Lights! Camera! Action! Maymester!

Students from Acting for the Camera and Directing for the Camera teamed up to produce films in just three weeks during Maymester.

On the second day of Maymester, students in Acting for the Camera and Directing for the Camera occupied a studio filled with bodies pretending to move large objects across the room, without using their hands, and making sounds like Mrummph! Bahfff! and Arrrrh!

The students in the studio came from both of these classes in the dramatic art department, part of the College of Arts & Sciences. Through this joint exercise, they learned a common vocabulary for describing movement in acting — “press” versus “dab,” for example. For the moment, all the students were producing were grunts and groans, but by the end of Maymester, they had made three short films to show at a screening.

Because of Maymester’s condensed schedule, they had less than 40 hours of class time to complete the final projects. That’s 12 classes, each three hours and 15 minutes long. Attendance and attention were vital.

“We can’t teach everything about filmmaking in 12 classes,” said the directing instructor, assistant professor Tracy Bersley. “We want them to get their hands dirty and to wrestle with how to frame a shot, how to tell a story through camera angles, nonverbal storytelling and verbal storytelling, as well as script writing.”

The collaboration between the acting class and directing class, and sometimes a script writing class, has been a staple of Maymester since 2013. The classes met separately at times to hone their particular crafts, but often joined forces to learn common lessons and to collaborate on their projects.

The students varied widely in backgrounds and reasons for taking the courses. A psychology major wanted to delve into characters’ minds. A varsity soccer player wanted “an understanding of a world I don’t really know.” A continuing education student wanted to “re-invigorate a sense of craft.”

They and the others represented how today’s story-driven culture brings in students who differ in imagination and creativity, said Aubrey Snowden, the teaching assistant professor leading the acting class.

Personal tenets of theater

In one noisy class, Snowden took notes for her students’ use as they learned how movement could be used to develop their characters.

The actors also learned about their voice and body through physical and vocal warm-ups each class, discussed the theory and purpose of performance, studied plays such as “The Glass Menagerie” from the actor’s point of view and performed contemporary monologues and commercial scripts for the camera. In addition to the final-project films, the acting students collaborated with directing students on commercials, iPhone films and storyboards.

Snowden, who also teaches courses on directing and script-analysis and directs graduate and undergraduate productions, asked students to work under her personal tenets of theater: generosity, curiosity and a tolerance of uncertainty.

Generosity, she explained, includes giving feedback to others, and receiving their feedback, in a caring way. Curiosity is essential for actors, who need to bring “your full self to a character” because “acting is more about revealing than putting something on,” Snowden said. The tolerance of uncertainty applied to the final project, which might be great or not so great. “Who cares? It’s feeling the fear, removing the inner critic and doing it anyway.”

Practical and beautiful

After the joint exercise, Bersley took the fledgling directors to a separate session in the studio next door. There Bersley, who is also head of movement for the master of fine arts acting program and choreographer for PlayMakers Repertory Company, described six directing tools: theme, story, character, intention, space and previous circumstance. The tools emphasize structuring a story to create rising action, climax and resolution and using space to support the story’s themes.

The directors also needed to work with actors, as they learned how to use a character’s actions to prove their intention. The instructors said that they were impressed with the way students collaborated and shared their ideas to make them more expansive, more detailed.

But the experience was intense for all the students.

“There’s a healthy sense of panic. It’s thrilling to watch them push so hard to make something that they’re proud of and different from theater,” Bersley said.

When the two classes finished their work together, the final-project films were shown at a screening for class members and guests on the course’s last day.

“Film is captured forever,” Bersley said. “If they want to go into this field, they’ll have a record of what they produced. It’s practical in a business sense as well, and they have this beautiful thing that can be celebrated in the end.”