Joy Zinoman, ever the innovator, takes acting to a higher level via Zoom curriculum – DC Theatre Scene

Posted: September 9, 2020 at 10:57 am


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When Studio Theatres acting conservatory parted ways with its eponymous Studio Theatre more than a year ago, the split was existential, according to conservatory Co-Director Joy Zinoman. Zinoman, who founded both the conservatory in the mid-1970s, and the theatre several years later in 1978, served as the theatres Artistic Director for more than 30 years before transitioning to her current role in 2010. The two entities had operated under the same roof for more than 40 years, the conservatory training more than 10,000 Washington area performers, many of whom appeared in the theatres staged productions.

By the time Studio Theatre made its public announcement in February 2019 that it planned to discontinue the acting school and reclaim the space for the theatre, Zinoman (who learned of the plan in June) had already raised almost three-quarters of a million dollars to keep the school alive. She moved the conservatory to a temporary space in a former DC middle school. By May of 2019, the newly named Studio Acting Conservatory had purchased a permanent homean unused church in Columbia Heightsand announced its plans for renovations.

Today, the conservatorys new space, which Zinoman describes as glorious and full of light, her own eyes alight with excitement, is only weeks from completion. But, like many Washington area businesses and schools, its offices, classrooms, performance spaces and practice rooms will remain empty for the indefinite future, due to the continued threat of Covid-19. Actingis such an intimate thing, Zinoman said, we cant expose our students or instructors to that kind of risk.

Like everyone else, weve had to be innovative, Zinoman continued with renewed enthusiasm. When we moved our classes online last spring, the instructors rose to the challenge. Of the roughly 180 students enrolled in the Conservatorys 3-year comprehensive acting curriculum, about 91% continued their classwork online.

Not all of the classes worked online, Zinoman admitted with a chuckle, we had movement classes where the students were trying to perform in tiny apartment bedrooms where the bed took up the entire room. We cant kid ourselves, of course, she continued. Something is lost when you are not in the same physical space. With classes being conducted online, scenes have to be shot in extreme closeup, Zinoman continued, to emphasize the actors emotions and maintain the conceit of physical proximity. You always lose something without the whole body.

With a curriculum based on realism (grounded in the Stanislavsky method), the transition was far less painful then Zinoman first assumed. Realism is more about the internal lifethe emotional context, of the characters, she explained. At first, the actorswho were performing scenes over Zoomfocused on trying to make their background environments feel more cohesive, switching out their screen backgrounds so it seemed they were in the same physical space, or engaging in somewhat gimmicky prop effects, like passing a glass of water from one actors hand to another via sleight of hand. It was impressive work, Zinoman said, noting that the students final scenes can be viewed on the conservatorys website.

What really worked and became interesting, she continued, was when students started to transfer their scene work into the now very familiar context of a virtual meeting. They would take famous scenes and transfer it such that the characters themselves were having intimate interactions via Zoom.

Really what could feel more real right now than the strangely intimate, always awkward, window we are suddenly forced to open up into our own homes and lives? The eager burn of a co-workers eyes over your shoulder, assessing the tiny slice of your apartment youve chosen to broadcast (Huh, thought it would be nicer, you can hear them thinking. Wouldnt have pegged her for a cat person.) while you wonder whether your boss can tell you just rolled of bed, tucking your button down into pajama bottoms. The virtual blind date, absent the distraction of dinner and a show, or even the dim lighting, that requires near constant eye contact.

While most of us hope it isnt the case, this could the new normal, both in life and theater. Playwrights and directors are already producing online plays that portray their characters communicating via video chat. Zinoman points to Richard Nelsons renowned Apple Family plays, historically staged at New Yorks Public Theatre, the latest of which (the 6th in the series) features the characters forced together on a Zoom call, appearing in a grid of boxes. Auditioning via videotapehas become the norm, for many theatres, Zinoman added, at least in the first round of auditions. Delivering a convincing, emotional performance via video, is an essential skill for todays actor.

The conservatory is adapting to this new need, introducing new classes like Self-Taping for Auditions, in addition to making its full curriculum available online. We know its a difficult timeimperfect, Zinoman said. The theatre is about gatheringand thats the one thing thats not safeabout connection in a time when thats not safe. Never one to be caught lying down, she also sees great potential for actors during the Covid-19 pandemic. Now is a great time for actors to focus on self-improvement, Zinoman said, developing your craft is the best you can do right now.

And the online environment does have its advantages. Zinoman noted that students can now take the conservatorys classes from other citiesstudents from New York and even as far as Spain have already enrolled in the fall. We have college students who can now fit in virtual classes, in addition to their own virtual college course load. We have our existing students who have seen that they can make tremendous progress even with virtual classes. What we need are incoming students who are going to believe that, in this format, they can express themselves at a higher level.

Studio Acting Conservatory opens for its fall semester today, with spaces still available in many of its online classes. Find online application here or call 202.232.0714.

Interview with Joy Zinoman conducted virtually, via Zoom.

Meaghan Hannan Davant is a freelance writer and lawyer with an unabashed love for theater of all types, and musical theater in particular. She has written theater reviews and various other pieces for print and online publications, including Washingtonian magazine, and is thrilled to be working with DC Theatre Scene. Given her druthers, Meaghan would be on the stage herself. She has performed in professional and amateur productions from the age of 8, from Bangor, Maine (her hometown) all the way down the East Coast. She holds an undergraduate degree in English and Theater from Princeton University, a Masters in Journalism from UNC-Chapel Hill, a law degree from Duke and has had acting and voice training at NYU-TISCHs CAP-21 program and Studio Theatre. When shes not writing or an enjoying a show, she loves to spend time with her husband, two kids, and mini goldendoodle Leo in her Capitol Hill neighborhood.

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Joy Zinoman, ever the innovator, takes acting to a higher level via Zoom curriculum - DC Theatre Scene

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