By Tamara Meneghini
THTR 4023 - Studio 4 - Playing with Style is a required BFA/Acting studio course and is considered a guide for students in moving outside of contemporary realism into a considerably less familiar area of acting in historical time periods and different genres of plays.
Actors are encouraged to take emotional risks, expose themselves fully to the given circumstances of a play, and be comfortable within the process of creating believable characters connected to a specific time and place. For my teaching revamp of this course, I leaned into the idea that innovation, creativity and change (growth) are directly connected to vulnerability, collaboration and courage.
In a field where great emphasis is placed on the development of contemporary work, my interests lie in thoughtfully analysing student performance and investigating the historical significance and influence of period performance style to contemporary acting practice today. A component of this process is teaching students how to truthfully and clearly respond to their own work and the work of their colleagues by creating a useful reflection tool. The goal was to create a new reflection process that would better guide the student to experience growth in their performance practice, partnered with thorough critical response, reflection and revised performance.
Unbeknownst at the beginning of my deep dive into crafting a better way to reflect and respond to work in the studio, was the reality that the teaching and learning atmosphere created in the first eight weeks of the semester would be altered drastically due to the unpredicted shift out of the studio in response to COVID-19. This portfolio documents the process created as part of my initial inquiry of developing a deeper, more thorough reflection/response tool for the students and myself. It also reveals project reconstruction that emerged in direct response to how best to teach and learn this material remotely. While I do not allege to have created a masterful solution, what was gained in the teaching and learning in this unique situation was a lesson in staying connected, curious, trusting the foundation of knowledge already shared, and staying open to transformative discoveries that can emerge from the seeds of change.
This course is the final of the four-semester sequence of BFA/Acting studio coursework, preceded by Studio 1 – Building an Ensemble, Studio 2 – Creating a Role, and Studio 3 – Acting Shakespeare. Leading up to this course, BFA/Acting student performance studio course study has been focused on working in collaboration with other students, crafting a role specific to a given circumstance established in a play, and understanding how to analyze, perform, and discuss the plays of William Shakespeare. This course takes all those skills and areas of knowledge that have been gained in the previous studio course work including collaboration, creating a character and how to approach poetic text into consideration towards the understanding and embodiment of period specific performance. It is an introduction for the student actor in understanding how to approach a play set in another time period.
In teaching this course, I have found the greatest challenge in the area of guiding students towards a place of confidence and comfort in approaching and ultimately performing in these unfamiliar period style plays. In the past, I have front-loaded the unit performance project with research-based assignments such as studying specific historical elements of the period, knowing influential people and politics of the period, and then presenting findings on this history to the class. However, this experience has not always yielded the desired effects in student performance work - such as a more layered characterization and performance. Due to the length of time spent in this area, it has influenced the depth and value of the performance feedback. Because students are basically learning a whole new set of skills to perform period specific plays, it has become abundantly clear to me that the course requires more time devoted to performance reflection, application of feedback and final response to the work.
The teaching methods include led group exercises, written play analysis from an actor’s point of view, prepared performance projects (monologues and/or selected scenes), followed by structured response and reflection and revisiting each performance again. Each unit will follow this order; assigned readings and introduction to the time period, instructor led physical/vocal exploration of the period style shared agreements (movement, voice and atmosphere), discussion and written analysis of an assigned play from the period, period performance work (monologue and/or scene), guided response/reflection to performed work, a final performance and reflection (discussion and written).
The cumulative project of the course is called the Period Style Salon. As a result of the course being the final required studio course in a four-semester sequence for the BFA/Acting major, and subsequent end-of-semester faculty assessment of student work, I can determine a time period appropriate project that best corresponds with the specific challenge set of the student ensemble. Each student is assigned a historically significant person of the period, who is integral to the given circumstance of the project and a scene and/or monologue that is specific to the assigned salon time period. After the student receives their assigned salon character they will begin their initial research on writing and performing their Character Biography project.
During the spring semester 2020, students in the THTR 4023-801, Playing with Style – Studio IV course embarked on the challenge to not only understand and embody period style performance in the acting studio but also found themselves uniquely positioned at the center of a crisis that would notably affect the very art form that compelled them towards a serious BFA/Acting degree path. This upper-level period performance study course is the fourth semester in the BFA/Acting training studio sequence, following three semesters focused on the creation of the ensemble, the creation of character, and Shakespeare. In this course the student is asked to explore plays, people, and places of other time periods most representative in the theatre performance canon. The focus of the course portfolio and the expression of student learning is evident in guided student responses and personal reflection to the work, as well as understanding and articulating the noticeable adjustments when they return to a performance again.
Looking back on those first weeks of online instruction and the necessary reconstruction of one unit project and the final salon for the class, it was a terribly daunting prospect. What I learned above all else was to simply grant myself the permission to remain open to the possibilities presented in the work and be willing to experiment within the given circumstances. In some ways, it was not so unlike approaching a period style as an actor and being asked to experience a completely new way of life.