In a Time of Social Distancing, Theater Students Run Lines With Inanimate Objects

In a time of social distancing , Blake Weir demonstrates acting with a pillow.
In a time of social distancing , Blake Weir demonstrates acting with a pillow. Screenshot
All across Houston, high school teachers are scrambling to teach lessons online, figuring out how best to translate their curriculum to the virtual world.

With subjects like math, English, and history, some of this new learning can come from self-study at home, using  books or online text. But what if you're a theater teacher? Apart from some core classroom work, how do you keep your students engaged and flexing their newly acquired theater muscles? Theater, after all, is a face to face proposition, one that's best taught and learned in a communal setting.

While Stafford High School Director of Theater, Blake Weir can’t do much about the communal part these days, he has found an instructive and terrifically fun way to keep his students fresh and creating. Weir, who's also a much-employed actor around Houston, has tasked all students, no matter what level, to create a video of themselves interacting with an inanimate object.

“Theater is a reflection of life, often of current trends and now we’re all staying at home”, says Weir. “I wanted the assignment to be something they could do at home that would be fun but challenging. And to mirror a practice we’d studied in class, what do you do when you’re working with an actor and you’re not getting much back from them? How do you build the story in your own head?”

"What do you do when you’re working with an actor and you’re not getting much back from them? How do you build the story in your own head?”

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Practicing what he preaches, Weir shot his own video as an example for the students. A hilarious send-up of catching your cheating lover red-handed during a pandemic starring his pillow and some naughty couch cushions.

Knowing that not all students could or would want to participate, Weir’s assignment is more a suggestion than a command performance. However, Weir says feedback will be provided to all participants in a manner meant to encourage and improve their skills.

Of his 170 students, so far about 30 percent have submitted work with more coming in every day, meaning that Weir has a lot of homework to do watching and commenting on them all. But between the lessons they've learned in the theater program at Stafford, and the filming/editing abilities so many of them have from immersion in social media platforms such as Instagram and Tik Tok, these videos are by and large a joy to watch.

And some are spectacular.

Freshman Daizha Moton may only be 15 years old, but if her video featuring bathroom appliances rebelling against her new Coronavirus cleanliness habits is any indication, she’s firmly on her way to wider artistic recognition.

Acting, editing, storyline, the voiceover of three different characters and a timely subject matter to boot, Morton's video has it all. "I wanted to make something creative and out of the ordinary," says Morton. "And so, I decided to take items in my bathroom and bring a voice to them and see what they could be going through during this Coronavirus outbreak."

“I felt really great about creating this. I knew this was going to be a way to express myself, really show my editing skills and the way I can do impressions,” says Morton who explains that even though it was hard work, it was great fun. “It took about four to five hours to make. I did a lot of retakes to get the angles right. I didn’t stop until it was dinner time, I didn’t even take a lunch break.”

It's exactly this kind of distraction from the isolation anxiety students are now facing that Weir was hoping to accomplish. A creative outlet that forces students to focus solely on theater for a bit.

“I was excited when I got the assignment,” says 19-year-old Senior Sean Burns. “I love acting and acting with an inanimate object seemed pretty fascinating so I took it up.”

Burn’s object of choice was a fork, glue-gunned to a base so that it stood upright in the frame. The perfect utensil to talk to in a serious manner, in this case, a terrifically executed and emotionally wrought break up.

While some students took hours to plan and edit their submissions, Burns went straight for the single angle shot improv method. But while his idea flowed easily in one take, it wasn't his first idea.

"The first time I taped it I came at it from the angle of me sitting down with a friend and telling him that hey you need to stop doing drugs", says Burns. "But then I was like no, this isn't good. And the second time I did it I just improvised and went at it from a relationship point of view and it just happened."

Even though Burns completed the video quite quickly, he says the assignment helped him tremendously. "I really got to step outside of me worrying about if I'm going to graduate or go to prom or just school in general," says Burns. "It helped me step back and gave me something to do, something to get my mind off of things."

Weir says he's planning more video assignments for his students in the weeks to come. And he hopes that the lesson he's teaching them is not just how to entertain in bad times, but to have hope for the future as well.

“We all know that the arts have taken a huge hit here in Houston but the work I’m doing with the students is a testament to the show must go on notion, says Weir. “I’m hoping to teach these kids that hey, no matter what, it doesn’t end here. It’s gonna pick back up. We’ll be all right.”
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman