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Teaching Directing in Covid Times

Posted on: April 12, 2021

By Regge Life. A producer, director and writer for film and television, he is currently the Senior Distinguished Director in Residence at Emerson College in Boston, MA. He is the author of Becoming an Actor’s Director.

When the lockdown began in March of 2020, the college where I teach moved all classes online, so the teaching of directing, became problematic. Film and television courses are production classes so there is a lot of collaboration – sharing equipment, assisting each other in close quarters, not to mention the actor/director conversations that for an Actor’s Director, needs to be personal and intimate. So, professors of directing classes had to figure out what to do. I felt at that time, because of the positive feedback I received from students about my techniques of teaching director preparation, that my classes could continue in the online world.

Working online proved to be both challenging and surprisingly productive. The online platform facilitated a unique form of instruction that is not easily achieved in today’s in person classroom. Everyone is on screen, so for my classes of no more that 14, it gave everyone a front row seat for instruction. In person, I normally set up the classroom in a semi-circle so that there is no second row, the row I find where students not so secretly text or surf the web. In the online room, I could tell when their eyes were on me or scanning their emails, prompting who I would call out next by posing a question to the class. The professor learns very quickly not to lecture but instead to divide up the time with short periods of verbal instruction combined with interactive exercises and by all means – take breaks. I found that forty minutes is about the maximum time you want students staring at their screens. Taking a ten-minute break afterwards keeps the room energized because everyone, including myself, gets a chance to get up, walk around and refresh.

One of the advantages of teaching directing online, that for me focuses primarily on preparation, is teaching students from institutions outside of the United States. I had just finished an overseas trip to London to conduct a master class in directing at the London College of Communications when the pandemic shut down the world. Using the online platform, over the past year I have conducted master classes in directing at the Annapurna College of Film and Media in Hyderabad, India and the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre in Vilnius.

As a director prepares for rehearsal and capture of a new project, the beginning work is solitary. I call it “woodshedding” as the director breaks down the script and begins to formulate ideas about the story and the characters. This is where a director’s signature for the project is born; her or his vision for the work. My instruction that will guide them through the steps necessary to conduct rehearsal and later capture can all be done in the online world. With the college in Hyderabad, I had over 65 students online breaking down a scene from the celebrated Indian film GULLY BOY and in Vilnius, they preferred an American movie, so MANCHESTER BY THE SEA was selected. We met on multiple days over the course of a few weeks and I was delighted that all of the students learned how to prepare as directors, specifically Actor’s Directors and it was all accomplished in the online world. Using “breakout rooms” is also one of the reasons online excels over in person teaching. In these rooms the students become more focused on their assigned task of preparation and the smaller group allows for more agency. When they return to the main room, discussions are more lively as students have more “skin in the game”.

It was a bit tough on me navigating the time difference for my classes in Hyderabad, but we found a way to make it work so that everyone, including myself, was alert. Teaching students in Lithuania was less stressful as I am used to working with colleagues in Europe so the six to seven-hour time difference is normal. The point I want to make is – you can do it!

As part of my teaching, I focus on “lived experience” that for me is a vital part of director
training. Unfortunately for many students growing up with “helicopter” parents, they have not had the opportunity to gather sufficient “lived experience”, experience necessary to shape and craft direction. To remedy this before we found ourselves in a COVID world, in my book, Becoming an Actor’s Director, I devised a series of encounters that can be conducted where the students live or if they are participating in a hybrid learning environment, where they are now attending college or university. These encounters help the student get in touch with their “6th Sense”, their intuition, their gut responses to the world around them. This 6th Sense is a necessary ingredient when you are working with an actor to craft the behavior of a character.

The lockdowns worldwide due to the pandemic prevented me from fully implementing these spontaneous teaching opportunities along with the instruction online. The reality of this has been disappointing. Concerns for health and safety at this time outweigh the loss of this form of instruction. But to my surprise, some students found ways to create safe alternatives to practice these encounters. Methodology that factors in social distancing along with wearing masks so that they could enrich the online lessons with “lived experience”. It was yet another reminder of how resourceful our students can be when confronted with a challenge. The ones that really want the most from an educational opportunity will stop at nothing to get it.

Your next question is probably – “So once the director has finished preparation, how does she or he work with actors?” Well, taking a cue from Hollywood’s solution of remote production techniques during the pandemic, I discovered some very cost-effective tools that work with an ordinary cell phone. These tools can be set up and programmed by the actor while in communication with the director online. So, after rehearsal either in person socially distanced or online, all the camera moves that would be done by an in-person crew, can be done remotely.  Pandemic production is improving as most commercial shows are now back using strict social distancing protocols, but in the beginning, these remote devices were the only alternative.

I have learned and I am still learning so much as we continue this balance of online and face to face instruction. For me, my thesis that directing can be taught in the online world has been proven to be true. The next step is how to incorporate the lessons learned during this COVID time into my curriculum as we will probably return to completely in person teaching. The pandemic has taught me that there is a strong argument to continue to use the online platform.