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04/28/2020 03:00 PM

Local Acting Troupe Keeps the Curtain Up with Virtual Lessons, Performances

A few members of FOCUS Teen Improv gather on Zoom: from left, top to bottom, are Race Tucker, teacher Lara Morton, Norah Stotz, Sylvia Sonenstein, Annabelle Tore, Henry Young, Phoebe Trowbridge, Kenny Pelphrey, Jacob Ebert, Noah Enjalran, and Dean Paglino. Image courtesy of Lara Morton

For more than a month now, more than a dozen members of FOCUS Teen Improv have put together several performances, run complicated improv games, written their own original skits, and have even begun learning Shakespeare—all entirely in the digital world, leveraging the unique aspects of remote video connection and continuing to share their friendships and art through the shutdown.

Since 2018, local theater director and educator Lara Morton has run an improv company of teen actors out of Madison. In early March, it became clear there would be no rehearsing or performing for some time.

FOCUS Improv had its first meeting for the spring season on March 13. As the announcements of school closures and cancellations rolled in, Morton said she looked at the uncertain faces of the handful of students who had shown up to the first in-person session of FOCUS and knew she had to do something.

“This was just like their last hurrah in person, and I think I knew that, and their parents knew that,” Morton said.

After that last meeting, during which the teens kept their distance from one another and were not allowed to share snacks, Morton got in touch with a colleague who was running digital sessions at Yale Medical School, who helped her brainstorm ideas and learn the popular Zoom videoconference software.

“I decided it was something that was worthwhile,” Morton said. “That coming Monday, we started with three days a week.

“It was pretty early on, I started getting messages from parents saying, ‘Thank you for doing this,’” Morton said. “It’s making all the difference for the kids to be able to connect with each other. It’s everything right now.”

A Powerful Avenue

As they adapt to the digital format and some of the technological hiccups involved, students have been able to both flex and hone their acting skills as a group, as well as finding a creative output for some of the tremendous stress and emotional struggles that accompany the pandemic, which, for many of the extroverted young artists who revel in crowds and attention, can be particularly acute, according to Morton.

Daniel Hand High School freshman and FOCUS member Sylvia Sonenstein said she has found the digital improv and acting sessions to be a powerful avenue to vent fears and frustrations.

In one recent improvised skit, Sonenstein gave a darkly humorous sales pitch for “corona,” something that she sarcastically lauded for its ability to cancel fun activities and cause widespread death.

“I do feel like as we’ve gone on with these online improv classes, this is where I’m putting a lot of that sort of pent-up emotion,” Sonenstein said. “Because it’s so much, it’s so overwhelming. But I think this helps a lot, being with my friends and being able to have this creative opportunity.”

The therapeutic aspect of the classes and connections is hard to understate, according to Morton, as students navigate a huge range of new emotions in their daily lives while still being expected to keep up with remote learning.

Regular low-pressure, high-energy improv sessions, which include plenty of laughter and whole-group interactions, have given them the chance to blow off steam without going outside or meeting in person.

“It’s proven to be a great mood elevator for all of us,” Morton said.

Morton said that she has watched many of her students go from being quiet, reserved, and sad during the early online sessions to being almost as rambunctious and excited as they were in person as they accept the new reality, as well as finding creative ways to use the Zoom software and their web cameras while acting.

A Whole New Realm

That part—the technology side—has actually yielded a whole new realm of fun ways to set scenes, interact, and create humor, according to Morton, as students have leveraged green screens, virtual backgrounds, props, and more, in their homes.

One game involved students turning their video feeds on and off in order to jump in or out of scene or “tag” each other, as well as a free-association list that they put together collaboratively in the chat.

A recent performance by the group for pre-school students at Guilford Center for Children involved the use of special backgrounds and props so members could take the parts of various animal characters from a children’s book, something with which her actors had a lot of fun, Morton said.

Another open mic night saw a student involve his dad in a musical number, featuring a song by popular parody artist Weird Al Yankovic.

Kenny Pelphrey, an 8th grader at Adams Middle School in Guilford, said he has been finding plenty of new ways to challenge himself as an actor, working within the physical limitations of the new format.

“It’s a lot harder to do improv without being able to be physically right next to your partner,” he said. “So we’re really honing our craft, making funnier lines and funnier situations.”

Acting over Zoom helps pare down acting to more fundamental elements, according to Pelphrey, which he said has been an interesting experiment, focusing on things like vocal tones.

“I don’t have to focus on everything else—I don’t even have to think about what my legs are doing anymore,” Pelphrey said. “I can just be talking. It just makes it so I can hone my craft in the way I’m using my vocal folds to convey meaning and emotion. And that’s cool, and I haven’t really had the opportunity to do that kind of stuff.”

Morton has offered specifically during the pandemic what she calls “Plague-free Shakespeare,” in which a handful of FOCUS students also participate, and has helped introduce actors to some more traditional acting challenges, still in a very non-traditional way.

While a lot of these things can’t take away from the suffering caused by the pandemic, and with continued uncertainty still looming (Morton’s own theater company has been forced to delay a sold-out production of Lion King, Jr. until at least the summer), virtual improv and virtual acting has been a huge boon for local young actors, both as artists and as people weathering a historically tragic global event.

“We all are like a little family. We love seeing each other, we love being with each other,” Sonenstein said. “I think the biggest difference for me other than the adjustment of being online and [social distancing] is that we don’t get to see each other...which is difficult considering how close we are. So even outside of improv, we’re all talking and Facetiming and trying to get as much time as we can with each other.”

Morton described a recent virtual improv performance as being “joyful,” something fun and lighthearted and full of laughs, which is reflective of her students and the whole point of this kind of acting, she said.

“I was on a high all weekend from it,” she said. “It just feels so good to be able to do this for them.”

FOCUS has another public performance scheduled for this Friday, May 1. For more information, contact Lara Morton at or by phone at 203-314-3394.