Much Ado About Zooming: Teaching Artist, Robyn Grahn, Discusses the Move to Virtual Theatre Camp

Robyn Grahn is a Resident Artist and Teaching Artist for SF Shakes. She was in the middle of teaching Upstart Crows—a Bay Area Shakespeare Camp for teens that meets on Saturdays—when public health measures turned her in-person performance camp into a distance learning experiment.

Upstart Crows in Full Swing

SF Shakes: Your Saturday Upstart Crows Camp began meeting in January. Your camp was working towards a performance of Much Ado for family and friends at a culminating performance on April 11. But, then, social distancing measures forced you to stop meeting in person on March 21. Instead of canceling the camp, you opted to migrate online using the Zoom platform. Can you talk a little about that transition?

Robin Grahn: At first, I thought we’d just have to go online for just one session before everything returned to normal. [laughs] It was a little nerve-wracking to try to figure out a class that would keep the students’ attention. Also, we had been doing a lot of ensemble work. And it was a focus of this course.

SF Shakes: Can you explain what ensemble work is?

Robyn Grahn: That means doing a lot of watching one another, getting close to one another, reading each other’s body language and not using text, but rather using the interaction with each other on stage to build acting skills. I’ve had to suddenly switch that up so that the focus is now more one-on-one, and more text based.

SF Shakes: You mentioned that you were worried about whether the students would stay with you. What are you finding?

So, the students are definitely with me. This is an extraordinary group that is willing to be “in it.” Most of my students have been in Upstart Crows Camp before, so they know what they are working towards, and that dedication has been really beneficial. They’ve really come through, especially when it comes to migrating ensemble exercises to Zoom. They’ve been really good about experimenting with games. They surprised me with the one-word story game, for example.

SF Shakes: Can you explain what the on-word story game is?

Robyn Grahn: With the one-word story game, we sit in a circle– or, in this case, we decide the sequence of campers on Zoom and then we come up with a story by each person adding one single word as we go through. It’s difficult because, obviously I may have a story in my head that doesn’t match the story in anyone else’s head, much less the collaborative story unfolding in the course of the exercise.

SF Shakes: It sounds like one-word story can be a metaphor for all of the uncertainty in the world right now. You can’t anticipate how the story evolves. You have a vision for the story, but the story has a life of its own.

Robyn Grahn: [Laughs] Oh yeah.

SF Shakes: Can you tell me what has come to replace your ensemble work?

Robyn Grahn: Experiment. It’s become about seeing what works and what doesn’t, and what we present on a screen. It’s still about story, but now that story is located on the screen; each square of the Zoom grid takes on importance as it contributes to story. There’s less emphasis on costumes and scenery and props. It’s about getting the most out of that Zoom box on screen.

SF Shakes: Do campers contribute to the experimenting?

Robyn Grahn: Oh, definitely! During our second Zoom meeting we brainstormed the possibilities under the new circumstances. For example, they came up with the idea of doing a podcast complete with Foley sound effects and things like that. But, for the time being, we are really trying to push the limits of Zoom. For example, one student tried his hand at scene blocking by walking away from his computer camera to simulate hiding. So, certainly one of things we are experimenting with is creating depth, you know foreground and background. Another thing that is wonderful is that the campers are making great use of their individual spaces: one of our campers Zooms from his bedroom, so he’s imagining ways of using the bed as part of his toolset. A bed can be a hiding place, or a thinking place, for example.

SF Shakes: That brings me to the next question: by now we are familiar with seeing screenshots of Zoom meetings that look like heads in squares—that famous Brady Bunch grid. How do you address that? Are you working with heads mostly, or is the body involved too?

Robyn Grahn: We’ll be getting into that a lot more. Frame manipulation will be key in telling our story and showing the relationships between characters. You know, a soliloquy scene might demand an extreme closeup. Other scenes might call for distance. We are constantly playing with this. There are no rules. The students are willing to play and that has been a great resource.

SF Shakes: Have you discovered any surprising tips or tricks you can apply on Zoom that might be helpful for anyone using it for teaching art and performance?

Robyn Grahn: Games work surprisingly well. They’re mostly a carry-over from what we’ve been doing in in-person meetings, but with adaptation. For example, we play a “who’s the chief?” game in which one person starts a clapping rhythm and everyone else has to follow them as they change rhythms. The game is great for developing awareness skills that are essential on stage—you know, understanding who is animating a scene at any one time. Under normal circumstances, students who have left the room have to come back and determine who’s the chief based on what they are hearing. Obviously, we had to change that a little. So, it’s now become a game of mirror, where one person leads with gestures instead of sound. Zoom lets me place campers in a “waiting room” and when they return to the main conversation, they have to guess who the leader is based on vision.

SF Shakes: So, you create multiple virtual spaces using Zoom functions?

Robyn Grahn: Exactly.

SF Shakes: Is there an offline component?

Robyn Grahn: Yes, for example, there’s a masquerade in Much Ado, so I sent a link on how to make papier-mâché masks for the campers to craft on their own, but I also hosted a special mask-making session for any students who needed help or who just wanted to create masks together.

SF Shakes Upstart Crows is really about building up to a final performance. How do you manage expectations or disappointments knowing that social distancing rules mean there can be no in-person final performance?

Robyn Grahn: The biggest disappointments probably already happened during our first Zoom when it became clear that we probably would not meet again in person. But now the campers seem to be managing their own expectations in amazing ways. They seem very aware that what we ultimately create won’t be a fleeting one-time performance, but rather something more permanent given the Zoom recording function. It’ll be something more akin to film-making and they are adapting as actors.

If anything, they are—and I am—getting a good education in how to do this kind of thing for ourselves. And I mentioned this to them in the beginning: this will be a chance to learn how to present and produce yourself for something like social media or auditions. This is an education in finding good lighting, in presenting yourself for a camera and in constructing effective personas.

SF Shakes: I know you are teaching teens, but what if you were teaching much younger campers?

Robyn Grahn: What we’ve learned—especially recently—is that the internet is a valid way of expressing your creativity and values. There’s a hungry audience out there. Also, when it comes to younger campers, what I’ve learned is that our tried-and-true theater games translate really well to the online environment: they help with listening, with confidence, with creation.

SF Shakes: Zoom has a text chat function. Does that play a role in your teaching?

Robyn Grahn: Not so much. Text chat is a different skill set. Chat is about writing while acting is about using your heart and body. It’s not that one skill set is better than the other, but I really want to transport my campers to a different learning place and theater is that place—it keeps the experience special and distinct from say doing their schoolwork on line, if you know what I mean. There’s a use for text chat, but mainly to give a few examples of say, iambic pentameter, but my sessions don’t live in text chat, they really live in the realm of voice and in the immediacy of performance.

SF Shakes: Any final revelations about this experience?

Robyn Grahn: Yes, this has really opened a door for new forms of collaboration. I was really moved by how my campers put their heads together to work around the restrictions of social distancing. In a sense they became more social.

Robyn Grahn is a Resident Artist and Teaching Artist for SF Shakes. She has performed in two seasons of Shakespeare on Tour, SF Shakes’ educational program that takes Shakespeare plays into schools throughout California. She is also the Engagement Coordinator for SF Shakes, helping our organization connect with community in alliance with our partner organizations serving people experiencing homelessness.