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18 PhD Students Take Theatrical Cues to Communicate

January 26, 2016

Connecting with the audience: Students are asked to think about how they can use their strongest voice and how to connect intellectually and emotionally to subject matter to convey enthusiasm, says lead instructor Mauro Hantmann (shown above). Photo credit: Mark Turek.

Don't polish your research talk here, and don't think too much. And definitely don't miss a chance to learn from experts in other fields – such as acting. The space was Trinity Repertory Theater, in downtown Providence, and those were some of the lessons reported by the 18 doctoral students participating in the inaugural Effective Performance workshop series, which will be repeated this semester. Applications are due February 5 at noon.

Students in the fall series explored how theatre performance techniques could make them better communicators, both in presenting research and as teachers. Co-sponsored by the Graduate School and Trinity Rep, and drawing on the talents of the repertory company's actors and teachers, the five-part series focused on physical presence, vocal techniques, listening, gestures, eye contact, and other ways to heighten audience engagement and comprehension.

"For the first time, I was exposed to ideas like improvisation, intonation, and connecting to one's body, breath, feelings, resonators, and thoughts," observes Pavitra Govindan, a doctoral student in Economics. "This awareness itself made me pay attention to the way I speak with my audience."

The opportunity to practice prompted Sonja Stojanovic to apply to participate in the workshop series. "As a candidate on the academic job market, I will have to present my research to a wide audience," notes the doctoral candidate in French Studies. "I thought the effective performance workshop would give me an opportunity to practice and improve my presentation skills.

"I liked how different the workshop is from other pedagogical training, and how each session focused on a specific aspect of performance," she adds. "I found it especially helpful that the classes are taught by actors (who understand performance in another light) and that the focus is very technical (how does my breathing affect my speech, how to project my voice, how to respond to verbal and nonverbal cues when improvising, etc.)"

For Yuan Liu, a first-year student in Chemistry, the atmosphere was open and enjoyable: "It gave me an opportunity to carefully think and explore how to convey information in academic circumstances more effectively, using concepts from theatrical performance. And it also helped me to overcome the language barrier, making me feel more confident."

Lead instructor Mauro Hantmann introduced students to improvisation and helped them to apply the range of lessons to performance, with Angela Brazil focusing on speech, Shura Baryshnikov on physical aspects of performance, and Rachel Warren on voice.

"We're really looking at ways for each student to bring their fullest self to any presentation or professional conversation," explains Hantmann. "It means looking at each student individually, and helping them assess their strengths and modes of communication."

Charlotte Buecheler, a Comparative Literature student, calls Hantmann "a gentle, but honest teacher: He pushed us not to get too caught up in the content of our stories, on which we tended to focus, but always with enough amused patience that it never felt like a big deal when we stumbled. I see him as the Jiminy Cricket to our wooden Pinocchios!"

Twenty doctoral students attended a separate, standalone introductory workshop, which was offered on December 8, 2015, and will be offered again on April 4, 2016.

"Both of these interactive workshops got off to an excellent start," said Vanessa Ryan, associate dean of student development. "Credit for this project goes to our former provost, Professor Vicki Colvin, who saw the potential to draw on the talent of our Trinity Rep collaborators to give our doctoral students this innovative opportunity. Modeled on programming by well-known actor Alan Alda, these workshops show that theater techniques are a fun and effective way to improve communication in academic and research settings."

~Story by Beverly Larson; photo by Mark Turek.