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BWW Blog: “Learning Doesn't Happen in a Straight Line” - An Interview with Ellen Orenstein

I must admit, going remote for my performance based classes was a huge transition. As I shared previously, I transferred to Marymount Manhattan College and was loving life in the Big Apple! I had no idea what to expect when going virtual or how I was going to adjust. All I knew was that I did not want to let the given circumstances interfere with my growth as an actor. Thankfully, I had a stellar acting professor who continued to give her all, both inside and outside of the classroom. I felt that I continued to learn new skills and improve theatrically in ways I would not have been able to, had we continued in person. Don't get me wrong, I am a huge fan of hands-on, in person training but my professor has shown me that there are benefits to both. For this article, I had the pleasure of interviewing that professor, the legendary Ellen Orenstein, on her professional perspective on educating remotely. I hope this post motivates and inspires you to keep hope alive during this virtual time.

BWW Blog: “Learning Doesn't Happen in a Straight Line” - An Interview with Ellen OrensteinEllen Orenstein is an Associate Professor of Theatre Arts and the Coordinator of Freshman and Sophomore Acting at Marymount Manhattan College. She holds an MFA from the University of Washington and a BA from Wesleyan University. In addition, Orenstein is the Co-Founder and Artistic Director of the Blueprint Theater Project. She is an exceptional writer who has had her work published in American Theatre magazine, TheatreForum International Theatre Journal and Theatre Journal. Recently, she directed The Balcony at Marymount Manhattan College. Some of Orenstein's other directorial credits include, Necropolis (Manhattan Theatre Source), Tartuffe (SUNY Purchase), The SeaGull (assistant director) featuring Dianne Wiest and Alan Cumming (Classic Stage Company), and the staged reading of Surfacing (Planet Connections Theatre Festivity) which received the Most Outstanding Overall Production of a Reading nomination.

Question: What courses do you teach at Marymount Manhattan?

Ellen Orenstein: "I teach the first year of the Acting Program: Process and Technique and Beginning Scene Study. Second year: Intermediate Scene Study and Advanced Scene Study, for both BFA Acting and BFA Musical Theatre. I also teach Viewpoints as a special topics course in the upper level, primarily for any actor, director and/or playwright. In the fall, I will be teaching a third year course of the BFA Acting program: Heightened Language and Historical Context."

Q: Have you ever taught performing arts courses online before?

EO: "No, I've never taught online."

Q: What was it like having to adapt to virtual teaching so quickly?

EO: "It was scary. The circumstances, the context, I think everyone was scared and impacted by COVID-19. There was that level of emotional trauma that was affecting all of us. I'm not sure that any of us looked at that closely while it was happening. We all just wanted to soldier forth and make it as smooth a transition as possible. There were difficult obstacles we all had to adjust to. We had days where we had to check in on ourselves. We can't just soldier on and keep going like nothing has changed. That's what I was trying to do at first because I didn't want anyone to feel like they weren't getting their training or that the semester was ruined. I know all the faculty I spoke with still wanted to make sure the students got the training they were supposed to. Once we acknowledged how we were feeling, and I shifted the expectations for what we would get done, we started having fun again."

Q: Which course or courses did you find easiest to teach remotely?

EO: "I thought the Viewpoints class was going to be the most difficult online because there is physical movement involved. It is collaborative and it depends on people working together as an ensemble. This class actually ended up being the most "successful" in the beginning because it's not a traditional class. You're creating new work that never existed before so there are no expectations. Beginning Scene Study was the hardest at first because we all had different beliefs about what a scene study class should be. At a certain point, we all decided to throw out our expectations and embrace the form. Once we did that, I think we really got on board with it and then all three sections of the class became wildly exciting and successful!"

Q: What are some things that you learned from teaching through Zoom that you plan to incorporate into the classroom?

EO: "We can't deny the form. We can't pretend we're in a studio because we're not. The more we embrace the form, the better. When the students embraced the things that are different now, instead of trying to hide it, it was a wonderful step forward in terms of character and story development. Self-taping was a real advantage that I'd like to hold onto no matter what. When students can watch themselves, they can make changes faster. I think students are rehearsing more effectively now because they're watching themselves with a critical eye, and then constantly repeating until they see what they want to see. There's something about the self-taping process that inspires people to do the repetition."

Q: Do you have any advice for first-year students beginning their education in the performing arts virtually?

EO: "Try to embrace the benefits of this frame. It is different from being in a studio together, but a lot is possible. Don't fight the medium, trust that good work can and has happened on Zoom. We will be back - you're going to have most of your college life in person. It's okay to hone the skills you have working online. You may even develop skills that will be very useful to you in the future. I don't think this is the end for in person training or in person theatre. How great that we can do the things we can with this technology - it's amazing! Students will have film footage that other actors may not have. The skills you learn by working in this medium will only enhance all your possibilities moving forward. Learning doesn't happen in a straight line. All of it is necessary and useful."

Q: Do you have any advice for students who may feel unmotivated due to remote learning?

EO: "Reach out and talk to the faculty. We're all available. The thing that's amazing about this is that I can Zoom with students so easily. I never thought to do that before this virtual time. Lack of motivation can happen to us in person and online. It's a thing that happens sometimes and I always say to let someone know what's going on because they might have a way to help. There are so many resources. Stay open to all the things you can get from virtual learning because there is a lot."

Q: Now that you've experienced both teaching in the classroom and via Zoom do you have a preferred method?

EO: "I celebrate Zoom so much and I do feel inspired by it, but I prefer to be in the classroom. There's something about being in the same room with people. Theatre is magic! I feed off the energy of other people being around me, but I also like what I've been able to make in this medium. I want the option. I want to work in the classroom and then have a day where we work through Zoom because we choose to, not because we have to."

Q: How have you been staying theatrically engaged during this remote time in all of your forms of art?

EO: "I have been reading a lot of plays, really trying to broaden my knowledge of what's out there. Certainly for diversity issues, in terms of finding a wider range of material for students to work on. I have been educating myself, reading the art that speaks to multiple experiences that I don't know. Many that are really provocative in making me look at the issues from another perspective. I have also been teaching a free Viewpoints workshop that has been an artistic outlet for me. I'm learning a lot doing it, and it's exciting and inspires me. Recently, I started a book club and it truly lifted my spirits. It is so fun as I love hearing what people think of the plays. I will also be teaching a new class with my colleague, Kenny Finkle, about devised work, which is immersive and super exciting for me! It was very hard when school ended but these artistic outlets have been lifting, reminding and feeding me."

Q: How did Tiger (Ellen's beloved dog and partner in crime) adjust to your being home more often due to the pandemic?

EO: "Tiger Orenstein sometimes likes it and sometimes doesn't like it. Sometimes well, sometimes not so well.

Thank you so much to Ellen Orenstein for sharing her candid insight and for allowing me to interview her! I wanted to write this article because we are all experiencing this virtual, theatrical time together. Even if your performance based courses for the fall semester are going to be remote that does not mean our training ends. There's still so much we can learn, we just have to be open and embrace this new form. Once we do that I truly believe that everything else will fall into place.

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