Unrehearsed Futures is a series of public conversations between heads of drama schools and leading performance trainers from across the globe to discuss and address the new realities of teaching drama. These discussions look at pedagogical approaches to teaching in the absence of presence, the benefits and challenges of alternative technologies, formats and mediums as well as planning long-term learning journeys against an uncertain future.
This conversation was part of the first series of Unrehearsed Futures initiated and moderated by the Drama School Mumbai, to set the stage for questions faced by drama schools and the teachers and students of theatre.
In the year 1968, the world changed when university students in France began protesting for educational reforms. It soon turned into a movement for dismantling authoritarian political structures and democratization of social and cultural institutions. The protests had a direct impact on theatre pedagogy in Europe where French actor and teacher Jacques Lecoq responded by creating a space for students to discover their own language, in their own voice, thus establishing the practice of auto-cours or “self-course”. It encouraged a creative collision where students were compelled to exercise their imagination and vision and produce their own work each week.
It was Lecoq’s way of acknowledging that while he had his training and traditions, the world had changed. How the world changed would have to be understood and defined by the next generation, not his generation. And so, he created spaces for them to simultaneously absorb his theatrical lineage and traditions while also inventing the future at his school L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris.
Cut to 2020. We’re in the middle of global pandemic. The world is changing again.
With the coronavirus in full swing, theatre practitioners and pedagogues have been left stumped as to how to teach theatre on a new medium which they have no idea about. What are drama schools around the world preparing the future generation of storytellers for when the ability to perform live with an audience in the same physical space has been taken away?
At this moment, it is crucial to give the future generation the space to create the future, believes Drew Mulligan, Head of Acting and Programme Leader BA (Hons) Acting at the Institute of Arts Barcelona (IAB).
“It is a challenge for us to find that space, but we need to find it,” he said during a recent Unrehearsed Futures talk.
In this current situation theatre pedagogues now have the opportunity to create integral spaces where students can invent new art forms, whether live or digitized. This moment allows us to set aside any potential hierarchy within existing modules and focus on marrying the knowledge students have of technology and social media with pedagogues’ knowledge of actor training.
The Pandemic in Barcelona
Located 30 minutes south of Barcelona in a town called Sitges, the IAB has a lot of space, open and closed, which is quite unusual for a lot of drama schools. They went into lockdown in the middle of March. Most of their students had been away for a couple weeks previously on a Directed Study Week. Many of them had travelled to Italy and to other COVID hotspots during that time. “So, it was quite difficult to track them and actually find out where they went as some of them didn’t want to tell us,” says Drew, “They were coming back with coughs and there was a lot of seasonal flu there around at the time. It was very difficult to figure out what was going on. We were just about to shut the school, so we could do an audit of staff and student attendance and illness, when suddenly we got the directive from the Catalan government to lock down on the 13th March 2020.”
“Our students come from over 44 different countries. We were close to the Easter holidays so many students packed up and left for the home countries. Some went back to Tanzania, some to the US on the west coast. The primary task for Drew to tackle was how to deliver the learning and get through the lockdown. The IAB’s programmes are validated by the Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), and so, along with LJMU they devised a plan to continue to deliver the programmes and run assessments that satisfied the Learning Outcomes of those modules.”
Transitioning to Online Teaching
All teaching and assessment activities were transferred online. As part of the new assessment guidelines, students sent in reports, recorded their work, made online presentations and performed live online to complete all the required tasks.
Like everybody else, Drew and his colleagues found Zoom. Since students were now in individual spaces and not a shared physical space, it was important for him to deliver a training where students didn’t feel like it was a huge diminishment from what they were receiving before, more so because IAB is a private institution. “We felt we needed to give them a similar timetable and hours of teaching online as we had done pre-COVID. We didn’t want anybody to think that they weren’t getting their money’s worth. So, in some senses, we really needed to bombard them with work for them to feel that they had plenty to do. In the first instance, it was important to frame it as an opportunity for the students to explore something new. However, the more time we spent in this new learning environment, the more we understood the very real benefits of it. It became a means for students to enhance their programme specific skills and also develop their graduate skills, notably those of autonomy, problem solving and collaboration. Suddenly we had these benefits that we were not expecting,” Drew shares.
The final year students were a week away from opening night of their Showcase when the lockdown started. The Showcase is a live performance where the students were presented before the industry with agents from around the world coming to watch them. But due to the pandemic, it had to be moved online. Under the guidance of the Acting tutors and school Camera-man, the students recorded their material in their own spaces which was then live-streamed on the IAB Acting YouTube channel for a series of performances.
“With the whole world moving online, what was interesting was that casting directors and agents did not want the final year performing arts students to suffer from a lack of opportunity and began opening their doors to them. So, suddenly our students actually had direct access to people in a way that they might not have had before.”
As far as dance and movement went, exercise and dance routines were immediately put up online. In some instances, students were set tasks to recreate choreography or create new choreography and send in video recordings of them doing it.
In some cases, ensemble performances were turned into self-made films and put up online. Second year students did a Zoom production of 12 Angry Men, which was performed and streamed live to an invited audience. By keeping the live element, the students still gained the experience of performing in front of a live audience.
“It was interesting to note that everyone was in their own personal space which now needed to be turned into a creative working environment,” says Drew, adding that it needed to be an environment that they felt comfortable working in. “So, they needed to modify those spaces. They needed not to be disturbed, to be able to raise their voice and speak loudly without feeling embarrassed about it if maybe they were in a house or there were other people around. This was often a challenge for classes and performances.”
Once they found that environment, Mulligan found communication and direct feedback with students was enhanced in some senses. Having more face-to-face, one-on-one time on Zoom with tutors, was hugely beneficial for them.
Directing a Maxim Gorky play on Zoom
One of Mulligan’s colleagues at the IAB, Aiden Condron, Lecturer in Acting, directed the first years in an online production of Maxim Gorky’s play The Lower Depths during the lockdown. They had just begun working on it when the pandemic forced everybody to move online.
Once of the biggest challenges was that since they were exploring naturalism and psychological realism, there wasn’t much scope for adapting it. They had to stay true to the given circumstances prescribed in the text and the authenticity of the play. “The students were extraordinary, really, with adapting to that. And they you know, they created worlds in their bedrooms,” he shares.
Though it was challenging in terms of students being in different time zones and some having Wi-Fi issues, Condron believes that in terms of the pedagogy itself, teaching and learning, there were no major issues. “I certainly don’t think students were in any way shortchanged. And I don’t think they felt they were. They got a huge amount of time and face-to-face contact with me and they were very, very supportive,” he says, adding, “I think one of the really important features that came out was the whole difference in group dynamics. Students that might have been more shy or more retiring in face-to-face group situations, were the ones that came forward online. And a lot of those students really excelled because they were in their own domestic spaces and felt more confident and became extremely creative in ways that we hadn’t seen up to that point.”
Moreover, what became clear to Condron was that acting on Zoom was not screen acting. “First of all, the camera is stationary. So, it took a long time for the students to understand that they still had to physically embody what they were doing. They were still storytellers and responsible for taking the audience with them,” he says. In the early weeks of rehearsals, Condron created exercises where they used the whole space to go beyond acting with their head and shoulders. Another challenge for the students was to make the familiar strange, turning their bedrooms, where they had been born and raised into a homeless shelter in Russia at the turn of the century.
They ended up with a cohesive, ensemble performance, says Condron. “It really, really felt like they were all in the same space, which was extraordinary considering that there were thousands and thousands of miles away from each other,” he believes. He further adds, “I think the distance really forced them to invest in the ensemble communication and the ensemble connection.”
Reopening in September
Mulligan and his colleagues have now re-opened IAB in September with a new batch of undergraduate students coming in. Despite the present circumstances, Mulligan finds that there has been no diminishment in the hunger for learning among students. “Many of them come from thousands of miles away at great expense, so it important to make their experience worthwhile,” he says.
That being said, a percentage of the learning will still happen online, but Mulligan’s focus is on making the moments students are together count. “The one feedback we did get from our students was that while they were happy with the online teaching, they didn’t experience the camaraderie, the sharing time or the social space together. They missed that shared experience and they found that very difficult. So I’m hoping that that experience of them physically being together is going to be an important part of the learning experience for them this term,” he says.
One of the advantages IAB has is that it has large studios and outdoor spaces. Taking precautions, Drew said students will be working outdoors as well in the coming year. Within studio spaces, the plan is to limit the number of students in a group to between 10 and 14. “During classes each studio will need to be aerated for 15 minutes, each hour and a half. If there’s any intense physical activity, then the floors will need to be cleaned,” Mulligan shares.
Mulligan also says that though some performances will be online, they will have to find new ways of performing in person, “Students have already done plays online now. If they think that we’re just going to do another Zoom play, I don’t think we and they will be particularly satisfied with that. So, we’re going to have to explore other ways of combining our work and actually making it an advance on this.”
Despite taking all these precautionary measures and having social distancing norms in places, Mulligan says actual physical contact will be very limited with each other. While it is difficult to predict what will happen next, Mulligan and his colleagues have Plans B, C, and D in place to accommodate changes as they happen. “I’m being cautiously optimistic at the moment. We also have plans to put everything online, if required. We could reconfigure our modules so we can put lecture-based modules online and then try and save up more practical work for the end of the year, if required.”
Mulligan has also experimented with setting up learning labs on campus where the student can go to a physical space and take the course online. It could even be a group of students in the same physical space with Bluetooth headphones on and a computer, with the teacher facilitating through the online medium.
Condron also feels, that for those logging in from their homes and domestic spaces, it is important to ritualize these spaces of learning, be it in a rudimentary set-up of putting a bedsheet over posters on the wall or wearing black while attending classes or rehearsals.
He also believes that at this time it is necessary to modify teaching processes to ensure that the students stay semantically connected to the explorations and don’t fall back into the shallow habits of “just doing”. “It’s about maximizing embodied knowledge because so much of what happens in a room with students is unspoken. It’s a nod. It’s a gesture. It’s an impulse. We need to recognize that and try to create an environment through this bizarre, mediated digital medium where some of that can still be retained. And I think, the teacher themselves being able to move and stand as they’re teaching it helps,” Condron explains.
Even as theatre pedagogues around the world express concern over how beneficial online teaching can be for drama students, both Mulligan and Condron maintain we need to accept that there is going to be more of Zoom teaching and less of face-to-face for the foreseeable future. However, this gives an opportunity for trainers to put the ball in the student’s court and hand over a little bit of responsibility to them, and see what they are capable of. “As I often see, it’s always amazing what students come back with when left to their own devices. They come up with ideas that you could never have imagined,” says Condron. This whole situation has reminded us that, “maybe sometimes you need to just give them a framework and let them run with something for a while.”
It comes back to why Lecoq came up with auto-cours: to build the imagination and individual responsibility of the theatre artist. Like him, a drama school should be a place for the individual to create a site to build on, not a finished edifice because this journey of investigation is perennial. Even through a pandemic.
Compiled and written by Phalguni Vittal Rao
Access the entire session on our YouTube channel: