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UNC strives to move an in-person art form into cyberspace

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Professor Jeffrey Cornell remotely teaches DRAM 250, Intermediate Acting for the Major, over Zoom. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Cornell.

Seven UNC undergraduates gathered on Zoom for their Intermediate Acting class with professorJeffrey Cornell on Aug. 20. 

Acting is about creating close connections, but for this year’s class, the challenge is doing so from miles apart.

After cheerful hellos and a cameo from someone’s cat, the group resumed its work on the playwright Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” 

Students shared what they’d discovered in their research homework about the character Roy Cohn, who is based on the real-life lawyer and political figure. Cornell emphasized how this research could support their acting.

“It grounds you in that world so specifically and personally that you can then find your character’s place in it, and feel their need as your own,” Cornell said. 

Then the students were ready to work on two-person scenes from the play. The rest of the class turned off their microphones and cameras, leaving the actors virtually alone together. 

Acting for the theater is intimate work — the ability to see, hear and feel another person in the same shared space is vital. When that work moves online, can it still provide the same value? Theater practitioners around the world are wrestling with this question. 

One solution is to cancel or postpone classes entirely. UNC's Master of Fine Arts in acting program gave deferments to this year’s entire incoming class, Cornell said.

For those classes still in session, there are three main options: online, in-person with masks and distancing or an online/in-person hybrid. Duke University’s theater studies department is currently offering classes of all three varieties, professor R. Darren Gobert said in an email. 

Before UNC's undergraduate classes went fully remote, Cornell explored the masked, in-person option. 

“I went out into my backyard and I tried to do monologues in mask and I found myself claustrophobic. I thought it was suffocating and restrictive,” he said. 

Zoom ultimately provided Cornell with more of the freedom and connection he was looking for. But it’s far from ideal.

“You get so much less information from other people and from your environment when you're acting on Zoom,” Sam Henry, a sophomore who played Roy Cohn, said. “It's a lot harder to buckle down and focus in.” 

Working from home has presented other challenges. 

“There were times when my mom would be on Zoom in the background while I was trying to act,” Henry said. 

When Henry finished his scene, some classmates mimed clapping, while others applauded with emoji. Cornell offered guidance for the next time. 

“You’ll have a chance to get this in your body, memorize it, personalize it and particularize it," Cornell said. "That kind of deep ownership gives us incredible fearlessness out there on the stage.” 

The students were learning a lot from their online class, though at first, they’d had their doubts. 

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘How is this going to work?’” junior Lauren Ragsdale said. “I was kind of in a panic. But it’s actually turned out pretty well. He (Cornell) has made it as engaging as possible.”

Henry also sees the value of their virtual course.

“I'm performing, I'm still learning, and ultimately, that's what's most important,” Henry said.

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Henry, Ragsdale and Cornell have all faced online obstacles like frozen video and patchy audio in class, but they agree that those hiccups can be taken as learning opportunities. Just like in live theater, the actors must be ready to adapt whenever the unexpected happens. 

No matter what, the show must go on.