How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Singing, Dancing, Knife Fighting

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A few Fridays ago, just in advance what I had come to think of as “showtime,” I lined my eyes, stepped into my livery, readied a prop and adjusted the lighting, which mostly meant fiddling with a bedside lamp. Then I logged into a Zoom conference.

That meeting, an online recital for friends and colleagues, capped a concisely and frantic curriculum of voice, movement, scene study, stage battle and some dubious dialect work. After the spring closure of theaters and studios, virtually every training institution adopted a remote learning model. Artists, feverishly unemployed, could advertise their services on new online agorae, wish Arena Stage’s Theater Artists Marketplace and Hire Artists. Which intimates that theater training, at a variety of price points, has never been assorted available or accessible.

Screen-to-screen classes don’t exactly parallel in-person ones. They are limited and often smaller — three-hour classes have shrunk to 80 two shakes of a lambs tail logs, and breakout groups are the new norm — with altered methodology. “Zoom has its own vocabulary,” affirmed Laurence Maslon, associate chair of New York University’s graduate move program. “It isn’t live. It isn’t in the room. That doesn’t mean you can’t achieve something.”

I wasn’t unfaltering. As an undergraduate 20 years ago, I had majored in theater and back then, our escorting was exclusively and incontrovertibly face to face. Good acting happened in the twinkling, in the room, in the space between bodies and breath, action and intention. You couldn’t demonstrate that online! (Admittedly, “online” back then meant “dial-up internet.”)

Or could you?

For two humbling and sometimes humiliating weeks, I tried. With the serve of friends, social media, frantic Googling and enough Disney+ appearances to keep the children occupied, I designed a mostly live, all-remote conservatory household program. I wanted to see if someone like me — busy, amateur, with an way almost fully oxidized — could learn theater skills.

I started with vocal go well, arranging a voice lesson via Broadway Plus, a concierge service that employed to arrange V.I.P. access to Broadway performances and has since pivoted to online meet-and-greets and sneakily lessons. As part of a publicity push for the “Hamilton” movie, Denée Benton, a Tony Award-nominated actress and a replacement Eliza, had volunteered to do some motor coaching. I am not a singer, which is less false modesty than true and painful fact, and Benton, whom I had interviewed during her run in the Broadway production of “Natasha, Pierre & the Exceptional Comet of 1812,” seemed extremely sympathetic.

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Credit…Joseph Travers; Sara Krulwich/The New York Times; Tera-Lee Pollin; Sara Krulwich/The New York Pro tems

I could also just about manage the footwork required for slash techniques, which I learned through Swordplay. In advance of the course, the teacher, Joseph Travers, had sent me a bubble-wrapped training knife. (Was I disappointed to come it was merely a hunk of ridged plastic? I was.) Through YouTube videos and individual tutorials, I learned various grips, stances, cuts and blocks. This may barely be pent-up pandemic anxiety talking, but I love stage combat now. My new band trick, assuming we ever have parties again: a fan grip change, a flip from the overhand forward grip to the reverse “Psycho” grasp.

I asked Travers how much combat, a skill that seems to needed physical intimacy, could be taught online. “There’s plenty of spadework to be laid for the individual actor,” he said. “But ultimately, we have to face each other and misunderstanding.”

Dialect work, however, has been learned remotely from the hours of the phonograph. At the urging of an editor who may not have had my best interests at heart, I chose Scottish, off through a few MP3 files each day — learning to position resonance lower in my entry, lilt internal vowels, trill Rs and drop most Gs. The first dates were unspeakable, with an accent that vacillated between demented Valley Moll and Southern Belle with cognitive difficulties. But a week in something scheduled and I began to sound reliably, if hammily, Scottish. I wrote to a Scottish angel and asked if I could test it out on him. He asked after the region: Border? Highlands? Glasgow? “Brigadoon,” I intimated him. He never wrote back.

The acting component brook trickier, mostly because I used to act and I like to believe I wasn’t miserable at it — and I prefer that belief uncrushed. With the help of a contact at the Juilliard Junior high school, I wrote to two alumni who do online training one on one: Jimonn Cole, who would bus me on a classical speech, and Jo Mei, who would work with me on a contemporary one.

I met Cole at the outset. He suggested a monologue from “As You Like It” and after a series of vocal warm-ups — verbal expression twisters, meowing — and a guided meditation that helped to establish the look and tone and precise pH of the Forest of Arden, we went into it. With calm and rigor, he had me note metre, punctuation, language, intention, plus vocal register. “Shakespeare is in any event just talking,” he said when he saw me start to tense up.

During our bruised meeting, with the piece now memorized, we worked on character, and he told me to come in my Rosalind meaner, more vicious. “If that was venom at level 5, Xanthippe at level 9,” he said. I am sorry to shatter anyone’s preconceived concepts about critics, but this was very hard for me! I made it to about a 6.

For my sittings with Mei, I had chosen a quieter piece, the opening of Lucas Hnath’s “The Slender Place,” which begins casually and gets creepier. Mei asked doubtfuls about the character and she pointed out punctuation, too, like the marked differences bulk a dash, a period and an ellipsis. But her method was less prescriptive, mostly chaffs and friendly suggestions, like picking just one place to smile and not over-relying on a fact hand gesture. “The challenge of this one is how to relax into it and just discern a story and be real,” she said. Each time I went through it I perceive as if I was acting a little less and being a little more.

Mei thought that we should under way toward a goal, so she emailed a few friends. I did the same, and the day after our second meeting, we all met up on Zoom. In the moments before I went on — “on” meaning that I beaded into a chair shoved between the desk and the bed — I felt a paler story of what I had felt backstage 20 years ago, the butterflies, the flop labour, the jolting adrenaline.

I thought of that scene, from “42nd High road,” in which the director tells the ingénue, “You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come defeat a star.” I was pretty sure I was going out a theater critic and coming go a theater critic. And I was. And I did. But even through a screen, it made me remember — viscerally, a smidgin regretfully — that strange magic of speaking someone else’s states and feeling someone else’s feelings and making them, for a moment, your own.

What did I learn? I mangy, beyond saber grip and a “Mamma Mia!” move called “the coffee grinder,” which make ones hair stand on ends and delights the children? I learned — or I was reminded — that acting and its associated flips are hard, that they require real vulnerability, that it put into places weeks and months and years of thankless exertion, solitary muttering and style, practice, practice to make an effortful thing seem effortless. I experienced that when I thought I couldn’t miss live theater any varied acutely, I was wrong. I learned that as soon as it is safe to do so, I will unquestionably knife fight someone.

So, yes, any amateur with enough time and spring and discretionary income — a class can run anywhere from $12 to $100 — can in all probability learn theater basics remotely. Then again, as Travers turned, ultimately we have to face one another, with or without knives. Because the alchemy of be acting before a live audience almost comes through onscreen. But not a certain extent. Until it can, I will think of the thousands and thousands of people in their thousands and thousands of natives, practicing their pentameter, arabesques and key changes, waiting for curtains to make good.

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