On top of serving as an Urban Improv Teaching Artist for almost a decade, Holly Tarnower has recently been hard at work as Rehearsal for Life’s Resident Scholar! It brings her joy to debut her new blog, Life Unscripted, which offers audiences a deeper look into our work, shedding light on our processes, practices and experiences with students. According to Holly, staying connected to — and being able to look more closely at — a diversity of perspectives, including on youth experience and expression during these times, is vital for all of us.
The official word for 2020 is “pivot.” I’m sure you’re sick of hearing it, but like all other classrooms, artistic spaces and organizations, Rehearsal for Life’s Urban Improv (UI) programming has had to move ahead and pivot this year.
While pivoting comes with many challenges, growing pains and grief for the “normal” we had all come to take for granted, this chapter has also brought new successes, opportunities and innovation. Besides the global pandemic that has completely disrupted life as we know it, forcing us all into a “new normal,” UI stepped into 2020 with new leadership and new faces — and an urgent need to update our program delivery model to in order to reach our remote learners.
Perhaps you, like many others, are curious about what we are doing during this time. How are we pivoting our model? What do our virtual workshops with students look like? How have our devising and creative processes changed? How we are maintaining all the necessary health and safety precautions while creating art in the time of COVID-19? In this first blog entry in my new series, “Life Unscripted,” I will answer these questions and offer a peek into our pivot so far.
Obviously, the biggest pivot we have faced comes from the need to take our UI program, which has always been a live, interactive theatrical experience, and rewrite it as entirely virtual. As a result, everything about our processes and productions has shifted, from our work together as an ensemble, to our songs, scenes and even our workshops with classes.
Like most people these days, we now live on Zoom. We spent the first month as an ensemble (the newest members of which have never worked in the conventional UI model) redesigning our curriculum for the screen and bonding with each other in this new virtual environment. Many of our traditional scenes and characters remain relevant, but it took quite a bit of pivoting to transform our curriculum into scenarios that could be filmed safely during the time of COVID-19.
Using new ring lights, microphones and backdrops, we filmed some scenes in our own homes over Zoom (thank you to the Smith Foundation for supporting this need). For other scenes, we collaborated with an amazing local videographer, Jey Jey Roman. With his artistry, what once was live theater turned into short films! The UI ensemble would meet at outdoor locations, follow COVID protective measures, and shoot the scenes we had previously created and rehearsed online, armed with bags upon bags of props and costumes. The first day of filming was like going to Disneyland, after months and months of only working together in cyberspace.
While it has been exciting to work together in person, we are sure to take all of the necessary safety precautions, including filming outdoors exclusively, completing symptom checklists, signing waivers, wearing masks anytime we were not onscreen (and, often, onscreen), hand sanitizing up the wazoo and keeping a safe distance on set. We sought to model safety for others by following public health mandates and CDC guidelines. In most scenes we wear masks, maintain social distancing and reference the pandemic as our characters.
There are, however, some scenes in which actors are closer together or are not wearing masks. On these days, we had to be extra careful. For instance, ensemble members had to have received negative COVID test results immediately prior to filming. And while we did make the decision to film some scenes where we are not wearing masks or referencing the pandemic, this decision was not made lightly. This choice, in fact, aligns with UI’s mission to support the social emotional health of our students.
Our students are very aware of what is going on in and dealing with this new world. From speaking with them last spring and this fall, we know they are being vigilant with COVID safety; we also know how much this pandemic is affecting their emotional health. We are all living in this inescapable reality, so some scenes do serve as an escape, allowing students to fully immerse themselves in the material unhampered by the associations evoked by masks and explicit references to COVID. Our partner schools were made aware of the precautions we took in order to produce these scenes safely and responsibly.
With these precautions in place, the UI ensemble began their new careers — as movie stars! While glamorous-sounding, this was a particularly challenging pivot for me, personally, after realizing years ago that film acting was not for me. As an actor, I am quite expressive, which reads well on the stage, but can, for example, overwhelm a close-up. While performing, I also thrive off my audience’s energy. It’s difficult for me to get into that same performance zone with only my fellow actors and our videographer around me. To top it off, I’m impatient! — which generally is not a good quality for film, a craft that can be perfectionistic at times.
However, I had no choice but to accept these new circumstances and pivot my mindset. Despite the fact that I don’t love watching myself on camera (in fact, I’d rather get a root canal!), this new creative process has ultimately been very rewarding. It has flexed different acting muscles I hadn’t activated in a while. But what’s most lovely about creating content in this new medium is seeing my coworkers make this pivot alongside me, and watching how their personal process and craft shift. In the past, performance concerns from our newer ensemble members have centered on the vocal projection and physical energy levels required to act onstage in front of a live (and active) audience. Now the camera captures the stunning honesty of and subtle nuances in their performance in a way that wasn’t possible before.
For one example, let’s hear from Cooper Evello, UI teaching artist and musician extraordinaire. Cooper joined the UI ensemble in 2019 without much prior acting experience. About our pivot to recorded material, he notes, “I like acting on camera actually better than in person, because you get to be hyper-realistic. You don’t have to worry about projecting as much; you don’t have to worry about where your head is or where your face is; you can look down; you can mumble; you can stumble over your words a little bit. It feels a lot closer to real life. You also get a lot more control. You can do as many takes as you want, you mess something up you can just do it again, or if you get something amazing you can keep going and improvise off of that and then always you can edit it.”
And isn’t that what Urban Improv tries to relay to students — that, when we “mess up,” we keep going? Different unique skills and beautiful moments are now being captured in a new way and being added to the toolbox we are continually growing as teaching artists.
UI superstar and founding ensemble member Merle Perkins shared her thoughts on this pivot, after almost 27 years of acting in live UI workshops: “I truly miss the live engagement of the audience and in-person classroom interaction. A safe environment in which artists, teachers and students can share and create reality-based scenes and scenarios thrives on the immediate connection. When we work with our students in the studio face-to-face, there is space for improv and playing off the audience’s response.
“Now, however, we create content virtually or on video and that gives us a chance to look at our curriculum, songs and scenes in a brand-new light (through a new lens, literally). With filmed content we have time to be intentional about every moment, which forces us to hyper-focus on our message and on the action we want to convey. When implementing our program using pre-recorded filmed performances (as we must do during COVID-19), we get a chance to concentrate on all the ideas we are developing in minute detail.”
Our workshops, now called residencies, have also pivoted. Before COVID-19, we usually met with each class for 75 minutes per weekly session. We would perform live, invite students up to play in scenes with us and then have them create and perform their own scenes in small groups about the topic of the day. This year, we see each class on zoom for half an hour. When I first heard that number, I admit, I had so many questions: What if there are internet issues that eat up time? Will students have their cameras on, so that we can see their faces? How will we interact with them if they don’t have them on? How will we have enough time to do anything at all in half an hour? During our first trimester, we see eighth and fourth graders — our oldest and youngest students. Surely our eighth graders would not feel motivated to engage in Urban Improv over Zoom? Will the students still be at all excited to see us? Will this new medium take away all of the magic?
I’ll answer those last questions first. I was very happy to discover within the first day of online workshops that the answer is yes, the students are still excited to see us, and no, all the magic is not lost.
Almost all of our eighth graders leave their cameras off throughout the school day, so when we entered their Zoom classrooms, it seemed we were looking into an empty void of black screens. I felt nervous, and skeptical. Are the kids even here? I worried. Will we be talking to ourselves on the screen and hear nothing back? Before this fear had time to take me over, I started to hear some familiar voices. “Hi, Miss Holly!”; “Oh, I remember you guys!”; “I’m so happy to see you guys!” Names of students we have worked with since they were in fourth grade appeared under the Zoom room’s “participants” list — and I felt right at home again.
Even though these students are isolated in their homes, looking at screens all day with their cameras turned off — and are at an age where it could seem “uncool” to be too interested in our programming — seeing our familiar faces and experiencing UI’s return in their life clearly brought them comfort and excitement they weren’t afraid to express. One eighth grade class even added a separate Urban Improv section to their Google Classroom and was excited to show it to us. These are the moments that make everything worth it.
In almost every eighth grade group, at least one or two students turn their mics on and engage heavily in the conversation. As this happens, other students follow their lead and begin to respond in the chat. Eventually, after a few minutes, more eighth graders will begin to turn their mics on and speak into the space, and even start to turn on their cameras!
As for the fourth graders, this is a new world for everyone. As our programming begins in the fourth grade, they have never attended live UI before, so this is the only normal they know. What a dose of pure joy it was to see those eager little faces for the first time! The excitement and enthusiasm just oozed from the computer screen as we signed into each new fourth grade class. Unlike the eighth graders, the fourth graders are very happy to leave their cameras on, flooding our screens with bright, smiling faces, waving their hands happily at us. They (very enthusiastically!) take full advantage of Zoom’s chat feature to express their excitement and appreciation of each activity, compliment our work, tell us how they are feeling and ask us questions.
Our residencies consist of a group greeting and welcome into the space, a land acknowledgment for the indigenous territories we all sit upon, a physical warm up that activates the body and ignites group energy and a quick review of the scene/song video package they watched this week, which we sent to their teachers at the end of the previous week to share. After this, the classes are situated in Zoom’s “breakout rooms,” where smaller groups of students get the chance to have more intimate conversations with one or two UI teaching artists. In these groups, students are asked open-ended questions about the scene they saw and how they feel about the issues addressed in it. They are offered the opportunity to act, playing out what they would say to characters in the scenes, or role-play with the teaching artist.
These breakout rooms have been greatly successful. After about fifteen minutes of discussion and role-play, we all return to the main Zoom room and debrief the day as a class, inviting students to share a word or phrase from their breakout rooms and what they are taking away with them as they go. Then, in true UI fashion, we officially close out with a mini dance party, playing fun music and boogying out of the Zoom room.
This format is working wonders, but, like everything this year, sometimes we may have to pivot in additional ways to suit the specific needs of a class, or focus on something in a different way for a certain week (after all, we are improvisers!). For example, while we are unable to enact our beloved group scene activity, where students create their own original scenes, in its traditional format, we have created a UI Flipgrid account online, through which students can participate in supplementary arts activities. Flipgrid, a digital platform, allows us to post video- and text-based assignments that prompt our students to think critically and creatively and encourage them to respond through their own original artistry. While I was initially skeptical of this strategy — Don’t our students already feel fatigued by the sheer amount of virtual material expected from them these days? Will they really want to engage this way? — my skepticism vanished quickly, when, in one full week of classes, we received over 68 student video responses via Flipgrid!
The fourth graders, of course, were the most enthusiastic to connect and create through Flipgrid. Their first two prompts were as follows: “What are three things that make you feel like a superhero?” and “What are three things that you want to learn this year?” Their response videos were heartwarming, funny and creative, utilizing different effects, emojis, and in-video text to impressive effect.
What makes our students feel like superheroes? “I’m Vietnamese”; “I speak Spanish;” “My markers” (as they were held up to the camera); “Anything that comes with art — I love drawing”; and “Helping people in my family, helping with chores, and doing what I’m supposed to do.”
Regarding what they want to learn, students said, “This year I want to learn more about science, math and the US Standard Algorithm”; “Get more used to Zoom”; even “[The UI] songs”! I actually parcel out watching these response videos throughout the week so that, whenever I feel stressed or I realize I’ve been watching the news for too long, I can feel better hearing our youth’s voices, seeing their faces and learning about them in these lovely videos.
This year is an exploration of completely new territory for all of us, filled with continual learning, innovation and experimentation. While of course I wish we could be singing and acting together in the same room, just feet away from our students’ beautiful faces, I am excited to see how the year progresses. I look forward to seeing the final products of all the new digital content we have created and have yet to create for all four grade levels, and for the conversations we are able to have with students in this new space. And I’m most excited to continue to be a part of something that allows students to step away from the everyday stresses of this current world and offers a safe space for them to express their feelings.
As we continue to pivot, I will continue to keep you posted! You can expected updates to this blog quarterly. So, until next time, I’ll leave you with the words of one of our fourth graders after just one week of Urban Improv:
“This is amazing, and I really enjoyed this, because it gave me courage and I learned a lot.”
Sending Love, Creativity and Hope,
Holly Tarnower (Urban Improv Teaching Artist and Resident Scholar)