Clark College theater professor Gene Biby says the theater community has one goal during the pandemic: to let people know they’re “not dead yet.”
Many companies are trying “Zoom theater” — performances over live-streaming video — since in-person productions are not an option as statewide restrictions continue for safety. But, Biby, 58, laments that it’s just not the same.
“My personal feeling is that theater is an in-person event,” Biby said. “For me, it’s that in-person experience — you’re in the same room as the actors and what you’re seeing is a live performance. It’s storytelling in the present moment and knowing it’s the only time you’re going to see it is exactly in this moment. You might see the same show the next night, but it won’t be the exact same.”
It’s unclear when activities such as live theater will resume, but for the time being, Biby continues to fine-tune his online curriculum — a style of learning completely new to him. Clark College plans to continue remote learning during the spring.
Currently, Biby is teaching remotely from just outside of Philadelphia, Pa., where he’s staying with a partner. He doesn’t plan to return to Washington until things improve.
The Columbian chatted with Biby to learn more.
Tell me about yourself.
I grew up in southern Illinois. I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees from a school in Kentucky. I worked in an HR office and in student housing. After the gig in human resources, I was like: this is a long way from theater, and I’m kind of missing that environment and what I love. I thought well I’m going to get a PhD and see if I can find a teaching opportunity. I really wanted a couple things: one, theater full time, and two, for some reason I had a burning desire to move to Portland. Don’t ask me why, I hadn’t even visited before. I thought I needed to be on the West Coast. My sister who has done a bit of traveling — she said why don’t you check Vancouver? Within a month a job was listed. I went through a couple rounds of interviews and got hired.
How has COVID-19 impacted what you do?
A lot of companies are trying to do Zoom theater pieces and let audiences know, “Hey, we’re not dead yet.” We’re going to try our hand at it too because we need to let people know we have student actors and directors wanting to work. We’re trying to come up with a way to do it live via Zoom and record it too. We’ll see. It’s called “The Churning Skies.” A good friend of mine many years ago wrote it. It’s a one-act radio show.
Are you teaching classes, and how have you adapted?
I’m teaching three different courses. One is an Intro to Theater class. We read plays and talk about the history of theater and that kind of thing, and what components make up a theater production. That class actually has done pretty well online, and in fact it was one of those classes I didn’t have online and was forced online. In retrospect I was like maybe I could have done this every year and have been fine with it. The Intro to Acting class has been a challenge. We do some exercises; I had them go to an unfamiliar environment, stay quiet for 30 minutes and pay attention to their senses and how they pick up smells and sounds — and what kind of memories they might recall. I think that’s what missing more than anything is connection among the students. I’m going to try (Zoom) the next quarter and see if the remote learning works that way. I can give them feedback in the moment. They will be able to hear each other’s monologues and see each other’s work. We’ll see how that goes.
What are some positives from doing online learning?
Well, the upside for the students we have at Clark College, they are juggling so many things at the same time it’s not even funny. They’re trying to work full time; they may be single parents. So it gives them an opportunity to access the class when they can. I hear students talk about it periodically. I think for the professors it’s an adjustment. I don’t mind it currently; I’m on the East Coast so there’s a three-hour difference. I can see some emails and grade assignments, and nobody (on the West Coast) is up yet. The downside is people who work till 5 p.m., that’s 8 p.m. for me. But it’s all right.