,” the “Rent” finale, the ballet terms — passé, coupé, rond de jambe — proliferated and the eight counts came worryingly fast. Though I had positioned my laptop camera so that it showed only me from the rib cage up. I couldn’t even fake the arms.
Maybe that’s because, as I soon learned, a level exists even below Beginner. That level is Basic. So am I. The following week, I tried Steps on Broadway’s Basic Theater Dance. The instructor, Tera-Lee Pollin, a Broadway veteran with inhuman exuberance, guided a handful of students through “Waterloo,” the curtain number for “Mamma Mia!” and a song about defeat. Together, delightedly, we ponied, we swam, we grapevined. No jambes were ronded.
I could also just about manage the footwork required for knife techniques, which I learned through Swordplay. In advance of the course, the instructor, Joseph Travers, had sent me a bubble-wrapped training knife. (Was I disappointed to discover it was merely a hunk of ridged plastic? I was.) Through YouTube videos and private tutorials, I learned various grips, stances, cuts and blocks. This may just be pent-up pandemic anxiety talking, but I love stage combat now. My new party trick, assuming we ever have parties again: a fan grip switch, a flip from the overhand forward grip to the reverse “Psycho” grip.
I asked Travers how much combat, a skill that seems to demand physical intimacy, could be taught online. “There’s plenty of groundwork to be laid for the individual actor,” he said. “But ultimately, we have to face each other and fight.”
Dialect work, however, has been learned remotely from the days of the phonograph. At the urging of an editor who may not have had my best interests at heart, I chose Scottish, working through a few MP3 files each day — learning to position resonance lower in my mouth, lilt internal vowels, trill Rs and drop most Gs. The first days were unspeakable, with an accent that vacillated between demented Valley Girl and Southern Belle with cognitive difficulties. But a week in something shifted and I began to sound reliably, if hammily, Scottish. I wrote to a Scottish friend and asked if I could test it out on him. He asked after the region: Border? Highlands? Glasgow? “Brigadoon,” I told him. He never wrote back.
‘Tell a story and be real’
The acting component felt trickier, mostly because I used to act and I like to believe I wasn’t terrible at it — and I prefer that belief uncrushed. With the help of a contact at the Juilliard School, I wrote to two alumni who do online training one on one: Jimonn Cole, who would coach me on a classical speech, and Jo Mei, who would work with me on a contemporary one.
I met Cole first. He suggested a monologue from “As You Like It” and after a series of vocal warm-ups — tongue twisters, meowing — and a guided meditation that helped to establish the look and feel and precise pH of the Forest of Arden, we went into it. With calm and rigor, he had me note rhythm, punctuation, language, intention, plus vocal register. “Shakespeare is still just talking,” he said when he saw me start to tense up.
During our second meeting, with the piece now memorized, we worked on character, and he told me to make my Rosalind meaner, more vicious. “If that was venom at level 5, scold at level 9,” he said. I am sorry to shatter anyone’s preconceived notions about critics, but this was very hard for me! I made it to about a 6.
For my sessions with Mei, I had chosen a quieter piece, the opening of Lucas Hnath’s “The Thin Place,” which begins casually and gets creepier. Mei asked questions about the character and she pointed out punctuation, too, like the marked differences among a dash, a period and an ellipsis. But her method was less prescriptive, mostly jokes and friendly suggestions, like picking just one place to smile and not over-relying on a particular hand gesture. “The challenge of this one is how to relax into it and just tell a story and be real,” she said. Each time I went through it I felt as if I was acting a little less and being a little more.
Mei thought that we should work toward a goal, so she emailed a few friends. I did the same, and the day after our second session, we all met up on Zoom. In the moments before I went on — “on” meaning that I dropped into a chair shoved between the desk and the bed — I felt a paler version of what I had felt backstage 20 years ago, the butterflies, the flop sweat, the jolting adrenaline.
I thought of that scene, from “42nd Street,” in which the director tells the ingénue, “You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star.” I was pretty sure I was going out a theater critic and coming back a theater critic. And I was. And I did. But even through a screen, it made me remember — viscerally, a little regretfully — that strange magic of speaking someone else’s words and feeling someone else’s feelings and making them, for a moment, your own.
What did I learn? I mean, beyond saber grip and a “Mamma Mia!” move called “the coffee grinder,” which terrifies and delights the children? I learned — or I was reminded — that acting and its associated skills are hard, that they require real vulnerability, that it takes weeks and months and years of thankless exertion, solitary muttering and practice, practice, practice to make an effortful thing seem effortless. I learned that when I thought I couldn’t miss live theater any more acutely, I was wrong. I learned that as soon as it is safe to do so, I will absolutely knife fight someone.
So, yes, any amateur with enough time and resilience and discretionary income — a class can run anywhere from $12 to $100 — can probably learn theater basics remotely. Then again, as Travers said, ultimately we have to face one another, with or without knives. Because the alchemy of live acting before a live audience almost comes through onscreen. But not quite. Until it can, I will think of the thousands and thousands of people in their thousands and thousands of homes, practicing their pentameter, arabesques and key changes, waiting for curtains to rise.