In this edition, we hear from Elaine Newton: acting coach, public speaking mentor, and founder of The Acting Lab. Elaine reflects on a year of constant changes and how we have embraced the art of improvisation to get by!
Where were you in March 2020? I was here in Dundee just getting to the end of teaching one of my regular Level 1 10-week Acting Courses for The Acting Lab. I was planning the next term’s courses and an Improvisation workshop, Little knowing how a background in improvisation was going to come in super-handy much sooner than I realised.
I’ve been teaching Acting courses and delivering Speaking with Confidence Coaching here in Dundee since 2015 when I came back to my home city after some years abroad and founded The Acting Lab. I sometimes wish it wasn’t the case but I am the kind of person who likes to keep changing it up and try new things so my work life is always something of a lively, unpredictable environment. And then came COVID-19 …
Like most of us, I had no idea of the challenges awaiting in the rest of 2020 and beyond, and whilst it’s never exactly smooth sailing when you’re running a one-woman show, at least it was the kind of sailing I was used to.
The first couple of months of lockdown were a period of pretty much non-stop adjustment. I’ve always championed real-life in-person communication – you know the mantras, be in the moment, be present. But of course, suddenly we were all in a room but for most of us it was isolated in our homes and the room had gone Zoom.
It was a totally different experience of being present, learning to adapt my teaching materials and methods so they would work effectively online. The big challenge was to creatively curate my courses and coaching so as to generate the excitement, energy, fun and connection participants experience in in-person events. Plus, I had to master the technical side which was no mean feat.
So I started small online with a few free Acting and Improvisation classes and a couple of one-off workshops (Building a Character, Tackling a Monologue) and I have to admit I was amazed, really amazed when they worked.
Maybe there was more than one way of being in a room. Maybe digital connections can be more effective than I had previously believed (well, at least when your broadband’s up to it …) Also being able to have participants from all over the world was exciting. Old ‘Labbers’ who’d moved away from Dundee could return to the fold, people too shy or anxious for in-person courses could dip toes in the acting/public speaking water.
There were so many advantages, in fact, that for a while I forgot about the things I had presumed would be missing from online work. You could say that instead of teaching improvisation I was just doing it – improvising in real-life – (IIRL). From October 2020 I went on to run all my usual courses via Zoom – something I never thought I would be capable of doing.
These connections and achievements have been unexpected and rewarding, but, even with all these new experiences and the joy of still being able to do the job I love despite the pandemic, I know I was also longing for the chance to see beautiful shiny faces again.
I followed the changes in restrictions, watched what other teachers and acting schools were doing and waited, on the edge of my seat, to see when I might be able to get back in a room with students again. Cases went down, cases went back up again … it never looked like a good time. There was just so much risk and uncertainty and only me to carry it!
Gradually I started work in-person again, a few 1:1 clients, corporate workshops to build staff confidence to reintegrate back into the office. Eventually, I bit the bullet and started a series of in-person outside events – six Improv in the Park workshops, held at the beautiful Magdalen Green. I picked Improv to start in-person classes again for a whole host of reasons. Firstly, because it is more open to sudden changes than other forms of performing training.
Secondly, Improv is something I’ve always loved participating in and teaching and not just because you don’t have to learn lines (never my strong point, but don’t tell my students!). Improvising is the best feeling in the world, playing – which as adults we so rarely get to do, theatre as a team sport, thinking on your feet, starting with nothing and making something brilliant.
If ever there was a time to embrace improvisation, it’s now. I’m reminded of the roots of Improv in the US which started to grow around 100 years ago when games workshops were used to heal and rehabilitate the population after the losses and trauma of war. Sadly, when children came back to school after working long shifts in wartime factories they had forgotten how to play, so this helped them recover their creative imagination and ability to cooperate and collaborate.
Our Improv in the Park sessions have been brilliant fun and to continue the good vibe, I’m launching an 8-week Improv course, starting 23 October on Saturday mornings in a new venue downstairs at Braes on the Perth Road. Everyone is welcome to join!
It’s another change … but we’re used to changes now, aren’t we? We can all improvise …
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