Ahead of July’s Playing with Prose workshop, actor Jack Tarlton discusses his first experience of running a virtual theatre workshop as the world went into lockdown – and reflects on the ways on which it connected students around the world.
In the weeks before the UK went into lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I finished a run of a play in Glasgow and led Playing with Prose, a two-day course on adapting novels for the stage held at the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR).
I was able to keep relatively busy during the first few weeks of lockdown from my base in Edinburgh by organising the online publication of two short plays that had been created at that workshop, but the possibility of any acting or teaching in the coming months looked impossible. Therefore, I was extremely happy to be asked to consider adapting the IMLR workshop into an online course to be held over Zoom, the video-calling app we’ve had all suddenly found ourselves tentatively using.
I was intrigued by the possibility but nervous. I had always hoped that the workshop caught the playful possibilities of the rehearsal room as well as the rigour of the classroom. As much as possible, I wanted it to be a dialogue between the students and myself, for there to be room for uncertainty and discovery. But I was concerned that all this would be lost by only being able to communicate through our computer screens.
Soon though, I started to see that there might be some benefits to this new way of working. By dividing what had been two intensive days into six two hour sessions over one week, the students would be able to have nearly four days to work on their own scripts instead of only a few hours. Realising also that the students would not be able to direct and perform their own scripts, I proposed bringing in five fellow actors to read the short plays. Buoyed by taking part in an online script-reading myself, I started to think this might just work, and when I discovered that there were already students registering from as far afield as Germany, the real potential of the project started to become apparent.
I still felt the familiar first day of rehearsal nerves as I waited for the students to arrive on the first morning of teaching. But once everyone introduced themselves and we started to interact from our personal spaces from countries as far afield as not only Germany but also Portugal, Hong Kong, Italy and Pakistan, I realised what a truly exciting prospect this was.
I finished the first day tired but rejuvenated. Time apart from each other allowed everyone to go over their notes and return to the next session with new insights and questions. Although slightly thrown on the second day with people popping up on screen in a different order so that it felt like everyone had moved desks suddenly, I was starting to feel a real sense of camaraderie among us all, paradoxically intensified by the physical distance between us. There was something positive in a group of strangers with very different first languages, educational backgrounds and life experiences regularly gathering in a space that only existed because we all wanted it to.
On the Friday afternoon, I divided the group into twos and threes and gave them each a short story – from Guy de Maupassant’s The Little Keg to speculative fiction writer N K Jemisin’s dark tale of fandom Henosis – and told them they had until Monday evening to write a short play based on it. Would they get on and be able to work together in their smaller groups? Or would the difference in personality, location and time zone prove too great?
I need not have worried. Each piece of work felt like a true synthesis between the sensibilities of each of the students, harnessing and moulding the spirit of the original text. One student described this space that our collective presence had created as a “venue for a great diversity of people from around the globe”. And several have since described how all these “alternative perspectives” energised and brought another layer to the class, with us all committed to “joining forces to create something unique” by “reading … across continents.”
Jack Tarlton is a Scottish actor, director and teacher. He has taught Shakespeare and modern drama studies and adapting prose and translating for the stage at the University of London, University of Buenos Aires, Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Oxford University, East 15 Acting School and for The Old Vic and Out of Joint, and was a visiting fellow at the Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London.. He can be found on Twitter @jacktarlton.
A longer version of this post can be found on the OWRI Cross-Language Dynamics blog, the translingual strand of which is based at the Institute of Modern Languages Research.
Image: Jack Tarlton in The Death of Ivan Ilych, performed in Wimbledon Library. Photo credit: Claudia Marinaro