A dear friend and colleague once observed that the contribution we made to the residential courses that used to be produced by Vitae, the non-profit researcher development organisation, felt a bit like being a part of a travelling theatre group. We would arrive at some campus, hotel or conference centre, set up our show and then spend three, four or sometimes five days facilitating, leading, challenging and often dancing for our supper before packing up our tools, going home and wondering where and when the next show would take place. Those residential courses may have finished, but the work I delivered on them continues to this day, albeit in a smaller and simpler style, shaped by the need to balance cost with effectiveness and impact. Regardless of this, for my delivery style and some of my content I have always relied on and been grateful for the three years I spent studying acting at The Arts Educational Drama School.
In pre-covid times, so many of the logistics needed for my workshops were taken care of by the client: rooms were always provided with wifi, a projector, seating, tables and flip charts. On tap was always a plentiful supply of coffee and snacks, breakout rooms were always nearby, and there were usually comfortable places to sit and chat informally. All I had to do was turn up with my laptop, plug it in and give my full focus to the people in the room. Those days are on hold for the moment, and even when circumstances allow me to once more deliver my work face-to-face, a combination of the economic savings realised by online learning, the long-term damage currently decimating the air-travel industry and climate change imperatives mean that a certain amount of it will almost certainly stay.
Delivering workshops from home using remote conferencing software is something of a thrill for me, as in addition to the content and style of delivery, I am now also responsible for creating the set, lighting, sound, props and theatrical devices required to bring a performance to life in such a way that it can be experienced through a fourth wall or proscenium. For this, the two years I also spent studying technical theatre and stage management at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama have now proved themselves utterly indispensable, particularly as I mostly work alone.
Having learned much in the seven months since my first post about producing online workshops, the purpose of this one is to offer an updated breakdown of the equipment and set-up that my technical theatre background has influenced.
A. As a presenter and facilitator, I am used to being physically mobile. I avoid lecterns, I rarely sit and I find having the flexibility to move within a space essential. I therefore struggle to deliver remote workshops from a chair and, had I the resources, would almost certainly build a custom-designed performance space at home. That not being possible, the next best solution is a sit-stand desk that allows me to convert my office from work space to performance space and back as needed. The best model I have found is one that fits on my existing desk, can be operated during a workshop, and is strong enough to support two monitors.
B. My office is attached to the side of my house, is well insulated and exposed to the sun. With noise pollution a factor, the door and window always need to be shut during workshops, and having a quiet fan on in the background is essential to provide comfort and help me regulate my body temperature.
C. As good as computers are, the small microphones buried in them are no match for a large diaphragm condenser mic, which can pick up sound with far more detail and accuracy. The more natural your voice sounds to your audience, the less energy they will consume listening to it and therefore the less likely they are to disengage.
D. The backstage area and wings of a theatre are fascinating places, filled with actors waiting for their cues to go on, furniture and props ready to be set, costume rails for actors who have to change their clothes in less time than it takes to make it back to the dressing room and stage hands wearing blacks and earpieces poised to rush out in near-darkness to convert a nineteenth century parlour into an autumnal forest in less than ninety seconds*. In a similar way I use extra screens to display all manner of information that I may need to bring in to a workshop at a moment’s notice. It could be the results of an online poll on Mentimeter, monitoring a group’s output on Miro, accessing information or links requested by participants during the workshop or controlling apps that I use to deliver training materials to breakout rooms, such as Padlet or Jamboard.
E. The prompt desk of a theatre is from where the Deputy Stage Manager calls the show. From their carefully marked script they co-ordinate everything that you see on a stage; actors’ entrances, lighting changes, sound effects and music, scenery flying in or out, scene changes and curtain calls. Nothing happens onstage that the DSM has not co-ordinated, and in the same way I use this second monitor to reveal or conceal the component parts of a workshop at the appropriate time. It hosts a virtual camera which allows me to position my image alongside the slides, images videos or websites that I want to share, and then manipulate the size and opacity of either. Another piece of software controls and mixes the sound output from my microphone and all the different apps I use, so that all audio is transmitted at the right volume. I also keep a “prompt copy” open on this monitor; a document from which I can quickly copy and share links at specific times.
F. On the back wall of my office is a large prompt screen which allows me to guarantee as much clarity as possible for my audience by maximising the resolution of the images that are fed into the virtual camera. It is placed so that I can see it in my peripheral vision whilst presenting to the webcam perched on top of the main screen. In this way I know what the audience can see, what they will see next and I can also satisfy the powerful urge presenters have of looking at the screen behind them to verify that the audience can see the exact same content that they can.
G. The stage is where a performance is given, and this main screen is where the workshop is held and audience interaction takes place. The camera feed, assembled and mixed on the second monitor using component parts from the wings, is fed directly into the remote conferencing software that runs here, and from which the workshop is relayed to the audience.
H. Given that there are about five or six pieces of software running at any one time, it is not possible to use a standard clicker to cue the next visual unless you commit to making sure that Keynote is the active app at the time of advancement, and the same is true if using your keyboard. The best solution that I have found (using Apple products) is to use an iPhone (or iPad) which is running the Keynote App, and which is connected to the Keynote file on your main computer via wifi. You can then use the phone to advance the slides on your main computer regardless of which programme is active at the time.
These steps help me recreate some of the mechanics of theatre, and my objective is to remove or mitigate those technical aspects of an online workshop which can often prevent it from being as engaging or memorable as it might be. The equipment listed above allows me to maintain audience focus, maximise production values, remove distractions, eradicate clumsy pauses and allow an audience to clearly hear and seamlessly view a presentation and supporting visuals just as they would in a live setting.
Naturally the content and how it is received remains another matter, but having worked onstage and backstage without ever feeling totally at home in either, I now take a considerable amount of pleasure from working with my feet planted firmly on either side of the curtain.
*working as a member per of the stage crew on a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters many years ago, I have a vivid memory of the scene change between acts iii and iv which had to be completed in less time than is needed to play one of Frédéric Chopin’s shorter Preludes, and in near dark conditions. It involved clearing the entire set of Olga and Irina’s room before covering the empty stage floor in a drugget across which my colleagues and I gleefully emptied bags of leaves to create an autumnal outdoors scene. It frequently earned a round of applause.