JCU pioneers virtual theater workshop

London actors came to JCU to lead an interactive workshop.

Nicolette Noce, Campus Editor

Actors from London, England, Zoomed into 27 classes in seven different John Carroll departments last week. Each actor led dozens of students in virtual interactive workshops.

 Supported by the Hopkins Fund, John Carroll’s English department invites the actors to our campus every two to three years. Actors From The London Stage is an organization that was founded in 1975 at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The troup consists of five actors who perform a whole Shakespearean play. Typically, the company tours many colleges and universities all around the United States, twice a year. But with the global pandemic still sweeping the nation, these tours have gone online and largely unseen.

 Debby Rosenthal, a professor in the English department and the person responsible for organizing this year’s visit, told The Carroll News that JCU is the first university where the actors have led students in a virtual performance workshop. 

“JCU is the only university in the country to be bold enough to try a virtual theatrical residency,” said Rosenthal.

 When the actors previously visited campus, they performed a Shakespearean play consisting of only five actors. Each actor plays one or two lead roles and a series of smaller roles. Along with these live performances, the actors lead in-class workshops with students from various departments. This year, their visit looked a little different.

 Five actors have Zoomed with classes in departments including English, Political Science and Business. Rosenthal said, “Actors can greatly help business and STEM professors teach students in innovative ways. For example, the actors are Zooming into a chemistry class to help students learn about arguments regarding climate change. AFTLS will help students act out the arguments about climate denial to understand and inhabit various perspectives.”

 The actors facilitate student reflection in a variety of disciplines as well. “AFTLS can help business students finesse pre-prepared presentations, teach communication skills necessary for job interviews or teach students how to make an audience empathize with a speaker,” Rosenthal said.

 After nearly an entire year of remote learning, the classroom can feel unengaging. Rosenthal hoped this year’s visit would “bring a new approach to online learning with the actor’s creative pedagogy, energy level, delightful British accents and their insistence that students get up and move around.”

 Bruce Alexander, an actor of 49 years, joined professor Phil Metres’ Intro to Poetry course all the way from Oxford. He greeted the class saying, “I cannot get over the magic of this. One can cross the Atlantic with the press of a button.” Alexander said that he first began performing with AFTLS in 1987, and he has been with them ever since.

 Rosenthal’s Environmental Literature class, which focuses on climate-change-themed fiction, was visited by actor Christopher Staines. Staines’ workshop had every student up from their desk and moving as they recited lines from Barbara Kingsolver’s novel “Flight Behavior,” a book the class has been reading.

Christopher Staines (Photo from IMDB)

 “AFTLS energize classrooms by bringing the magic and skills of the theater to the wider JCU community. Professional performers have much to offer in terms of deep engagement with any subject matter and the ability to try to inhabit new ideas,” Rosenthal told The Carroll News.

 Staines engaged the class by exploring the different sounds found in the reading and picking apart the scenes to deepen the students’ understanding of the material. Staines also had the class practice physical actions and accents that matched the readings. 

 “Through AFTLS, students can work directly with an actor and learn some theater techniques that can help them get out of their heads and see their classroom material in a different light,” said Rosenthal.

 Even faculty members have benefited from this year’s virtual workshop visit. “JCU professors are brilliant in their respective fields, but most do not have acting skills as part of their toolkit for teaching students. Professors greatly benefit by seeing their own material taught with a totally different skill set. It’s really exciting and energizing,” said Rosenthal.

 Professors were thrilled to have AFTLS enter into their Zoom classrooms. With the repetition of Zoom classes, many participants were excited for a change in pace. Dan Reynolds, a professor in the English Department said, “Our actor immediately hooked my elementary teachers over Zoom. One hundred percent of my teachers said I should bring an AFTLS back next year. Two thumbs up! Count me in every time they come!”

 As many students begin searching for spring and summer internships or focusing on graduation, they are faced with the daunting task of interviewing, some for the first time. The actors were able to provide helpful tools for students to use in their professional lives as well.

 They [the students] focused on treating interviews and presentations like an audition and learned strategies for preparing, communicating and dealing with mishaps in those situations,” said Alison Dachner, a professor in the Boler School of Business.

 Margaret Farrar, professor of Political Science said, “It went better than I could have imagined. Rich [the actor] got the students thoroughly engaged as they practiced real world communication skills. What a great gift to our students!”