Drama Training during a pandemic

October 16th, 2020

Once the decision was made to close the Mountview building in March, it was a very quick turnaround period - we had only a few weeks to move our entire academic portfolio of courses online!

Academic continuity for our students remained the key motivator for us throughout the whole process. Everyone involved was committed to ensuring that active learning could continue and to maintaining excellence in our standards and academic integrity. Students learn as a result of action: practice, teaching, reading, observation or reflection on activity. The focus of academic staff was therefore placed on reimagining learning and teaching in the first instance as guided by the learning outcomes to be active online. To resolve what was an academic challenge we used our artistic skills and embarked upon a highly creative journey.

Our training in ‘normal’ times requires curiosity, commitment and courage and the need for all of these were heightened during this period of change. 94 modules across our portfolio of courses moved online for our summer term delivery and we worked with our university partner UEA to ensure that any assessments which required modification due to the online delivery retained their quality and were approved swiftly.

We decided to retain the timetable structure and ensure full delivery of every subject on it. We created a blend of synchronous (live) and asynchronous (recorded) content for students to learn through. This was important as not everyone learns the same way – we were keen to maintain our commitment to accommodating different styles of learning, and knew that endless hours of live online zoom delivery would likely be counterproductive.

In some ways, there were several unforeseen advantages to online-based teaching. We made an early decision to record online classes, which meant that international students on different time zones didn’t miss out on learning and also allowed staff to share best practice techniques internally. We also used the opportunity to develop our students’ skills in self-taping by requiring them to work offline, film their work and then share their recordings for feedback. Peer to peer feedback has also been a really useful tool during this time to enable students to remain connected to each other!

Our Dance online delivery has been developed to focus on detail in technique, with spatial awareness at the centre of all execution. Students have been able to spend time developing strength and precision which will aid their creative flair once returned to the studios. 1-1 singing classes were delivered via Zoom, with staff reflecting on how powerful the results were. Musicianship classes now employ complex use of technology in their delivery, which has enabled us to experiment with new possibilities.

For our project performances, we wanted to be able to mirror a live in-person event as closely as possible, and generate the level of adrenaline needed by the actors involved. As a result, all project work was performed live online and streamed to students’ peers and staff. The result was also that everyone in the Mountview community was given the opportunity to watch project performances, which due to timetable clashes would not necessarily have been possible if they had been in the building.

For our final year students seeking agent representation we created a ‘digital showcase’ sending their headshot, CV and performance tapes in a compact format to the agents, casting directors and other industry professionals. This was incredibly successful, and resulted in nearly 100% of students securing agent sign up.

Student feedback from lockdown has noted that online learning has fostered a greater sense of independence for them. The surprise for everyone at Mountview has been just how creative a challenge these parameters could prove to be. A great benefit of this period has been the level of artistic experiment our students and staff have engaged in, using the new medium as an inspiration rather than a barrier to learning. Indeed, our results artistically and academically remain exceptionally high and during lockdown some students excelled beyond expectations. We have also increased our learning support for students during this period to try and release them from the levels of anxiety which are already prevalent due to the virus. Wellbeing has been a key focus in enabling these changes to work.

We reopened the Mountview building in September with a large number of safety measure in place, including the development of a Mountview App to track and monitor the health of all those entering the building and to check the health of staff and students before they even leave home. A queuing system has been set up outside the building and a one-way system has been established inside. A comprehensive Safer Campus manual has been created, as well as a short ‘flight safety’ film for staff and students which demonstrates all the new safety measures in place.

Teaching takes place in a 60%/40% blended learning format, with students spending 3 days in the building in-person and 2 days online. We also enabled any self-isolating student, staff member or group of students to participate in live studio sessions via Zoom. Online classes continue to be recorded, to benefit those students unable to access them due to internet or coronavirus-related issues.

It’s great to have reached a position with our online delivery whereby there is no hierarchy between an in-person day of classes and an online day of classes – though different, they both feel ‘normal’, and each produces the same level of results while requiring a different type of engagement and focus. In terms of activating learning, it has proved to be a wonderful way of keeping curiosity alive. As theatre practitioners we would always choose to be together rather than being remote, so it is not a case of online replacing in-person teaching entirely – however, this journey is proving that learning is not impacted by mode of delivery. This experience has shown us that Mountview’s spirit is strong enough to overcome and adapt to any event – even a pandemic.

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