Compiled and written by Phalguni Vittal Rao
When the world went into lockdown in early March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, theatre pedagogues were at loss to understand how they were going to teach theatre online. While many drama schools around the world reluctantly began dabbling in the medium, there was always a nagging question about how a tactile, somatic subject like theatre could be taught over a screen in the absence of “presence”.
For pedagogues, it also turned into a time to introspect their teaching philosophies. Is teaching acting techniques on Zoom and other interfaces screen acting? Should drama schools now call themselves “creativity schools” or schools where screen work is also taught? How does one create pedagogy for a time of perpetual disruption? Can such teaching be called theatre at all?
Edward Hicks, Principal of The Oxford School of Drama (OSD), has been working in theatre and television since the age of nine. In the span of his long career, he also ventured into institutions like East15 Acting School and the Royal Academy for Dramatic Art (RADA), traditionally theatre schools, and looked at how screenwork could be integrated into traditional actor training in drama schools. He believes there are crossovers between the two performance areas.
So when the pandemic was declared, Hicks felt that it wasn’t only about different voices and stories now, but it was also about how one tells those stories. “So, rather than be intimidated by the idea of lockdown and, and all the consequences of that, I actually found this really exciting, because suddenly here is an opportunity to do something that has never been done before. That’s fun. That’s scary but exciting,” he said during a recently held Unrehearsed Futures webinar on Zoom.
“I don’t see why drama schools can’t carry on. This is an exciting opportunity to challenge ourselves,” he says, adding that OSD has gone through the online teaching process and socially-distanced teaching in the physical space. “And I’m pleased to say that we have managed to do four in house productions, some with an audience, most without and the majority outside. But it has all been staged with social distancing,” he shares.
A large concern for most drama schools has been renegotiating the social contract of a school with students in these times. Given that the ability to perform in live spaces has been taken away for the foreseeable future, what are pedagogues preparing students for?
To answer that, Hicks says it is necessary to ask oneself what is a drama school. “For me, drama school isn’t just theatre training. It is for training professional actors. And if you want to train an actor for now and the future, it cannot just be theatre,” he believes.
He believes that drama schools must be a breeding ground for new content of any form: be it films, radio, theatre and other areas where students are encouraged to make their own work. “And, I think, drama schools need to offer a moment within the training where they can try out some of those ideas, experiment and possibly even get them badly wrong so that students can learn how to do them better next time,” he says.
One of the things Hicks did during the lockdown was to direct a film written, performed and shot by his students. The students were a little nervous about it initially and some said they didn’t know how to write or make a film. So he gave them a provocation and said that all characters had to interact over Zoom. They were then split up into smaller groups. The groups discussed and brainstormed ideas. Meanwhile, one of their movement tutors worked with students in a physical way to try and unlock more ideas. The film was shot using Zoom and some additional cameras, which in most cases was a mobile phone. “Some students were working in spaces that were so limited, that the second camera was essentially another close-up. Others had more space. So the second camera position could be much wider. And, so essentially, we’ve ended up in a situation where the students wrote, devised, shot, and acted in this film,” he says. One of the students got so excited by the project they even edited some of the footage. “Encouraging our students to create more content and come up with new ideas about what the future could be, is instrumental to the learning process,” he adds.
In terms of teaching, one of the decisions Hicks and his colleagues took was to not shift everything to Zoom, which turned out to be beneficial. “You have to accept there are blocks of work in your curriculum that just won’t work on Zoom. Contact improvisation one of the movement classes for instance, was not going to work on Zoom. So, we’ve moved it to a different stage of the curriculum. And we hope that we can put that in at a later date,” he says.
However, there were some blocks of work, such as clowning, which worked surprisingly well on Zoom. “A lot of the clowning classes became about the individual actors’ or clowns’ space, and they explored that screen space to play in,” he says. During an exercise the clowning tutor made the students play ‘hide and seek’ in the space as seen on each individual’s Zoom frame. Some had a lot of depth, some had none, but it was interesting to watch how students played with the space available to them, around them, says Hicks.
By keeping clowning on Zoom, it opened up a whole new area of experimentation and play which students brought to the floor when they came back into physical spaces. Instead of putting in a whole unit on clowning, the school decided to have a workshop in the physical space so that students have some experience of clowning in the physical space. In fact, he found the work so interesting that he says he is almost tempted to keep it that way in the future.
In the course of their online teaching, students and tutors at OSD faced numerous challenges, especially in terms of space available for learning. Some students had very little space around them to do exercises. To accommodate this, Hicks and his colleagues at OSD devised a lot of independent study. Although there were many classes done live on Zoom, there were slots of independent study as well. “For instance, our voice department had pre-recorded material that they would then send to the student. And the student can use that material to work in their own time. Then they would come back to a class where there would be a one to one tutorial over Zoom to look at that work,” Hicks shares.
This also meant that there were lots of gaps over the course of the week. “On Mondays, there tended to be no teaching at all,” he says. “So if we had students who had relatives to help look after, or had to go shopping for someone or because we didn’t know what was going to happen with lockdown back then, the students felt they had space to do other things outside of school. And that became really, really important.”
This arrangement also allowed space for students to negotiate using the living room, for example, during class hours. Some students chose to do independent study at night when their parents and siblings were asleep.
Availability of physical space is crucial to learning theatre. OSD found that with some students, their performance in animal studies at home was of course different to how they would be in the physical space. “There are some people for whom the thought of doing animal studies with mum and dad next door is just too embarrassing.” he shares.
Hicks believes that a lot of learning happens outside classrooms in cafeterias and coffee bars when students discuss what they have been taught and how they experienced it. That became difficult to replicate in an online space after each class or day. So, alongside the more formal tutorials, students had group sessions every week, where they all checked-in with themselves and each other. “It wasn’t a class. It was a kind of informal chat. And it was really, really valuable because it turned into a sort of reflection on the work, which is important, to remind them of the process. It was also useful because it helped create that sense of community. And one of the problems with Zoom is people feel very isolated,” he says.
The pandemic has also forced institutions to change themselves and their philosophies to suit the changing times. And it is harder when one doesn’t have a definite shape of what the future might look like due to which one is robbed of the ability to plan. “I think if you try and plan for every eventuality, you’ll just go mad because where do you stop? After the millionth plan? So, I think you have to be ready to respond quickly to the situation that is developing because everything is changing so fast,” believes Hicks.
“It’s being ready to adapt and willing to adapt. I think we have to accept these are highly unusual times and just be honest with the students. I mean, (OSD) students have been involved in this right through the process. To give you an example, when we told them that if you’re to come back into the space, you have to come back to your home in Oxford two weeks before we open to form a new bubble, and be in isolation, so that we know that you are safe to come back to the school. That takes a real commitment from our students,” he feels.
OSD brought students back into the physical space once the UK government announced that schools could open with social distancing norms in place. This worked well for a private institution like OSD because they’re a small organization, says Hicks. What also aided their decision to reopen was the fact that the school is set up on a converted farm with lots of space outside. “As soon as they (the UK government) announced the two-metre distance learning guidelines, we immediately were able to hire a whole lot of marquees, put them all up around the grounds and subdivide the groups. Now we can do that, as it is really simple and easy for us, as we have the space,” he explains.
OSD also decided to stagger the start and end dates of the different courses and delayed the start of their two-term foundation course in acting by a term, which automatically gave them more space. Keeping in mind the social distancing norms, they’ve also hired additional spaces for teaching and rehearsals for the coming year and have strict COVID protocols in place. Students will come back early for some socially distanced face-to-face teaching under strict COVID 19 protocols before the school sends them off-site into a more traditional rehearsal mode for a socially distanced production. But all while adhering to strict COVID 19 protocols.
“We found a space that’s big enough so they can rehearse in with social distancing in place. The play will be blocked with social distancing. And when they’re off-site doing that, the new students will then arrive so we can give them face to face socially distanced teaching,” shares Hicks, adding that they’ve done so to ensure that they are able to do more face-to-face teaching on-site.
“And we’re sticking with the two meters distance,” he further adds. “We’ve put grids everywhere. So every student stands in a room knowing that they are safe if they are in a particular square, because even though spatial awareness is important for an actor, we just want to make sure they know.”
When students came back to work in the same space, Hicks found they had a completely different energy about them. While he doesn’t wish a pandemic-like situation to happen every year, some students realized what they were missing and what they might have perhaps taken for granted. “And my god, they’re throwing themselves into the work now on a whole other level, not that they didn’t before. But now they really, really value it. And that’s just lovely to see,” he says, beaming.
Surprisingly, there were some students who found certain blocks of work easier on Zoom than in the physical classroom. Students who compared themselves to each other in the classroom earlier, found that they were not doing so on Zoom since they were operating from their own space, at home. The medium forced them to pull the focus on themselves.
While it is important to adapt in this sea of change, Hicks feels one must not let go of the major tenets of actor training because essentially one wants actors who are truthful and connected. “There are tools that we are teaching our students. And those tools are kind of the Holy Grail, if you like: the mining of the text, the explanation of the Stanislavski work, Uta Hagen, laban and many others. These are the fundamentals. I think, moving forward, we just have to be a little bit better at explaining why some of these things are important and where they’re still relevant. I think sometimes some generations, some students may perhaps not always get that” he asserts, adding that it is also vitally important to include much more diverse texts in the curriculum and to balance the classical work with more contemporary work.
More than anything it is crucial to keep creating a community and mining the best out of this moment. Going forward, there might be things one will miss from this pandemic, such as allowing oneself to be vulnerable in front of others, even if through a screen. As pedagogues, it is one’s responsibility to create those spaces for communication among students and give them space to express themselves creatively. Because there will come a time when people will be allowed to congregate in the same space again and the theatre community will come back stronger than ever.