Q&A: Jennifer McCray Rincón of Visionbox Vail on teaching and the future of theater
Visionbox Vail came to town last year with a mission: teach Yale University Drama School curriculum to local high schoolers. Three students learned with Visionbox Studios’ Artistic Director and Founder Jennifer McCray Rincón, as well as Vail Mountain School Theater Director Tony Bender and Battle Mountain High School music teacher Alexandra Trosper.
This year, the summer acting intensives have returned with double the student size and a series of regulations designed to protect the students and the staff. The Visionbox Vail Summer Theatre Institute has taken over Vail Mountain School with two sessions. Realism ran from July 13-24, and on Monday, July 27, a new crop of students started the Shakespeare intensive.
The Vail Daily spoke with McCray Rincón about Visionbox Vail’s mission to bring professional-grade theater instruction to the Vail Valley, and about the future of the theater. Below are edited excerpts from that conversation.
VD: So I know last year was a test-run for you with the Visionbox Vail program. Obviously COVID-19 has affected the way you’ve planned for this year, but what’s changed and what’s stayed the same?
Jennifer McCray Rincón: We have more people this year. Coronavirus restrictions: we will be really vigilant and conservative even. The school has their own set of rules that we’re following. Last summer, our focus was, first and foremost, getting up there and getting to know people. We were completely new. It was a trailer for the movie. It was a practice. How do we make what I’ve been doing for 40 years, and our company for 10, how does that work in this given circumstance? This year, we’re 100% focusing on the classwork and the training itself. Long-term, we want to bring in the nationally-recognized theater and film people to work with students so that it really is an incredible experience for a newly emerging artist to get to watch and participate and be with the top of New York and Los Angeles.
VD: Well, that also ties into your mission of bringing graduate-level drama instruction to young performers.
JMR: Our classes are all taught by theater professionals. This is a professional actor training program that emulates graduate-level curriculum, even though these are high school students. I’ve said to you openly in the past that I received some of the greatest training in the world. I was very, very lucky.
VD: And so when you say you’re focusing on graduate-level classwork with high school students at the intensive, what does that look like?
JMR: What emulates graduate-level or conservatory-style approach to training is that the first half of the day is skills classes. Those include movement, voice and speech, singing, stage combat, improv, all that kind of stuff. Every day, acting classes are the longest classes in the afternoon. Even if you’re interested in writing or directing or design, at a graduate level, you take acting classes. The foundation of every area you work in comes from acting. I am saying this honestly: There is no difference in the way we teach high school students from the way we would teach graduate students.
VD: On a broader note, so many industries that thrive on live events have been totally rocked, and of course theater is one of them. You’ve worked on some virtual performances, what is your perspective on virtual theater?
JMR: Theater people and film people are creating what they’re calling hybrid experiences and events where filmmakers and live theater are teaming up to create filmed versions of live events. I was very inspired by my close friend and longtime colleague Bill Pullman. He was in the National Theater Live before the pandemic. They did a production of “All My Sons” and Bill and Sally Field were the leads. It was all British actors except them. It was a full house, in a movie theater, watching a filmed version of a play.
VD: That’s really cool because I feel like that’s almost a throwback to the ’50s and ’60s where people like Ian McKellen and Maggie Smith were acting in filmed versions of Shakespeare plays.
JMR: Yes, right. It was fabulous, it was fantastic. It was not a movie, they didn’t turn it into a movie of a play. It was the filmed documentation of a live event. They filmed it in the theater during a performance. This did not adapt the play like most movies do. You could see the stage mechanics. What was really interesting was after a while, 10 or 15 minutes, you’ve completely entered the world of the play and all disbelief was suspended, like what happens when you’re in a theater. I was amazed by how successful it was.
VD: Technology has really just been the key to reopening up these artistic, live experiences for people in some capacity.
JMR: The actor Bill Irwin did a talk for one of my students from a few years ago. She took a class with Bill Irwin on Zoom and he talked about how the pandemic has just accelearted what has already been in the works in terms of theater and film technology. People now, because we have to, are really implementing new technologies. Working on this stuff, I felt like I was the student in the room. That’s why I love theater, that’s why I’ve studied it all my life and that’s why I’ve taught it all my life because I could be a student for the rest of my life.