“I had never used Zoom before, so, to be completely honest, I was terrified on the first day of our workshop about how everything would work. The experience exceeded all of my expectations. Through this format, there was an intensity of collaboration that went very deep. I know our virtual workshop will have a huge impact on the production moving forward.”
– Diane Paulus, Director of 1776 / Terrie and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director
The virtual workshop of the American Repertory Theater production of 1776 directed by Diane Paulus took place from April 6 to April 18, 2020. Around 35 people regularly participated—including the twenty-four-person cast, director Diane Paulus, choreographer Jeffrey Page, dramaturgs, stage managers, associate and assistant directors, and the music team, and some sessions included up to 60 participants, adding in staff and other folks working on the production. The biggest discovery from this experience was how impactful this workshop turned out to be, planting the seeds for our future in-person rehearsal process. Our team wanted to collate some tips and things we learned during our process in case any colleagues in the field who are organizing similar workshops might find them helpful. Enjoy!
Before the workshop…
We sent around a survey to all workshop participants (actors, SMs, music, etc.) to know more about their logistical situation. Questions included:
- What equipment do you have access to? (computer, smartphone, tablet, etc.)
- In what time zone are you located?
- Do you have access to reliable internet service?
- Have you used Zoom before?
- Do you have any schedule obligation throughout the week? (family care, pet care, homeschooling, online class, etc.)
- Do you have access to an open space for movement?
- Would you like to receive a printed script?
We found it important to get organized internally, set goals, and be flexible
- We had an initial brainstorm with the directing, producing, and stage management teams to discuss the most basic goals and logistics before contacting actors, etc.
- A very important step is designating your team’s personal “Zoom expert”—this person created our meeting links each day and was available as needed to all participants to troubleshoot any log-in or technical issues. For us, it was our amazing ASM, who had a good amount of previous Zoom experience and felt up to the task.
- We worked with our stage management team as we would in a regular rehearsal process, paying particular attention to anything that would facilitate communication (contact list, distribution).
- A few additional check-ins with our dramaturgy team were useful to get research organized—we found that sharing research, especially on a show like 1776 where there is so much history to delve into, was one of the best things to cover during our online process.
Communicating the plan with actors and participants
- We sent an email from company management, so actors could feel welcomed into the start of the process as for any workshop or process.
- When stage management sent the welcome email and overview of schedule to the company, they also included the most basic Zoom instructions regarding how to log on, along with an offer to “test Zoom” with anyone that would like to do so in advance of day one.
- For the first daily call, Diane included a note to the company highlighting how “stress free” this experience should be and how it will be vital to take it day by day and stay open to how long things will take and schedule flexibility. Because of this, kept our schedule subject to change, allowing us to stay flexible to how long things would take.
- It was important for us to recognize, based on our survey responses, that we could not work 10AM – 6PM as in a regular schedule due to folks in different time zones. Because of this, all our group work took place from 10AM – 2PM PT/1PM – 5PM ET for both coasts, and we used the morning (ET) for certain private sessions with East Coast cast members and the late afternoon for our West Coast cast members.
- Contracts and paperwork were sent in advance to help smooth the first day. Stage management reserved thirty minutes at top of day to complete any outstanding paperwork, done in breakout rooms for privacy.
During the workshop…
- To facilitate the process, stage management set up daily links to a Zoom meeting with a waiting room (essential for privacy and security) and guests were muted upon entrance.
- Stage management also made sure anyone who would need to share content on their screen was a co-host at the top of the day.
- As people joined the call each day, the SM team checked off everyone as they admitted them from the waiting room—they texted the director once everyone was in the room and ready to go. Our ASM resident “Zoom expert” stayed in communication with the cast to troubleshoot any technical difficulties.
- Stage management made a playlist for everyone over the shared audio as folks entered, so it wasn’t awkward with everyone coming in on mute. It was also a helpful way to cue the start of work once everyone was on—as the music cut out and the SM welcomed us to the day.
- The first day was key for the success of the overall process. We completed paperwork, and left plenty of time for orientation and introductions to allow for as much human connection as possible.
- Lead a “Zoom orientation for group” on day one, covering things such as:
- How to mute and turn off video, and then to turn both sound and video back on.
- How to go from gallery view to speaker view and back, and how to scroll through the pages of faces.
- How to hide non-video participants in order to see the maximum amount of people on your screen.
- Let people know about breakout rooms (though, these can be tested as needed vs. during this orientation—we used them for paperwork, one-on-one music sessions, consultations with our costume designer, etc., and cast was escorted in and out of them by our ASM).
- Explain the raise hand and chat features, and how you will use them during your process (we found the raise hand feature essential, as the SMs/Assistants could monitor the raised hands in the room, and prompt folks to speak in order to avoid overlapping dialogue).
- Take any remaining questions about using Zoom.
- Have a meet and greet: we found it best if the director called on folks, so there was a clarity to the order of who would speak next—every company member included their pronouns, show affiliation, and where they were Zooming in from as part of their introduction. This was a lengthier process than the typical in person meet and greet, but it was vital to launching the workshop, so be sure to allow ample time for this!
- Diane made sure everyone knew it was alright to step away whenever needed to deal with anything personal during the day/session. We asked actors to notify SM if they needed to do so, and to turn off sound/video as needed.
- Frequent planned breaks were also a MUST. Regular ten-minute breaks and at least one fifteen- to twenty-minute break in a four- to five-hour session worked well. As people came back from breaks, people spoke through the chat function and shared various parts of their personal lives including pets, children saying hi, and more, a unique addition to this virtual experience!
- When people leave for the break, ask them to turn off sound/video. At the end of the break, we asked the cast to turn their videos back on in order to check off everyone “back in the room”.
The type of activities we were able to accomplish on Zoom…
- Because everyone was connecting digitally, one great thing was that people who were usually unable to be in the room due to geographic location could join us. For example, our rehearsals were meant to be in NYC, and there were several Harvard Professors and experts on the history surrounding 1776 that Diane wanted to integrate into our process, all based in Cambridge. In many ways, it was easier to integrate these visits as we did not have to coordinate travel, and the impact was not diminished at all! We always left time for a Q&A session with the cast, so that these presentations remained interactive was they would have in the room.
- Script reading: whenever we read scenes or the full script, we asked everyone to choose speaker view to follow along more easily. We also asked non-cast to turn off their videos and to hide non-video participants in order to get the maximum number of cast members on a single screen. Everyone was asked to stay muted until right before it was their time to speak to avoid audio feedback. When reading through the script, we read the lyrics as text, and our music team played prepared demos of the musical arrangements for everyone to hear.
- We used breakout rooms for the cast to have individual costume consultations with our costume designer, as well as introductory one-on-one sessions with both our dialect coaches and music team.
- Music: Live singing was tricky due to the lag and bandwidth particularities of all video conferencing services. When the music team worked one-on-one with actors, they used a separate service for audio and video to increase quality of both (our team, for example, found it helpful to use Zoom for video connection and Google Chrome for audio connection).
- We were able to screen-share design presentations, which included sharing the costume and set inspirations and designs with the company, and time for the designers to answer questions and speak directly with the cast.
- We found that the value of all this work was not diminished by accomplishing it virtually, and know that we saved ourselves valuable time in our future rehearsal process by choosing to do a workshop virtually.
Upon reflection, a few other tips…
- Many of our actors shared that they found having a designated “Zoom space” to be hugely helpful—even a designated corner of the room helped to increase focus.
- Have both your computer and phone available if possible, so if your computer cuts out due to internet problems, you can quickly dial in via audio so as not to miss too much of the session while reconnecting.
- Treat all rehearsal times like you would in the studio—let your stage manager know of any tardiness, inability to attend, or technical issues preventing participation.