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How just a few Zoom rehearsals made me a better actor

by | Jun 18, 2022

A selection of moments from our Zoom rehearsals

Would you like to rehearse on Zoom or in the room?

Before Covid, if you’d asked me whether I’d like to rehearse on Zoom or in the room I’d have looked at you as if you were insane. It wouldn’t even have struck me as a choice… get in the room with the other actors and the director OF COURSE!

But the pandemic forced all of us to examine our options. And as a result, I’ve just taken part in an experimental project where we explored the possibilities of rehearsing a play on Zoom… and discovered some pretty incredible benefits to it. 

But first, let’s rewind a little bit…

This whole adventure I’m about to tell you about begins with the fact that acting coach Tom Kibbe suddenly found he was no longer allowed to work with actors in person, due to lockdown restrictions.

Tom had several students who had auditions for drama school coming up, and they were eager to continue the work they had been doing. So Tom explored the possibility of working on Zoom. And to everyone’s amazement it turned out to be an incredible experience. 

Not only did it work, but there were some massive benefits to it – particularly for today’s screen industry where the actor is very often in a position where they have to prepare quickly, on their own, at home, to be ready for a brief stint on-set.

So Tom was interested in taking the experiment further. Could we rehearse a play on Zoom?

Pre-Covid, actors Mark D’Aughton and George Hanover had been working together in Tom Kibbe’s classes on some pieces taken from Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?. So when Mark was able to secure an agility award from the Arts Council, he invited George, Tommy Daly and myself to take part in an exploration of whether we could effectively rehearse The Goat on Zoom – under the guidance of Tom Kibbe.

Let me tell you how we got on. Because I seriously think you should try it. 

Why we wanted to rehearse on Zoom in the first place – from Zoom to Room

The thing is, none of us really wanted to stage a Zoom production. In early discussions about the project we nicknamed it “From Zoom to Room” – because our intention was always to get this back into the room as soon as possible.

But in the meantime we were chomping at the bit to continue working. 

So we agreed, we would see if we could rehearse on Zoom, and if the pandemic situation didn’t improve we could always use the work as a foundation to examine how to stage something online, but our goal when starting was simply to discover whether effective rehearsal was possible. 

Obviously we knew we weren’t breaking entirely new ground, because we had all been to Zoom productions that had clearly been rehearsed via Zoom. But the unique element here was whether it was possible to rehearse via Zoom using Tom Kibbe’s methods. Could we access that deep, specific expression and connection that Tom helps you achieve, even over Zoom?

What technology did we use to rehearse?

Equipment

I’m not going to go too deep on the tech side here, because things like Zoom settings are changing all the time. But there are a few high level things worth noting. 

We had a small budget for some additional tech, so we discussed whether we should get higher quality webcams, or microphones. The goal was to have everyone on as level a playing field as possible.

Tom Kibbe advised us to get wireless lavalier microphones, based on what he was discovering delivering his programme via Zoom. It would give us freedom of movement, and, as will become clear later on, the audio quality is vital for this kind of work. 

I’ll pop some links to the specific items we used at the bottom of this post just in case you’re interested. 

I’ve already said Zoom so many times I’m sure you don’t need me to say that’s the platform we used to meet and rehearse. I’m sure there are plenty of platforms that would work just as well… maybe even better, but Zoom works just fine.

Four out of five of us had Mac laptops, and there was one PC. The Macs were of different ages. 

Because we all had different laptops, we did find that not all of us had the latest Zoom features available, but in the end, the features that were not available to the older machines turned out to be features we really didn’t need anyway. 

Obviously when you work this way you are at the mercy of everyone’s internet connection. But we were lucky and didn’t run into very many connectivity issues at all, and some of us had travel plans which meant we had people join from Ireland, Germany, and the US. 

Setup – using spotlighting to create a stage

Mark & George spotlighted on Zoom while the rest of us observe

The main feature we used on Zoom when rehearsing was spotlighting. This allowed everyone to see multiple actors “on the stage” at once. We chose mostly duologues – that way you can spotlight both actors, they can appear side by side on everyone’s screen and you can create a sense of a shared space between them – more on that later.

Worth noting that Pinning on Zoom is similar but only affects your own machine, not the view of all participants.

We also all turned off video mirroring, so that we could all see exactly the same thing. If you don’t turn off mirroring for your own video you will see yourself facing in the opposite direction compared to what the other participants see. 

We also turned on the ability to “Enable Original Sound” which means you’re turning off Zoom’s filtering and sharing exactly what’s coming from the microphone. However, occasionally we encountered interference and needed to turn the original sound setting off again to let Zoom filter out the interference. 

How did we prepare for the experiment?

Our goal was not to rehearse the whole play, but rather to explore the possibilities of rehearsing – to develop a process that would work for rehearsing on Zoom. 

The first thing we did was to get together on Zoom to read the play several times. We did this a few times, with time in between to digest. 

Then we broke the play down into what we called “units”.

The experiment itself was to be held over three weekends. Three hours a day, three days in a row, over three weekends – each a fortnight apart. 

There are four in the cast, and we focussed on scenes with two people at a time for simplicity. That’s still a lot to cover in a relatively short amount of time, and we quickly realised that the best way to work was to focus any given three hour session on a single unit – which tended to be about three pages long. And that three pages was more than enough to work on in the given time. 

We agreed that everyone would be off-book for the sessions, given the short timeframe. 

The process of rehearsal that emerged

Discussing the work

At the start of each session we would have a chat. Tom would usually have reflections on the characters and the scene to share with us. Tom would also often ask us questions of our characters, which were not to be answered, but simply considered before we began.

Tech setup to create “the space”

Next we would spotlight the actors on Zoom. To control which actor is on the left and which on the right, you have to spotlight in order of appearance. So the actor on the left is spotlit first. This gives us our “stage”.

Line runs to embed the lines

Next we do a few line runs to really embed the lines, so that when we really got to work there was no searching for lines. Because the actors are not looking at their screens, all cues are auditory, with no visual reference whatsoever—which is an odd experience for the actor and adds to the need to really have the lines embedded.

Rehearsal runs

Once both actors are fully comfortable with the lines, we really get to work. We run the unit again and again, with Tom Kibbe directing. We have all worked with Tom extensively, so his direction tends to be a shorthand: short interjections as the scene is running to encourage us to drop in more, to be braver, to let go of something we are holding on to, and so on. 

Improvising around the entire scene

When it’s clear the unit is in really good shape, Tom encourages us to continue past the unit pages we had learned, and to improvise the rest of the scene in its entirety. At this point, we have read the play enough to know the rough shape, but we don’t know any of the lines outside the units we’re working on. 

Further rehearsal runs

When we have completed an improv of the scene, we come back again to unit and run it again, often discovering all kinds of new things thanks to the improvisation work.

Creating a sense of a shared space on Zoom

We were not focussed on production, so the “audience” experience was not our primary objective. But it was still important to create a sense of a shared space for the actors. It’s also beneficial for the director and the other observing cast members to have a sense that the actors are in a shared space.

So really there are two aspects:

  • The sense of shared space from the actor’s perspective
  • The visual representation of a shared space from the observer’s perspective

Creating a visual representation of a shared space on Zoom

Let’s get what didn’t work out of the way first. I’m a bit of a tech nerd so I was really curious about what we could do with digital backgrounds and even Zoom’s relatively new “immersive view”.

None of these worked very well. 

Digital Effects

If you don’t have great lighting, a high-end webcam, and a greenscreen, the effect is just too distracting. You get too much digital ghosting around the actor. 

Digital background to try and create a shared space

We tried our own digital background to create a continuous “room”. And it was kind of cool, but the ghosting effect was too distracting. At first we tried a lovely clean crisp image, but it didn’t make sense that the background was in beautiful focus while the actors were blurry due to poor lighting and average webcams.

Blurring the background to try to create a shared space

We blurred the digital background, which was an improvement. But still not great. Then we tried turning on the “blur background” effect on Zoom. This was also interesting, but ultimately a distraction, and it wasn’t available on everyone’s setup.

Immersive view was the same. A fun gimmick but added nothing to the experience. 

So what did work?

Simple similarities in the actual background to create a shared space

Having any vague similarities in the actor’s spaces. So as much as possible we looked for plain walls, of a similar colour, possibly with art hanging. The common elements of plants or art on the walls really “sold” the sense of a shared space visually.

Eyeline

The next thing Tom Kibbe had us do was to set our eyeline. We would spotlight both actors, and then the actors would “look” toward each other. We discovered that they don’t need to create the illusion of looking directly at each other, because this would put them both in profile, which isn’t as interesting to the observer – and it’s not necessary to create the visual illusion.

Frank and Mark creating an illusory eyeline

Just a slight turn toward where the other actor is from the observer’s perspective is enough to sell the illusion. If you get the next bit right…

Creating a sense of shared space from the actor’s perspective

This is where it gets really exciting, where the Tom Kibbe work really comes into play, and where the massive benefits of working this way start to come into focus. 

Tom encouraged us to print out a pair of eyes – just a pair of eyes – and tape them where our eyeline should be. This gives you a specific point to refer to the other actor. 

Not everyone did this, so it wasn’t an absolute necessity, but I found the specificity really useful. It gave me a clear anchor to return to. For example when my character let his eyes wander, returning to a pair of eyes was much more powerful for me than returning to a spot that I had chosen for my eyeline. 

Now, because we are looking at a spot, or a pair of printed eyes, and because we are turned to “face” the other spotlit actor on Zoom, we are not looking at the computer screen. So the actor has no visual cues to work from. 

Deep listening

So the first thing that happens is that you have to listen. You have to really listen. You listen to the degree that you realise that you have been kidding yourself – up until this moment you haven’t really been listening. Because now you are truly experiencing listening. 

Activating the imagination

The second thing that happens is that your imagination works overtime. 

If you’re a Tom Kibbe student then you know how powerful the imagination is and just how important it is to develop your imagination muscles, and trust me, this way of working will give them a damn good workout. 

Focussing on what the other actor is giving you, not what they’re thinking

This is a kind of nebulous one, it’s something we all experienced, even if we all described it slightly differently… I’ll do my best to describe it from my perspective.

Because you can’t see the other actor, you become less beholden to them. You are less worried about how what you are doing is being received. You’re not trying to please them. 

You’re focussed on responding. 

Which is how it always should be, on Zoom or in person. As actors we all know this, but we don’t always truly achieve it. Everyone working on this project has experienced that unhelpful feedback loop where we worry about whether we are giving the other actor what they want or need. 

I guess that’s why Meisner says “f*ck being polite”. Stop worrying about what the other actor thinks, and respond. Well, again, this way of working will help you see just how important it is to rid yourself of that people-pleaser mentality. 

By being focussed on responding, you end up going deeper, letting go more, and discovering more – and by doing so your performance becomes more generous, giving so much more depth for the other actor to engage with. 

I think it was George who said “by being more selfish, and not worrying about the other actor, you end up being more generous”.

Being in synch in a shared space

The result of this deep listening is a deeper connection between the actors, and it creates a sense of a shared space. 

For the observer, it was incredible to watch the actors become in sync. There were so many times when physical movements were mirrored, or actors responded to physical gestures they couldn’t possibly see. 

Admittedly some of that could be the brain perceiving links where there are none, but we all felt that it happened too often for it to be just that. As Tom Kibbe said, there came a point when it seemed as though the actor’s “very pores were responding to each other”.

Coming back to a visual representation of shared space

What’s really interesting is that when the actors create that sense of a shared space between them, and once you have any bit of basic visual matching, the illusion for the viewer is quite powerful.

George and Mark creating a strong sense of shared space

The illusion should be shattered but it’s not

Let’s say Mark and George are working, the two are spotlit, and George walks off screen in Mark’s direction – the illusion should be shattered, since she “disappears” where you would expect her to cross the line between her video and Mark’s. And yet, as a spectator, once the connection is established, it doesn’t shatter the illusion.

You accept the space and the “reality” becomes irrelevant. Even a disappearing actor doesn’t take you out of the scene. 

It shouldn’t really be a surprise that performance trumps technology, but it was interesting all the same to see that once you captivate the audience with a truly connected performance, you can maintain the suspension of disbelief despite the limitations of Zoom.

Being present when you’re not visible

Once we had established the basic sense of shared space, Tom directed the actors to feel free to do whatever they want: leave the frame, leave the room, whatever they feel like.

The benefit of having the lavalier mics is that you have total freedom of movement without loss of audio quality.

It was incredible to watch Mark D’Aughton and George Hanover establish that shared space and then they could leave the frame, or even the room, and yet you never felt like you had lost their presence. 

But you really had to master that deeper sense of listening and connection in order to achieve this. 

Letting go of the text

Tom kept reminding us throughout that this is a time for play. We’re experimenting. One of the directions he gave more than once was to “let go of the text”.

If we’re too focussed on what’s “in the play” we can be reliant on logical analysis, which have predictable outcomes, and the result can be that we miss out on more intuitive and unique performances. 

As Tom kept encouraging us “go for it, if you miss, you miss.” So we played. And explored. And tried some ridiculous versions, and some worked and some “missed”.

But all of it gave us material to work with and consider, and deepened our understanding of the characters. As Mark said “we’re not making any concrete choices here, we’re adding to the colour palette so we have more options later”.

Results – recording and reviewing

Another massive benefit to working on Zoom is the ability to record and review. We would record certain runs of the units and upload the videos to YouTube as unlisted videos so that everyone could review later if they wished (without the videos being publicly available).

Not always comfortable

Reviewing wasn’t always comfortable, but it was hugely beneficial to see the process working. 

When I reviewed my work from the first weekend, I could see an improvement from the first run we recorded to the last run we recorded, which helped build even further trust in the process. 

And it helped with confidence in my own ability as well. Honestly, when we started, I felt like I’d forgotten how to act. And if I was judging myself on that first recording I would have said I was right. 

But under Tom’s direction I could see that I hadn’t forgotten.

Tom’s directorial style

Tom’s directorial style is encouraging and supportive, and almost minimalist. He never “explains” and he never puts you in your head by telling you what you’re doing wrong. 

But by watching the recordings I could see that in the first run I was using my “social voice” as Tom would call it, my “everyday” voice. And my approach was altogether too casual and non-dramatic for the scene.

Then, by the last recording from that day, I can see the nudges that Tom provided had guided me to my actor’s voice and that I am beginning to find the drama in the scene. 

Comparing to see progress

Frank and Mark working on a scene

When we completed this experiment I watched the very first recording of the unit I was working on, and I compared it to the very last recording – so the first weekend to the last weekend.

The difference was incredible, and fascinating. Because they were worlds apart, but also in other ways just a hair’s breadth apart. 

In a relatively short space of time I had learned to listen at a much deeper level, which allowed me to respond more meaningfully, more instinctively. 

The result was that I was bringing myself more fully to the character, and yet also realising a character who is very different to myself. 

A joy to watch

An ease begins to permeate the performance when this happens, that makes it a joy to watch.

It makes it a joy to watch from a personal perspective, in that I feel like I’m getting so much closer to the kind of performance I want to be able to deliver consistently, and also a joy to watch in the other actors. 

It’s incredible to see how different every run becomes when the actors are fully in the moment, listening and responding. The actors find things you could never intellectually reason your way to.

It all starts to make sense

As Tom says, “the deep concentration, coupled with relaxation, awakens your intuition which brings out the detail, the texture, and the deeper truths”.

You find the meaning of the text as you work this way, because you’re living it. 

The interview scene between Martin and Ross had never fully made sense to me when we were initially reading the play. I struggled to understand the switches that happened throughout and to truly “get” where Ross was coming from with his reactions.

To wrap up our experiment we read the play again on our last get-together, and it all made sense. It just flowed from us, and everything I’d struggled with before all just seemed completely natural. 

Bringing it back to the room

Mark and Tommy working on a scene

We have yet to bring our work back into the room and work in-person, but we are working toward making that possible.

However, there were two other Tom Kibbe students, Jon Witty and Ciaran Fagan, who were working on a separate project and I had the pleasure of seeing them working in-person after their Zoom rehearsals and the results were powerful.

They achieved the same sense of ease, making incredibly difficult material look easy and effortless.

They reported that there was a transition to be made once they got back into a room together, and they actually used blindfolds to aid that transition and to help retain that sense of deep listening.

But once the transition was made, they said the work they had done on Zoom was invaluable and allowed them to make rapid progress in the room in just a few days.

Summary

Even if there was no pandemic to worry about, rehearsing on Zoom is worth considering. In practical terms, if your cast is geographically dispersed, or if rehearsal space or travel or accommodation costs are a concern, then Zoom rehearsal in the early stages of any project is worth considering. 

And from a performance perspective, I believe every actor should try it, to experience the deep listening and activation of the imagination that it requires. 

It’s not easy, I absolutely found it a struggle to begin with. It’s tiring, because it requires a deeper level of concentration and at the same time you’re aiming for a deeper state of relaxation. 

Several of us found it to be quite an emotional experience. Perhaps because of what it required from us as actors, we continued to be more open and responsive after rehearsal finished. I certainly found myself affected more deeply by things during the evenings following rehearsal. 

The overall experience was so rich and nuanced that it’s impossible to describe fully the effects, but some of the highlights are that is has: 

  • underlined the level of listening truly required of an actor
  • activated my imagination in a new way
  • emphasised how important it is not to be concerned with how the other actor is receiving your wok
  • Illustrated the ease of performance that is possible when you achieve the above

I believe that rehearsing on Zoom for just these few sessions has made me a better actor already. I recommend any actor try this out, but if you have the opportunity, I even more strongly recommend you try this out under the guidance of Tom Kibbe.

Afterword: The tech we bought

I said I’d tell you what gear we bought, so here’s the set up we went for, based on the great advice Mark got from Thomann Ireland:

One word of warning on the Rode Wireless Go system is that the wireless receiver has a dB button which switches the decibels between -6, 0 and +6 decibels. But there’s NO visual indicator as to which you are on, which is frustrating, but because we are rehearsing together we can get feedback from each other as to which setting we are on!

We found the best option for us was to set the Wireless Go to +6 decibels which then gave us more control via the audio interface. If we set the Wireless Go to a lesser setting we had to turn the gain up too high on the audio interface, giving us very little room to play with when needed. 

Anyway, the main takeaway here is that wireless microphones are definitely beneficial, whether you get the above set up or another brand.

The TK Collective has taken this work from Zoom to Room and have a private showing in the Cork Midsummer Festival on Sat 25th June at 6pm. Email Eoin Ó hAnnracháin at eoinproducer@gmail.com if you are interested in attending, we’d love to see you there.

This exploration was funded by an agility award from The Arts Council. We are currently exploring in the room thanks to the support of the Cork City Council Arts Office and The Cork Midsummer Festival. We are The TK Collective

Supported by the Arts Council, the Cork City Council Arts Office, and the Cork Midsummer Festival

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