The Art of Interacting Online

VSC's logo, a red circle with white lettering.

Virginia Stage Company

Words by Louise Casini Hollis.
Images courtesy of Virginia Stage Company

It may appear that the world has shut down, but the teaching artists of Hampton Roads have taken this opportunity to flourish online with a multitude of opportunities for students to stay connected during the pandemic. In an ongoing series, Spotlight HR is talking to artists and arts organizations around Hampton Roads about their experiences in engaging with students online.

Virginia Stage Company has been a leader in on-line programming for the Hampton Roads community during the pandemic. Through their virtual events ranging from monologue workshops and industry seminars, to Ryan Clemmens’ performance of Meet Mark Twain! via Facebook Live, VSC has consistently helped the theatre community to thrive during quarantine.  

Patrick Mullins, Director of Public Works at Virginia Stage Company believes the Hampton Roads theatre community’s resilience is due to its, “Can-do attitude. I watch folks just step up and make things happen you know, whether it’s an audacious production, or audacious style – people aren’t afraid.  I think that’s characteristic of this area in general is that we have kind of a resilient can-do attitude that people kind of aren’t afraid to take off a big bite of something. I’m excited to see what happens as all of those things unite into something bigger.”

Making something bigger is what Patrick does best. He was the driving force behind the Midsummer Fantasy Festival which was produced in conjunction with Fest Events. 

A shot looking down on a large crowd in Town POint PArk one of the evenings of the Midsummer Festival.

These immersive theatrical productions, such as Moon Take Thy Flight an adaptation of A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream and The Tempest (both presented in Town Point park); and Miss Kitty’s House of Cosmic Love at The Hermitage Museum and Gardens collaborated with the Hampton Roads arts community to bring actors, musicians and visual artists together. Part of Patrick’s drive comes out of his background as an educator. “To me directing and teaching are a lot alike because really it’s about collaboration,” shares Patrick, “And it’s about two-way learning. I have some skills and some tools that I’ve acquired and other people have their own experiences that they’re experts in and so we come together to make something bigger than us.”

As a child, Patrick got involved in theatre though his church and toured with a Christian drama group playing notable biblical characters such as David the King and the apostle Paul. He went on to Pensacola Christian College to major in education with an emphasis in theatre and music and a vocal minor. He then taught high school for 7 years in the Atlanta area. His love of learning led him to an internship at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta before earning his MFA in Acting from the University of South Carolina. “But I was directing in the background of all that, and so I made most of my career out of being a director and teacher.”

Patrick’s current focus is to bring summer educational opportunities to the students of Hampton Roads. He is collaborating with Ryan Clemmens, VSC’s Lead Theatre Artist, and Laura Agudelo, Grassfield High School’s teacher of the year in 2018 to create their Virtual Summer Camp.  The VSC team decided to move their summer programs on-line after consulting parents about the best practices to deliver courses during the pandemic. Out of these conversations came course offerings including Virtual Stage Summer Theatre Camp, ‘The Show Must Go Online!’ Theatre Camp, Professional Actor’s Bootcamp and ‘On Camera’ Camp: Writing and Performing for the Camera. They will also hold a 6 week course for adults and are creating some workshops for students who cannot commit to a week of classes or would just like to hone a particular skill.

The stage company's house, empty with the curtain down.

“I’m really proud of the curriculum we’ve put together and the way it kind of oscillates and takes a four hour block every day and really uses it well and divides students up,” notes Patrick. “No camp is larger than 12 students and so there are break-out sessions with 6 students and so everybody gets individualized time – maybe more so than they would in a real time camp with 25 or 30  kids.”  

Connecting on-line is nothing new for Patrick. “I’m fairly techie,” he confides, “I kind of came of age with digital communication so that’s not foreign to me.” This comfort level served him well when, as an Acting Instructor at ODU, his classes were suddenly taken on-line due to COVID-19. “The acting class I was teaching over there this semester happened to be Acting I, and so I did one more big assignment and very much simplified that flow,” Patrick shared. “In that particular situation, it’s less about practices and more about dealing with a diverse set of student needs. There was a lot of just checking in with folks and meeting people where they were,” he continued. “There is a sacredness to a digital interaction,” observed Patrick. “When you’re sitting in your own home and you’re in this close-up conversation with someone else in their own home there’s a built-in intimacy there. And I have found that in working with students of all ages that some folks that maybe brought a physical stiffness or plasticity to what they did were suddenly more physically relaxed when performing in their own home…That being said, the monologues I got from them were some of the best – I was really impressed with how they just kind of gangbusters went after it and took ownership of it. I had worked with those students for a little more than half a semester in a classroom, so to see them be more comfortable in their own homes and take bigger physical and vocal risks than they normally did in the classroom was really fascinating.”

Patrick recently explored the digital production medium when he directed MK and Olivier by playwright Alexis Roblan, broadcast via Zoom for Exquisite Corpse, a Brooklyn based theatre company as a part of their “Site” Specific Festival. “There were two actors who are quarantined together, and while they had scenes together, a lot of her dialogue was directly to the camera. In working on that, there’s a little bit of her registering the audience but that is about looking at little squares in the Zoom screen and or the text chat that is flying by which is a whole different level of technical – that’s not the way we teach actors to register feedback,” explained Patrick. 

Patrick went on to explain how directing and teaching on-line are different than when you are sharing the same space with actors, in that the, “exchange from the actor is different because the things you’re used to relying on in real time – people’s breath, people’s chuckle, their laugh, their whatever – is not [physically] there.  There’s a kinesthetic difference. So how do we take that energy and that control of our own authentic experience and manipulation of our experience and then how do we help folks take that and then transfer it to real space? I think these are two ways of working on the same problem. Or the same challenge.  And that’s what we do in an acting class anyway, right? We work at it from an intellectual point of view, from a psychological analysis point of view, from a physical point of view, from a vocal point of view, from an impulse point of view and then we marry all those things together. And I really just think this digital space gives us one more way of attacking this conversation.”

A photo of the Around the World in 80 Days set from the Virginia Stage Company. Lots of clock pieces, a blue false proscenium with a gold curtain.
Image pulled from Facebook, Easter Egg- your editor was the Assistant Technical Director for this set, from VSC’s performance of Around the World in 80 Days.

Patrick and his team are eager to begin exploring this conversation with their summer camp students and help them deepen their digital savvy. “A lot of our young people are already acting out and writing and scripting their own Lego stop-action movies and all sorts of things,” observes Patrick. By meeting students where they are skill wise and on-line, Patrick believes, “this is teaching us to be better partners and friends to those we already serve, and giving us the opportunity to leverage technology in reaching folks we didn’t before. I’m hopeful that our new realities in a post-quarantine world will allow us to have even more specific impact in the lives of students as they build not just their theatre skills, but their abilities to be empathetic humans working toward a better world.”  

 “All people have a right to theatre,” is Patrick’s mantra. Fortunately he and the staff of Virginia Stage Company are able to fulfill this vision by making theatre accessible to the Hampton Roads community through virtual means.

Virtual Summer Camp
Virginia Stage Company
Virtual Stage – Ongoing classes and special workshop events

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