With the onset of COVID-19, Playwrights’ Workshop Montréal quickly shifted gears to move its operations online in order to maintain the safety of the organization’s staff, artists, and audience. In the time since, we’ve learned a few key things as a dramaturgical centre, and want to share our findings with you. This is a fairly broad overview, and as time and resources permit, we will be adding to this blog post.
Online day by day: maintaining community.
Staying connected while upholding a sense of community was a priority very early on. The PWM’s team was lucky as we had just started using Slack regularly, which facilitated the transition to working from our separate homes immensely. While not working together from the same physical space continues to have its challenges, the continuity of regular day-to-day real-time exchanges between staff was ensured. A regular morning and evening check-in for staff via Slack was also quickly established in order to keep consistent lines of communication. While attendance at these check-ins is not mandatory, they have been a pleasant way for employees to not only discuss work-related topics, but also to connect on a personal and social level. For employees who appreciate sharing a social space together, these daily check-ins have been a fantastic way to encourage a sense of community, regardless of one’s level of active participation. And like most theatre companies, we also held weekly Zoom staff meetings to keep projects and planning moving forward.
Unexpectedly, working remotely has brought a sense of freedom for some. As dramaturgs, we no longer felt constricted to meeting with artists on a schedule predetermined by availability of the creation studio. We finally released ourselves from the deep-seated feeling of our work needing to be witnessed by others, in order for it to be real.
We did however recognize that working remotely created anxiety in other areas of operation. It became harder to distinguish urgent work from time-sensitive work. Whether this feeling of anxiety was/is due to inhabiting the same space for both work and personal life, or because we are experiencing a recurring perspective when speaking to others (i.e. a head in a box), or simply because it’s all more complicated to juggle everything all the time – the truth is – it’s been overwhelming. Our unverified conclusion: shifting your physical space makes it easier to separate events and compartmentalize tasks.
Digital staged readings: a very different beast from live play readings!
Providing our audience with quality digital staged readings has been a giant learning experience. Engaging a virtual audience is very different from engaging an in-person audience. Visual aesthetics and design inevitably have an important role in engaging an on-line audience for a play reading, which is not a primary concern for in-person, in-process play readings. The camera has a crucial role in the overall storytelling process, and it must be considered. The camera is the portal to the audience, With this in mind, setting aside adequate time to rehearse with a camera, film, review, film again, and edit more is absolutely crucial. Be mindful of incorporating accessibility prep into your timeline of tasks, closed captioning needs to verified and edited.
Digital workshops: preparation is crucial
Over the last year, PWM learned a lot about the inner workings of running a successful digital workshop. While the experience was not without challenges, we had the pleasure of reaching artists from far and wide! Our platform of choice is Zoom, because it is easily available, fairly simple to navigate, and quite stable.
Development workshops: We have found that a successful workshop via Zoom requires a clear but simple instruction guide for participants. We created a tutorial that used screenshots and graphics, instead of text. This became a great tool to help participants less acquainted with Zoom understand how to download and manipulate the software. Moreover, we offer the option of a scheduled tutorial before the workshop if an individual requires further assistance. It is a great way to ensure that all participants have access to what they need to be comfortable. Moving forward, we plan to include a video tutorial.
Scripts are sent as PDFs and, we suggest, using a split screen Zoom option so that participants can view the active speaker while following the script with minimal interruptions.
We have found that workshops should be capped at four hours per session. We generally found that energy levels waned past that length. Lastly, emphasizing the importance of good headphones with an external mic doesn’t hurt!
Exploring practice sessions: In setting up our professional development digital workshops, we have discovered that a crucial step involves integrating the facilitators/invited artists technical and/or software preferences. If the facilitator does not have experience using digital platforms, we introduce them to the programs we use: Miro, Zoom including breakout rooms, gather.town, wonder.me). Connecting workshop facilitators with technical staff, in our case, potatoCakes_digital, ahead of time and offering training sessions has ensured that the workshop runs smoothly and with confidence. When requested, the sessions receive unlimited technical support by potatoCakes_digital.
When planning an online workshop we have found that using more than one platform helps to break up the day. Frequent breaks throughout the workshop are also a great way to retain the attention, engagement, and overall morale of the participants. However, it remains difficult to engage participants for more than five hours at a time, even with interactive elements.
Include a longer time for introductions in the online workshop’s schedule. This is an important step in ensuring trust and comfort. See this link for useful ideas on how to set up healthy Zoom environments from Offers and Answers.com.
The little things we learned working online
A lot of us are now well versed with working online. But, if you are exploring working creatively online for the first time, below are a few things we learned along the way. We hope there is a thing or two in there that will be useful to you! In no particular order:
- Have your webcam ready, facing you directly in a space that is well lit, and not backlit;
- It is best to use a neutral backdrop that is not distracting when workshopping a play with actors;
- Ensure that you are in a quiet room. It’s best if you are not near an open window;
- Use earbuds/headphones with an external microphone if possible;
- If you are using earbuds with integrated microphone, avoid wearing clothes that interfere with your mic;
- Use a hard line Ethernet cable connection for your internet and do not use Wi-Fi (if possible). If you live in a home with multiple internet users, ask if it is possible to be a lone user. If someone in your home is streaming while you are on Zoom, it may make your internet connection unstable;
- Consider changing it up! Integrate interactive activities, and regular breaks.
Creating with Digital Technology
In the coming months, potatoCakes_digital will be filming our studio set up so anyone interested can access information on the equipment we determined necessary to take us through isolation and into a hybrid model. We are committed to offering greater accessibility to our programming.
In addition, we will be launching the Digital Dramaturgy Initiative Website, created in partnership with PTC, MAP and Blyth Festival. The website will showcase a number of digital experiments initiated by theatre artists in Montreal, Winnipeg and Vancouver. The site will feature case studies, presentations by digital experts, and process documentation collected during our DDI residencies. The purpose of the DDI residencies is to explore and expand our collective vocabulary around artistic interactions with digital technology.
PWM has also been holding community consultations with seven incredible artists, working to identify specific actions to expand accessibility to our programming, our digital platform, and physical space. The gathering of knowledge will be shared with the theatre community in early fall.
PWM would like to thank the following funders, who, without their support, we would not have been able to adapt to the digital sphere in the way we have.