By Tanya Elchuk
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have moved our acting classes online. As I prepare for September, I am acutely aware of the need to reimagine the idea of "creating a container" in our new virtual acting studio. How can I create the conditions for trust and risktaking to flourish, and take care of my students' emotional well-being as they move through the psychological demands of actor training, all during a global pandemic? This situation presents distinct challenges, and I am grateful there are supportive practices available, many of which we already use in our face-to-face classes. Making these practices more conscious and explicit for both ourselves and our students will help us best support them in navigating the sometimes murky emotional waters of actor training through these uncertain and challenging times.
So What Do You Mean by "Creating a Container" Anyway?
Creating containers is something we all do, at least a little, and is so ingrained into the fabric of theatre that we may not think much about it. Containers hold and support the wildness of our theatrical investigations and enable us to dive deep. It is why we (usually) practice in a closed studio rather than a busy public space. The most basic container is the studio itself, and the set time of class, or rehearsal, or a performance; space and time define the bounds of our explorations so that we can enter and exit our work clearly. Some other common containers include: the witnessing and responsiveness of the instructor (including creating a supportive environment and intervening in moments of emotional overwhelm or physical danger); the witnessing of the ensemble (especially in moments of risk or vulnerability); "exercises"; physical forms; text; a working agreement created by the ensemble; reflection practices like journaling or "hunkering"; conscious awareness of one's body, emotional responses, and actions; entering and exiting practices such as a check-ins and closing circles; warm-ups and warm-downs; and any practices that support consciously changing states, in particular that support shifting "out of" the work.
Unique Challenges to Container Creation While Teaching Remotely during COVID-19
A private, secure, supportive space is not a given for all of our students. First-year students may not even know this is necessary or have an accurate idea of what they will be doing. Many students live with parents or guardians, not all of whom are supportive of their artistry. Some students live with abusive families or partners, have roommates they do not want to disturb, or fear complaints from neighbors. We cannot assume that all of our students have a space in which they can move, voice, emote, and act freely and unselfconsciously. Students from marginalized communities may be more impacted by this challenge than other students.
Our primary response to this should be proactive and collaborative. We can let students (especially new, incoming students) know what to expect and directly address what they will need in terms of space to work. Some students may try to arrange moving to a more supportive living/working environment (several of my students made moves this spring as we shifted online). Some students may elect to take a term or two out, and should be supported in this, rather than pressed to continue to keep enrollment numbers up. If students do not have a safe space at home to work, it is up to us to facilitate a frank discussion with them about what will best serve their work and life. That said, some students in difficult home situations may still be able to work freely in that environment, and this decision should also be respected and supported. To some greater or lesser extent, we can also be flexible and creative in our offerings and expectations in order to support inclusion for all of our students, regardless of their living situations.
Physical space aside, we are now also working at a deficit of embodied presence. Within this context, how can we hold the work and support students as they learn to navigate the complexities of our embodied, emotional art form? What happens now when a student has an overwhelming emotional/somatic experience? Will I, their instructor, even see what is going on in their Zoom thumbnail video? It is difficult enough to recognize and navigate these moments in face-to-face teaching. New students are often more likely to try to hide intense responses, afraid that they are "abnormal." Many of our students' capacities, as well as our own, are already diminished by world events. Those students who are already struggling emotionally may see those struggles exacerbated by a lack of container of their acting work. In the case of content or somatic work triggering a PTSD response, marginalized communities are disproportionately affected by experiences of trauma, and so students from these backgrounds are already more likely to face this additional hurdle in their acting work. These communities are also more heavily impacted by COVID-19, and by subsequent fallout such as unemployment and increased poverty. These students need our awareness and support.
Another concern is students' transition out of an experience and into the next part of their day. When class ends where I teach, there are a few possibilities of what happens next. Students may immediately move to their next class (usually another studio class), or they may remain in studio for a longer hunker/reflection/shift. Often, one or two students are waiting at the end of class to unpack something with me personally before moving on (something I have taken to offering online as well). Many students take their time moving out of the studio into the adjoining lounge where they can eat, hydrate, chat with friends, play piano, and otherwise unwind. Now, I imagine my students finishing an emotionally charged class and returning to … what? A potentially uncomfortable or dangerous living situation? The emptiness of enforced isolation that has already been feeling lonely and depressing or anxiety-inducing? Of course, not every student will be in situations so bleak, but some may be; we cannot control that, but we can help and support our students in navigating these new challenges.
Ten Tips Toward Creating a Strong Virtual Container
In creating containers online, working with awareness of potential challenges and proactively making adjustments is key. Also paramount is making this process transparent to our students and equipping them with tools to navigate the work so that they feel empowered to self-regulate and contain their own processes. (Bonus! We are also providing young people with valuable coping resources during an undeniably difficult time collectively—win-win!) Here are ten tips toward building strong containers online:
Titrate the work. At this time, there is a greater need for sensitivity around titration or calibration of the work. In other words, avoid plunging your students into the deep end on day 1. Get to know them, see how they are responding and how much they can handle. As you wade in deeper, empower them to titrate their own process. Let them know they are in charge of how deeply they delve into a somatic/emotional state, memory, image, or exercise. Encourage them to dive deep and take big risks, but also let them know that if they are beginning to feel unsafe, panicky, or disassociated, they can always draw back and slow down their process. Also let them know that sometimes they may not be able to do this, and that is okay too.
Teach students simple practices to down-regulate their nervous systems. My favorite is a long exhale because it is simple and effective in a variety of circumstances. Exhale on an sssss for eight counts (or more, depending on capacity), and then release and inhale for four counts. Repeat. You can allow a few breaths in-between each long exhale if needed. Extending exhalation stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which has a calming effect. Students can use this when feeling anxious, emotionally overwhelmed, or if hyperventilating. Other recovery practices from intense experiences include moving (stretching, changing location and rhythm), and 5-4-3-2-1 (name aloud five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch/feel, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste). Here is a video by Dr. Peter Levine (creator of Somatic Experiencing trauma therapy) demonstrating simple self-holding practices that can help students self-regulate in moments of overwhelm. (Note: this video is geared toward therapists, but these practices, which are not therapy, can be supportive in an acting classroom as well.)
Start class with simple grounding/regulating practices. This can be as simple as inviting students to take a moment to sense the ground under their feet or sit bones, softening their knees, and bringing awareness to physical sensations and breath movement. Other useful practices include: tapping their bodies head to toes with their hands, performing simple stretches, t'ai chi, yoga, or a guided progressive relaxation. I like to briefly revisit these practices throughout class, especially after a particularly stimulating exercise, and again at the end of class. Some students may sometimes find internal sensation overwhelming and could work with external sensations or imagination instead. For a more in-depth discussion of self-regulating techniques and more examples, I recommend the chapter "Ways to Centre" in Mark Walsh's free e-book Centring.
Start class with a check-in. I do not typically do lengthy check-ins, but this spring I noticed that some days my students needed it. Check-ins need not be long; they can be as simple as asking if anyone has anything they need to check in about before getting started. The main thing is keeping an open line of communication with students and making ourselves available to those who may need to talk. With this, also recognizing the limits of our expertise and having counseling resources handy for students who could use extra support (fig. 1).
End class with a warm-down. Warm downs tend to be sorely lacking in our industry, often replaced with riding the post-performance adrenaline out of the theatre to the nearest bar. Theatre school is the place to train good habits, both warming up and down. A warmdown gives students the opportunity to settle their nervous systems, begin to process and integrate their experiences, and shift out of the heightened emotional states acting demands and back into "everyday life." Warm downs can include simple grounding and awareness practices, gentle stretching and voicing, and reflective practices like hunkering or journaling. They could also include a final "circle" and public reflection. For more demanding processes, shifting out of character can also include rituals like changing clothes or taking an actual or metaphorical shower. Drama therapist Sally Bailey suggests more great ideas for "de-roling."
Prioritize establishing trust and building ensemble. This is obviously foundational to any theatre process and a greater challenge online. I have found that some things just take longer online, and that prioritizing connection over "getting through the curriculum" helps keep me on track. I do plan to create working agreements, even online. Many of our usual ensemble building games can be adapted to an online format with a little creativity. For more great ideas on building ensemble online, check out Lavina Jadhwani's Howlround article "Creating a Culture of Play via Zoom."
Resource your students. Ensure that students have support outside of class, especially those students who disclose or demonstrate personal emotional struggles. Keep the contact info of your school's counseling department handy, and provide it to all students at the beginning of the term. Resourcing your students can also mean making time to discuss how good lifestyle choices support their acting work, brainstorming healthy self-care practices, and teaching them practices like those discussed in items 2 and 3.
Limit onscreen time. Help mitigate the deleterious effects of excessive screen time by limiting synchronous teaching and onscreen time in concert with other faculty. Other ways to offer support when we are all spending too much time onscreen: schedule regular breaks, build short embodiment practices throughout classes, and provide options of looking away from the screen and participating orally when appropriate. Keep the lines of communication open with your students about the amount of screen time and how they are doing with it. Give them agency to say if they need a break or for something in the schedule to be adjusted. I thought I was doing my acting students a favor by giving them a long break in the middle of class, but when we spoke about it, they let me know that they would prefer to finish early to give them a long break before their next class instead.
Choose content thoughtfully. This may not be the right time for that really heavy emotional piece you have been dying to work on—or maybe it is the perfect time, as it gives your students an outlet to express their many feelings. Consider your students' capacities and err on the side of what is most supportive. This may be a great time to work on self-authored or devised pieces, providing a venue for students' to examine their lived experiences. I am always a fan of giving students choice and input as to what they are excited to work on as well. This might be a great time for teachers and students alike to hunker down and get to know some new plays and authors, particularly from the BIPOC and LGBTQ2S+ communities.
Set up online protocols as needed. These might look different within different contexts. I teach voice, so for me, there are times when I need to see everyone on camera to ensure that they are staying present and engaged in a somatic exploration. If someone goes offscreen or offline in a class and does not return, I will ask them to check in with me to let me know that they are okay. Chances are it was just a tech issue, but if they were emotionally triggered and dropped out, I will ask them to let me know that they are okay and to talk to me about what happened so that I can support their continued development with the work. I have also noticed that it is a lot easier to hide on Zoom than in person. Several of my students spent weeks working off-camera in one of my classes; I assumed this was for tech reasons until I spoke with them and found out that it was because they were feeling self-conscious about how they looked. I suddenly realized that working on Zoom was like trying to act facing a mirror! We had a frank conversation that invited them back into the work and challenged their habitual reactions. We also established a "hide self-view" policy to support an embodied perspective of sensing oneself from inside rather than looking at oneself from outside.
In Closing …
These are just a few thoughts from my own practice, which I hope may be of some use to others. I am grateful to my many exceptional teachers, colleagues, and the researchers whose work I have discovered, from whom I have learned many of these practices. Also to my students, from whom I am constantly learning. Please get in touch to share your reflections, ideas, and questions moving forward. Wishing all the teaching theatre artists out there much health, heart, and resilience for the coming year and beyond.
Bailey, Sally. "Sally Bailey and Her New Book Chapter!" centralregiondramatherapy. WordPress.com. 30 July 2012. Web.
Jadhwani, Lavina. "Creating a Culture of Play via Zoom." Howlround Theatre Commons. 15 June 2020. Web.
Levine, Peter. "Treating Trauma: 2 Ways to Help Clients Feel Safe, with Peter Levine." YouTube. 2 June 2017. Web.
Walsh, Mark. "Ways to Centre." Centring: Why Mindfulness Alone Isn't Enough. 2017. Web.