When Studio Theatre’s 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-1970’s, and the theatre several years later in 1978, served as the theatre’s 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 theatre’s 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 home—an unused church in Columbia Heights—and announced its plans for renovations.
Today, the conservatory’s 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. “Acting…is such an intimate thing,” Zinoman said, “we can’t expose our students or instructors to that kind of risk.”
“Like everyone else, we’ve 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 Conservatory’s 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 can’t 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 actor’s 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 life…the emotional context,” of the characters, she explained. At first, the actors—who were performing scenes over Zoom—focused 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 actor’s hand to another via sleight of hand. “It was impressive work,” Zinoman said, noting that the students’ final scenes can be viewed on the conservatory’s 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-worker’s eyes over your shoulder, assessing the tiny slice of your apartment you’ve chosen to broadcast (“Huh, thought it would be nicer,” you can hear them thinking. “Wouldn’t 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 isn’t 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 Nelson’s renowned “Apple Family” plays, historically staged at New York’s 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 videotape…has 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 today’s 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 it’s a difficult time…imperfect,” Zinoman said. “The theatre is about gathering…and that’s the one thing that’s not safe…about connection in a time when that’s 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 conservatory’s classes from other cities—students 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.
Interview with Joy Zinoman conducted virtually, via Zoom.