The ASC Theatre Camp (ASCTC) is an immersive, residential theatre intensive where students ages 13-19 get to:

  • Perform with Shakespeare’s staging conditions in the Blackfriars Playhouse
  • Preview the college experience by living on the Mary Baldwin University campus
  • Watch live performances by American Shakespeare Center professional troupes
  • Explore the infinite performance options available in early modern texts
  • Spend three weeks together

In the midst of the current global pandemic, how could any of that be possible?

Hi, I’m Lia Wallace, and you may remember me from such previous blog posts as “Applied Theatrics” and “What I Learned on my Summer Vacation: An ASCTC 2019 Retrospective.”

I’m here to pass on some of the lessons I learned this summer at #SHXCamp 2020, the American Shakespeare Center’s digital version of the residential ASC Theatre Camp. Read on for tips, encouragement, and advice on replicating our successes while avoiding our mistakes.

1. Don’t pretend online is the same as in-person.
acknowledge and embrace the obstacles and opportunities provided by your new staging conditions.

“To be completely honest (and strongly influenced by discussions I’ve already had with my camper) I would need to see a completely novel approach to online learning that would make us interested in a virtual ASCTC experience. You guys have amazing content and staff, there is no doubt if anyone can pull this off, you can — but so far I’ve seen so many attempts fall flat in engaging people in a way that is anywhere near as powerful as the in-person experience.” – Parent response to pre-Camp survey

When it came time to pivot the residential ASC Theatre Camp into the digital #SHXCamp, I took a look at my list and crossed off everything made impossible by our socially distant reality:

  • Perform with Shakespeare’s staging conditions in the Blackfriars Playhouse
  • Preview the college experience by living on the Mary Baldwin University campus
  • Watch live performances by American Shakespeare Center professional troupes
  • Explore the infinite performance options available in early modern texts
  • Spend three weeks together?

The tangible external trappings of the Playhouse or MBU’s campus are vital components of the residential Camp experience, but they would not survive digital transplantation, and pretending otherwise would get us nowhere. We had to work with whatever would survive, which turned out to be plenty — so long as we embraced our new staging conditions. For us, that meant acknowledging the reality of the Zoom box as our primary venue (see item #2, “Use The Device” for more on this) and crafting work that would work in that venue.

To do so, I freed directors Jack Read (Julius Caesar) and Lauren Carlton (All’s Well that Ends Well) from the regular restraints of a one-hour cut or indeed any sort of linear storytelling, and I threw nearly all of our normal “rules” out of the window in favor of one new uber rule: the show portfolios could be anything except for a straight-up “Zoom reading” of the play. Instead of using Shakespeare’s staging conditions to mount one-hour productions of early modern plays for live performance in the Blackfriars Playhouse, #SHXCampers would need to use the internet’s staging conditions to devise multimedia-enhanced explorations of Shakespeare’s text for compilation in a digital portfolio. Armed with these instructions, #SHXCampers got extraordinarily creative. Peruse the digital portfolios to see the fruits of their labors (click here for All’s Well, click here for Caesar).

“This was a super unique experience and I think the Caesar team handled it super well. Our process was super collaborative and I know for a fact that my ideas were heard.” —  #SHXCamper

“Oh my gosh. Being in All’s Well with Lauren was incredible!!! She was the best director ever. I loved how we all got to come up with ideas ourselves as well as execute her amazing ideas. The creative freedom she gave us definitely helped get more in touch with character!!” — #SHXCamper

This was hard. We love what we do, and we had a hard time letting it go lightly. ASCTC, like ASC in general, has always been context-driven. What we do (mount one-hour productions of early modern plays) depends heavily not only on why (for live performance) but also on where (in the Blackfriars Playhouse) we do it. Even though we followed the same process of embracing our context to arrive at a final collaborative product, the #SHXCamp digital portfolios look nothing like the normal ASCTC performances — nor should they. After all, online is not the same as in-person.

2. USE THE DEVICE!

“I was surprised that I could make friends very effectively over Zoom!! I love everyone from camp so much.” — #SHXCamper 

While I still spend a good chunk of each day lamenting what we can’t have on Zoom (eye contact, side conversations, ensemble work, unison vocal work, eye contact, eye contact, eye contact) what we can have on Zoom is nevertheless remarkable. Here are a few Zoom functions we used (or should have used) to great effect at #SHXCamp:

a. Annotate

Hosts and meeting participants can use the “annotate” function to draw or write on a shared screen (or shared whiteboard). A simple way to engage students’ participation in workshops (especially since Zoom changed the default settings to automatically show the name of each annotater next to their contribution). We used this to mark up text in our rhetoric and scansion workshops, and also to doodle together between classes.

b. Breakout rooms

The digital equivalent of dividing into smaller groups. Hosts can create, open, and assign meeting participants to  breakout rooms at any time during a meeting. Co-hosts can float between breakout rooms, as well. I cannot imagine rehearsing any sort of ensemble piece without liberal use of the breakout room function for dividing up scene work and delegating to production team members. It’s easy to use, it significantly increases productivity by allowing you to work on more than one moment at a time, and it provides much-needed variety for participants (especially those who may thrive in smaller groups but be reluctant to engage in larger ones).

c. Chat

“One of the big pluses of using Zoom is that you can private message people. When I can tell people are stressed out or they’re doing a big presentation or something, I normally drop them a “you can do it!” motivational message in their private Zoom messages! Many campers did this for me and the messages never failed to brighten my day.” – #SHXCamper

While I understand the gut reaction to stay away from chat features (we don’t encourage students to pass notes in class, after all) I want to encourage everyone to check their assumptions in this ridiculous time (and remember all the notes they passed in their own classes back in the day anyway). Connecting is hard when we are forcibly separate. Embrace anything that makes it easier. We set rules around the chat functions on each digital platform in different contexts (e.g. only use the Zoom chat for dramaturgy-related questions or comments during rehearsals and keep unrelated chatter to the appropriate Slack channel — read more about Slack in item #4), which helped keep distractions to a minimum while still encouraging campers to engage with the material together.

d. Share screen

The digital equivalent of holding up a page for display or glancing (with permission) over your neighbor’s shoulder, screen sharing became second nature at #SHXCamp. Along with a simple view of the screen, Zoom makes it super easy for users to share more. You can send files through Zoom’s screen share function, or combine it with the “annotate” function to write on a shared digital “white board” together. You can also share your computer audio — either by itself (perfect for playing music while still being able to see faces in gallery view; came in very handy for the Masquerade Ball and our many impromptu dance parties) or with a screen share (perfect for watching video clips together; came in very handy for Archive Movie Nights).

e. Hide Self View

“Some days were a little harder but I could always turn off my camera and move around and feel better.” — #SHXCamper 

Humans are not used to witnessing our own interactions, and anybody who’s sat across the table from a mirror knows how distracting it is to be forced to do so. We gave #SHXCampers the option of turning off their cameras as needed, which they universally appreciated, frequently used, and (probably) abused on occasion. While requiring cameras on is problematic (especially when it comes to issues of access and bandwidth), so was our solution of allowing them to be turned off at-will. Sometimes, we found ourselves speaking to a sea of black boxes, unsure of whether we were being understood or even heard, which was both frustrating and demoralizing. One happy medium exists in the “hide self view” option, which keeps your camera on but removes your video from your own personal Zoom display (so you aren’t staring at your own face) thereby cutting back on Zoom fatigue.

Once we stopped lamenting the loss of our in-person program and turned our attention to what we were able to do online, we found all sorts of tools waiting to be put to creative use. If you find yourself forced to teach virtually this year, don’t panic. Investigate your platform(s) thoroughly, and encourage your students to do the same. You may find more than you think.

3. Schedule accordingly.
You will need more time to cover less material, and longer breaks to beat Zoom fatigue.

“More breaks plz to cut some long zoom sessions. The zoom fatigue hits hard sometimes.” – #SHXCamper

Teaching over Zoom is different than teaching in person (see item #1 on this list). Not everything will take longer to do on Zoom, but a lot of things will — including the simple things many of us take for granted. For example, I used to be able to call on a student instantaneously with a simple visual scan and a social cue like pointing or eye contact, none of which is possible on Zoom. Instead, that instantaneous in-person action now takes long moments of verbal explication (instructing students to use the raise hand function, reminding them to unmute themselves, and dealing with the inevitable interruptions and miscommunications that arise from any confusion) to be virtually successful.

In addition to the extra time it takes to do everything, our brains are scrambling to keep up with the constantly shifting modes of technological communication we now rely on but never evolved to use. Though advancements in technology outpaced biological evolution long ago, the struggle is still real and the cognition required for success is increasingly exhausting. There are ways to combat the resulting Zoom fatigue (see item 2e. “Hide Self View”) but the best remedy is thoughtful planning. Schedule brain breaks and take the time you need to be effective. Even if you end up covering less material in the short term, avoiding burnout will always get you further in the long run.

“I heard a lot of people talking about screen time and “zoom fatigue”, but that didn’t really affect me. I did school in the spring online from 9-2, so this really wasn’t that different — except that I was actually enjoying this, which made it much easier.” – #SHXCamper

4. Create a dedicated space for online socializing.

“I can’t believe how well you created a camp community experience. The first day online was exhausting and I wasn’t sure how all the hours online would translate into a 3 week experience, but it was amazing.” –#SHXCamp Parent

We realized back in March what many colleges and universities around the country began grappling with in July and August: when you lose the residential setting of your program, you lose the built-in immersion of the experience. The ASC Theatre Camp is about so much more than the content of its classes: it’s about the magic of meeting your people. That magic is not self-perpetuating. It needs time and tending, which it normally gets from the side conversations that happen while campers walk to classes together, the spontaneous board game tournaments in the dorm lounges, the late-night whispers between roommates, and all the other sorts of forced bonding that happen naturally between strangers thrown into a high-pressure, intensely emotional experience together. In order to make the magic happen online, we needed a way for campers to “hang out” during free time and connect during classes. Enter Slack.

Slack is a “channel-based messaging system” designed for streamlining communications between coworkers, not a Learning Management System (LMS) designed for delivering content to students (like Canvas or Blackboard Collaborate). I do not work for Slack, and while I endorse the platform heartily, my point is not to convince you to buy it. But I cannot overstate the importance of having a unified, customizable, segmented communications platform for #SHXCamp alongside our Zoom rooms.

Everybody had access to standard channels like “general” and “random” as well as #SHXCamp-specific custom channels like “tutorials and resources” (where we stored instructive files like workshop handouts and demo videos) and “antiracism” (where we compiled information about actively dismantling white supremacy). Specific groups within the #SHXCamp workspace could also access private channels for specific projects or conversations — each cast had its own private channel for discussions related to their digital portfolios, for example. In addition to the private and public chat channels, Slack also allows all members to send direct messages to anybody else in the workspace. These features gave us all the ability to quickly and easily connect with everyone from anywhere, and allowed the inside jokes and “had to be there” moments of camp to happen online.

“If I had to pick one thing [I’ll still remember 20 years from now] though, it’s definitely the friends I made. Because I can confidently say that I made 18 new friends in the middle of a pandemic, and that’s pretty darn cool.” — #SHXCamper

While it took us about a week to get the hang of it (not an insubstantial amount of time in a three-week program), the #SHXCamp Slack workspace became a thriving digital community so vibrant and effective that we decided to keep it forever. We’re creating a SHXSlack” subscription benefit for all current and former ASC Theatre Campers (and Camp staff) who join the Epizeuxis Society of ASC donors, which will give them access to this exclusive bubble of Camp resources, events, and friends. We weren’t sure it would work, but it absolutely did — and now we can all keep Camp in our back pockets year-round.

5. We can do this. Together.

“Wow. I cannot say enough amazing things about this camp. I had no expectation that a true residential camp experience could be duplicated, but y’all have absolutely done it. [My camper] has lived and breathed #ShxCamp. It has inspired her beyond measure and surrounded her with a community of passionate people… something she didn’t even know she needed. It has most definitely impacted where she’s considering attending college and even her career plans. She’s already planning for next summer, and I NEVER imagined I would have her considering leaving home for a camp for 3 weeks. Every piece of this camp has been enjoyable for her, and you truly built a community. She’s going to have the same post-camp withdrawals she would if she’d been there in person. I’m mind-blown that a virtual experience could do that, and so thankful that you pivoted this camp to online.” — #SHXCamp Parent

Camp is magic. I learn that anew every summer, and 2020 was no exception. No matter where or how we do it, bringing together a bunch of enthusiastic young weirdos to explore and perform these centuries-old texts is magic. While I hope we never have to do a digital version of the ASC Theatre Camp again, knowing that we can do it is astonishing — and comforting. Weathering the uncertainties of our reality is difficult, and weathering them alone is nigh impossible. At the end of the day, we are what will get us all through this. Each other.

“Thank you so much for saving me from my darkest moments.” — #SHXCamper

Loneliness is corrosive and deadly. I cannot speak for anyone else, but I know I have felt lonelier in the last 5 months than I had in the previous 5 years. But for three weeks this summer, I never felt alone — because I never was. I had Camp with me.

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