How will technical theatre training look in the new Covid world?

September 21st, 2020

In March 2020 when theatres closed their physical doors, FDS partner Schools immediately cancelled their usual summer term productions and showcases.Teaching and learning moved online for the rest of the academic year with Zoom productions and virtual projects replacing our normal activities.The flexibility, adaptability and willingness to try new things on the part of both students and teachers meant that the summer term, although very different, was completed successfully; final years graduated and everyone else began a well-deserved summer break.

Meanwhile, tutors and lecturers in production, technical and design departments across the FDS have spent the summer thinking and planning for the academic year ahead, one that again will demand new and innovative ways of working.Although the future is unclear, what factors will shape the way we will work in the future and what can backstage students expect when they head back to drama school this Autumn?

First and foremost is a focus on flexibility and adaptability.‘The show must go on’ is such relatable motto because theatre people are very used to being adaptable in their working practices.Creating a piece of theatre is an organic, holistic process.When we start rehearsing we don’t fully know what the finished product will look like, except that it will open on a set day and time.This means that design, production and technical teams are constantly changing and adapting what they do in a collaborative response to the creation of the piece.So, when the unexpected hits – a global pandemic – the response of theatre people is to adapt and flex.In drama schools in the coming year, this is going to mean an innovative approach to productions and practical projects, responding to the ever-changing situation and industry developments.This could mean outdoor shows, Zoom productions, live streaming and new methods of physical working.All of this will be in close collaboration with industry partners; for example, at Guildford School of Acting we’ll be working with the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre and the Donmar Warehouse to create innovative projects in a covid-safe way.

It’s clear that digital and online skills have come to the forefront within our training.Although technology has long been a part of creating theatre, the move to online and remote work has caused a digital ‘tipping point’, with theatres, drama schools, students and professionals alike taking the chance to learn new skills and put them into practice.Many schools moved to digital showcases and online exhibitions for this year’s graduating students, such as GSA’s BA & MA production showcase . This was very well received by employers as an accessible way to ‘meet’ the class of 2020, and enabled students to showcase their digital skills. Additionally, students highlight the advantages of online learning.It’s a chance to learn new skills: ‘online learning gives you an opportunity to learn about different effective ways of communication and utilise new and different ways of producing work to the same normal exceptional quality’.You can learn at your own pace or in your own time: ‘no matter where you are you can log on and do the online learning’.Also, theatre online can be more accessible to all: as one student says: ‘I would hope it shows production companies how important accessing theatre is, whether it’s for educational purposes or to keep people interested in theatre.’It’s clear that digital learning and working practices will be here to stay, and today’s students will be the innovators in these fields.

Finally, we do need to remember the importance of face to face learning. The theatre is essentially about live events with an audience, and students choose this vocational training expecting to work and learn collaboratively with a physical team. As one student says: ‘our industry relies on the physical interaction between cast and crew and is heavily dependent on being able to just stop and chat to someone over a cup of tea.’ In the ‘hybrid’ or ‘blended’ learning model that schools have adopted now some key teaching is still happening face to face.It’s great that we can watch a YouTube video on how to make a prop, hold a production meeting on Teams or use visualisation software to create a design, but ultimately there are physical skills that need to be learnt and developed in theatre training.We also need to put actual shows on together, but with adapted working methods: ‘To set up shows, especially get-ins, I think the industry might need more time in the theatre space, so that different disciplines can set up their equipment without mixing with people who they don’t necessarily have to mix with.’

So what advice would we give our new students this year?The main thing to remember is that the new way of training is not a compromise – all schools are working very hard to ensure you will get the training you want and need to start your career in the industry, and industry is working in partnership with us to make this happen.There will still be face to face teaching, there will great opportunities to develop your digital skills and most importantly you will be trailblazers for the new, diverse, sustainable and exciting theatre of the future.As current student Lily advises: ‘Be prepared to work in a way no has had to before and remember that we and the entire industry are in this together.

Jo Franklin

Head of Technical Theatre Arts, GSA

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