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Randolph theatre program adapts to online learning with tutorials, supply kits

Theatre professor Stephanie Earl records a tutorial for students taking her class this semester. 

Randolph theatre professor Stephanie Earl has spent the spring and summer watching as theatre communities all over the world adjusted to performing during a pandemic.

“There has been a ton of content out there, a lot of play readings, that have happened via Zoom,” Earl said. “It started in the spring, but in a small way. Professional theaters have continued doing them all summer and are still going strong.”

Earl directed one herself in June, through the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton.

“That was a great opportunity for me because I had to learn a lot and learn it quickly. They contacted me and said, ‘We want to do this in two weeks,’” she said. “I tried to get my hands on anything that I could and watch as much as I could. I learned all sorts of fantastic ways theatrical choices can be made over Zoom in terms of sound effects and special effects. There are all sorts of things you can add that will make it more theatrical.”

She’ll be bringing that experience to her acting and directing classes this fall.

“I’m trying to find very simple ways to ask my actors to manipulate things in their spaces. Saying things like, ‘Do you have a lamp? Do you mind setting that up right next to you so you’re in silhouette?’ There are different ways to set the scene without having to ask people to purchase things. With students especially, I wouldn’t want to ask them to go into stores. You want people to stay at home and be safe.”

Earl is also teaching a performance portfolio course, which focuses on effective auditioning skills and techniques, this semester. Since the spring, she has taken advantage of online learning to show students how to self-tape an audition, a real-life skill aspiring performers need in today’s world.

Theatre professor Stephanie Earl records a tutorial for students taking her class this semester. 

Theatre professor Stephanie Earl records a tutorial for students taking her class this semester. 

“It used to be that all of your auditions, you did in person. You could make it there to audition, or you couldn’t,” Earl said. “Now I’d say about half of what actors do, even in theatre, is send in tape of themselves.

“That ended up being an incredibly useful thing in the spring, and I’ve kind of dug into that even more,” she added. “I’ve tried to learn more over the summer about different types of submissions, the difference between a theatre submission, a commercial submission, and a film submission. I’m trying to give my students lots of tutorials and have them put that into practice. For those who are going to pursue acting work, they’re going to be that much more ahead of the curve.”

She’ll be recording more of the tutorials she began in the spring and rolling them out to students throughout the semester.

Patrick Earl, her husband and fellow theatre professor, also will be recording voice and breathing exercises for his students to watch before logging into class, she said.

“There’s not enough time in class, the way things are set up, to see everybody do them,” she said. “He’s going to give it to them in advance, and then watch them do it.”

The videos aren’t the only way the department is reaching students this semester.

Professor Heather Sinclair recently sent supplies to students taking two of her courses: scenic design and stagecraft.

Scenic design students received model-making supplies, including foam board, glue, a scaled ruler, velum and tracing paper, and metal pins.

“The idea is they will complete their projects, take pictures as they go, and then ship everything back to me to be properly graded,” she said.

Her stagecraft course usually focuses on the physical construction of a show, so she has retooled it to focus on props and costumes. She sent those students sewing kits, paper supplies, fabric, and a gel book full of the colored inserts used in stage production lighting, among other items, to work on projects throughout the semester.

They’ll send back any supplies they don’t use, which will be recirculated into the department’s stock.

She’s also set up two cameras by her drafting table, so students can watch her draw live from various angles during class.

“I’m working on not overloading them as much as I normally do with material because my classes are an hour and 15 minutes,” Sinclair said. “That’s a long time to stare at a screen and not do anything else, to not be interactive physically. So I premade my PowerPoints and post them the morning of class, so they can follow along.”

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