Theatre Studies in Covid Times
When I first heard suggestions over the summer of classes being moved online this term due to covid I was, of course, a bit apprehensive. As theatre is such a practice-based degree with such an emphasis on collaboration, I struggled to imagine how the classes would work in an online or socially distanced space. However, I have been pleasantly surprised about the transition to covid-safe teaching, and on the whole it has been a much better experience than I expected it would be.
This term I am taking three theatre studies modules – my 30 CAT practical dissertation, a 30 CAT module on ‘Performing Gender & Sexuality’, and a 15 CAT module about ‘Love’. Of these modules, 2 of them are completely online while the other is a blend between online and in-person teaching. The experiences are obviously very different to previous years, but they have all adapted to their new formats well. Here, I will talk a bit about what they are like this term and how they are working for me.
The practical dissertation is my most practice-based module this term, and the blended approach suits the module really well, with alternating weeks online and in-person.
The online sessions are all ‘artist dialogues’, where a performance practitioner joins us on a Teams meeting to discuss their work and answer questions we have. Beforehand we are all given a video of the artist’s work, with each week having a different theme or focus. For example, the first artist dialogue was with the director Ben Burrata, focusing on using autobiography to create work. We were sent a recording of a performance they directed, ‘And the Rest of Me Floats’ to watch before, which gave us some ideas of questions we could ask. These sessions are usually around an hour and a half, which gives us plenty of time to get into questions we may have. The online setting for these works well, as we can use the raise hands button on Teams to show when we have questions, with the module convenor selecting who asks the next questions. At the end of these sessions the practitioner gives us a practice-based task to complete in the next week relating to their area, for example creating a playlist that relates to our idea, or developing a piece of writing based on a memory.
The in-person classes take place in the Old Sports Hall, a large space in central campus that can easily fit all of us in, with space to maintain social distancing. Those who are isolating join via Teams and are looked after by one of the leaders to ensure they are still involved. These classes start with a socially distanced warm up, such as a masked vocal warm up or a distanced dance session. We then divide the class into two groups, with one of the leaders taking a group each. As the hall is quite big and echoey it can sometimes be hard to hear across the space, so splitting into two groups enables us to have conversations more easily. In these groups we share what we found from doing the task given in the artist dialogue the previous week, either showing what we created or talking about our experiences. We then do a mixture of writing, discussion and creating, sometimes working in small, socially-distanced groups. Being able to discuss our ideas and receive feedback from each other is incredibly helpful, and having this space to practically explore our ideas has been really useful in developing our projects.
‘Performing Gender & Sexuality’, and ‘Love’
Both ‘Performing Gender & Sexuality’ and ‘Love’ are more theory-based classes, so have been moved entirely online, taking place over Teams. For both classes, the seminar time has been reduced and the class size cut in half, so both seminars last around an hour and a half with about 10 people present on Teams. This reduced time and class size is really helpful, as it means that us and the lecturers don’t get tired having to look at our screens for so long, while the size means that we can have meaningful discussions with everyone.
As the classes are run by different lecturers, they obviously have different structures, with ‘Performing Gender & Sexuality’ being more structured while ‘Love’ is much more free-flowing. For both classes we are given readings or viewings to do ahead of time, which is generally a mix between theory and performance. For example, we may have to read a play and a piece of theory, or watch a film and read an article. In class, we generally use a mix of the raise hand button in Teams (a little hand at the bottom which highlights that you want to speak) and a more free-flowing way where we discuss more naturally.
To make this more clear, I can give an example of a ‘Performing Gender & Sexuality’ class I had the other day. As we ‘arrived’ to the Teams meeting, the lecturer greeted us all and checked how we were doing. He then gave us a few minutes to individually jot down our experiences with sex education in school, as this was a feature of what we were exploring this week. We then went around the class to share our experiences, raising our hands using the button on Teams to show we had points to make. He then guided a discussion about one of the readings, with us using the hands button to show we wanted to make a point or answer a question. As we all had our cameras on, he was able to see at one point that we all looked confused, prompting him to explain a topic in greater detail. He then posed us some questions to answer as a group, turning off his camera and microphone so we could discuss without him ‘in the room’. At this point we had a more free-flowing discussion, not using the hands button but instead unmuting to respond to each other and discuss his prompt. One person volunteered to be the ‘chair’ of the discussion, taking notes and keeping us on topic. At the end, the lecturer turned his camera and microphone back on, the chair fed back on our thoughts and he discussed them a little more. While each class is different, and the lecturers change and try out new techniques to see what works best online, this gives a sense of my experience of online classes and the way they work this year.
Obviously, covid-safe teaching has its drawbacks, and the natural flow of in-person teaching cannot be perfectly replicated in an online space where cameras freeze, microphones stop working and there is a delay between someone talking in person and them talking on Teams. However, overall the lecturers have found ways to facilitate discussion in a way that still feels productive and engaging, enabling our learning to continue online. There are even a few advantages to online classes, as the smaller size compared to normal allows everyone to have a chance to speak, while not having to commute in and out of campus means we have extra time in our day for studying (or for sleeping!). While I do sometimes miss the in-person, the department has done a really good job of transitioning to covid-safe teaching, and the online classes are much more successful than I thought they would be over summer.