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That’s a Wrap: An Improvised Ending to a Semester of Firsts

Moving from the studio to the Zoom screen, first-year acting students in the College of Visual and Performing Arts use role-playing games and movies to hone their craft.

Drama students act out improvised sketch on Zoom. Click to read their story.
Drama students (from left, Charli Bush, Isaiah Britto, Eve Dillingham, Caleb Christensen) used settings like their backyards and kitchens to play out scenes in character during their online course in improvisation.

Im•pro•vise: A verb meaning to create and perform spontaneously and without preparation. From the basement mudroom-turned-virtual classroom at his home in Syracuse, Assistant Professor Ricky Pak jokes he knows that definition very well.

In fact, Pak and first-year students in his Introduction to Acting course learned and lived improvisation as they moved from their studio classroom on campus to a remote learning environment this spring following the COVID-19 outbreak. They wrapped up the semester with final projects developed through learning methods they may not have expected: improvisation-based movies and online role-playing games.

Under normal circumstances, students would meet three times a week at the Syracuse Stage/Drama Complex for the character and improv portion of this team-taught course, which is required for undergraduate students in the Department of Drama’s rigorous performance programs. In the studio environment, learning is grounded in personal interaction. Students work directly with each other and receive one-on-one instruction from the professor. Pak came to Syracuse University last fall from Los Angeles, where he'd worked for 18 years as a professional actor and teaching artist. “There is little to no lecture component in this course,” Pak says. “It’s pretty much all the students up on their feet and actively engaging with the learning.”

Four drama students improvise sketch on Zoom video call.
Students' 10-second cellphone videos were combined to make short films of character improvisation in action. This group (from left, Olivia Andrews, Austin Brannan, Elana Babbitt, Kate Crabtree) created a film titled "Mommy Issues."

To pick up where the class left off, Pak needed new tools and exercises that would allow students to practice character improvisation—one of the fundamental skills of acting—despite their separation across time zones and continents. Through Zoom meetings and independent assignments, the semester culminated with a creative response to unprecedented times. “My students inspire me,” says Pak. “I knew they were going to be challenged in ways unforeseen to them when they started the semester, so the only fair thing to do was to challenge myself as a teacher to meet their needs.”

After some research and outside-the-box thinking, Pak decided to use Fiasco, a tabletop role-playing game in which three to five players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting then act out their roles to create entertaining stories as a group. Inspired by tales of small-time capers gone wrong, Fiasco players employ their best quick thinking and creativity to make stories.

“The elements of character, location and occupation were established through chance, so it was easier to let our creative minds free and get creative with our peers,” says Olivia Andrews ’23, a musical theater major from Levittown, Pennsylvania. “My character was a waitress who by the end of the story was destined for jail time—totally unexpected! The Fiasco improv exercise was the highlight of my day.”

I really took to heart the importance of checking in to see how the students were doing emotionally, mentally and physically.

—Ricky Pak

As Pak worked with individual groups engaged in Fiasco, the rest of the class played an online version of the telephone game, also known as “pass the message.” Each exercise started with Pak giving one student an initial prompt, such as “Don't judge a book by its cover” or “No pain, no gain.” That student used a cell phone to film a 10-second response to the prompt and then passed the video along to the next student, who would record a response to the previous response, and so on. For the end result, the videos were edited into a short film made completely through improv.

These games were fun and they were challenging, but they weren’t about competition, Pak is quick to add. “The point was for students to see how they could collaborate to make great stories,” he says.

Students were also assigned to watch two major films created through improv and submit a written response and analysis of character roles. They saw real examples of how improv is integral to big comedies like A Mighty Wind, Best in Show, and This Is Spinal Tap, as well as dramas like Blue Valentine or Vera Drake. “They definitely connected the dots,” Pak says.

In addition to the practical challenges of teaching acting in a remote environment, Pak was careful to address the human challenges. Emotional vulnerability is a big part of acting, perhaps especially for first-year students. “I really took to heart the importance of checking in to see how the students were doing emotionally, mentally and physically,” Pak says.

As he considers the future application of this unexpected experience, Pak says he plans to incorporate new activities and exercises into regular classes, but some things won’t change. “Fundamentally, acting is about human interaction. While that can be supplemented, it can’t really be replaced.”

Betsey A. Brairton

This story was first published on May 28, 2020 and last updated on .


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