The show must go online: performing arts react to Covid

Pandemic forces institutions to respond to practical challenges but also to produce work that addresses crisis and helps forge new forms of art

September 28, 2020
Person behind a screen during entrance auditions for the Acting Department of the Russian University of Theatre Arts
Source: Getty
Fourth wall Covid restrictions have led acting programmes at institutions around the world to adapt their entrance audition processes for potential students

Universities everywhere are painfully trying to reinvent themselves in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Yet departments and specialist institutions teaching music, theatre or fashion have had to cope with many additional issues. How can you play the tuba or sing an aria while wearing a mask? Social distancing can be made to work in a large lecture hall, but what does it mean for make-up artists, or for musicians and designers crammed into an orchestra pit or a small studio, not to mention actors involved in smoochy love scenes?

Covid-19 could pose a severe threat to the future careers of performers, too. Many venues are threatened with closure and the public may remain wary of attending live arts events even when restrictions are lifted. Drama schools and conservatoires could easily start to lose applicants if they are perceived as training people for jobs that are disappearing.

Back in March, at Sheridan College in Oakville, Canada, work had already begun on a musical by Nick Green and Kevin Wong titled In Real Life, set in a near future where isolated students can only communicate via technology. Only three days into rehearsal, the storyline proved prophetic and the whole production had to move online, with students taking part from their homes via Zoom. A fully choreographed and professionally produced video of the opening number was released the following month.

Students at Sheridan have also taken part in two other projects. One was the Social Distancing Festival, to showcase projects from around the world whose live performances had been cancelled. Another was a telethon, Places, Please, to provide financial support for the many professional Canadian actors who had lost work due to Covid. This included a three-hour slot in which fourth-year students got a chance to create segments, direct others and perform themselves, and so develop new skills.

What has happened at Sheridan very much reflects developments elsewhere in the world. Schools of the performing arts have had to respond fast to immediate practical problems, around recruitment and assessment as well as day-to-day operations. But they have also been involved in producing work that addresses the crisis itself, enables performers to try new things and perhaps helps forge new forms of theatre for the post-pandemic world.

At the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London, some applicants had not yet attended an interview or audition for autumn 2020 entry at the time of lockdown. To get around this, the institution said, such people were “contacted and guided through the process of auditioning/interviewing online. For our acting courses, applicants were asked to record themselves performing their monologues and song choices, and videos were created to guide them through this process. Virtual open days were held to provide applicants with an opportunity to speak directly with staff and students and to have their course-specific questions answered.”

Assessment poses similar challenges. At the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire (RBC), explained the principal, Julian Lloyd Webber, they took an early decision that, instead of keeping final-year students in limbo until they were able to hold live examinations in a hall, “the best thing we could do for them was to get them to graduate. We therefore accepted all manner of online offerings. What was life-affirming was the incredible standard and imagination of some of the things sent in. The internet is so much a part of musicians’ future that it was very helpful for them to have to do this. Some had only an iPhone and no recording equipment.”

Good examples of how acting training has been modified come from Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), whose alumni include Mel Gibson, Cate Blanchett and Toni Collette. Such “training shifted to online delivery in March this year and we adapted our public performance schedule to take place in the digital space across a variety of platforms”, according to John Bashford, director of the Centre for Acting. However, they “gradually reintroduced the actors to the building prior to our mid-year break [late June to mid-July] and have developed a series of protocols that enable much of our training to continue”.

Along with temperature checks at entrances, the wearing of masks in public areas and “air-conditioning systems switched to ‘extraction’ mode”, these protocols require that students “self-isolate outside of NIDA to create small social bubbles to reduce their risk of catching Covid via community transmission”. With on-stage kissing banned, “intimate moments” now have to be captured through “a touch, a look [or] a close pass by”.

Similar protocols have been introduced into training for fashion students. At the UK’s University for the Creative Arts (UCA), the School of Fashion taught remotely during lockdown. From the autumn, noted Lee Widdows, strategic adviser for fashion, a number of innovations have enabled them to offer “a blended learning experience: online teaching, where appropriate, sits alongside the remodelling of our spaces, staggered timetabling and a raft of other health and safety measures to protect the UCA community”.

As well as “maximum room occupancies, enhanced cleaning regimes, ventilation and hand sanitising”, protective measures have included “ensuring that stations in the make-up studio are at least one metre apart and personal protective equipment is available for clients, staff and students”, Ms Widdows explained. The longer-term goal, she added, was to “equip our students to lead the way in reimagining the fashion industry in light of everything going on”.

Major crises tend to generate creative responses from students as well as practising artists, and that has certainly been true in the case of Covid-19.

Initiatives at London’s Central School have included a series of video performances in response to living in lockdown, collaborative theatrical work exploring the experiences of refugee communities and a coronavirus time capsule devoted to the international impact on teenagers. Other students have provided direct help to the overstretched NHS by supplying bags, uniforms and hospital scrubs for front-line workers; creating an immersive radio drama in collaboration with patients on an acute dialysis ward; and developing “dementia-friendly resource packs filled with drama, storytelling and gentle creative games” for use in care homes and hospitals.

But what can we expect to see if and when we emerge from the crisis?

Given many uncertainties about the progress of the virus and government regulations, Mr Lloyd Webber reported that “we’ve been working hard on every possible scenario. Most of the staff would say we’ve been even busier during lockdown than before.” The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire has four performance venues, including a jazz club and an organ studio, so he hoped that “the performance schedule will be back up and running” in some form by January.

Since the RBC is housed in a new building with wide corridors, it had been relatively straightforward to bring some students back on site. Teaching could take place in small “bubbles” of string players, for example, which could slowly be brought together and then integrated with other groups as restrictions on social distancing ease.

The RBC forms part of Birmingham City University, which, according to Mr Lloyd Webber, “intends for the majority of the curriculum to be delivered face to face by the second semester”. It should be possible for incoming students to do their first semester online and to “give them an in-person experience online”, holding over until later any elements of the course that required face-to-face interaction.

At London’s Central School, a spokeswoman was “acutely aware that the theatre, festivals and live events industries will face enormous challenges until such time as audiences are willing to reassemble in a physical space. During this period, we believe that drama schools will be among the organisations best placed to continue to make new work, online or in physically distanced ways.

“While the industry gets back on its feet and the economic repercussions of this crisis play out, we are finding that many who had been planning gap years or work experience are deciding that now is the ideal time to train or to retrain through a specialist master’s course...

“The performing arts will adapt and thrive again, and it will be today’s students that shape the future, with a blend of traditional skills and new techniques and understanding.”

In Australia, meanwhile, NIDA’s Mr Bashford seemed more optimistic about initial signs of recovery in the sector where their graduates look for work. “In the world of screen performance, there has been a large amount of development work around new stories and pre-production work. Anecdotally, I have heard that lots of actors are now being seen for auditions and being engaged for work particularly for film and television. [Two leading Sydney theatres] are back in the rehearsal phase for a number of shows; the same is true for some other New South Wales-based companies,” he said.

With fresh signs of future work, therefore, it was Mr Bashford’s hope that students would emerge from NIDA as “flexible and adaptive artists capable of working across all platforms, and those yet to emerge. Ultimately, they are communicators and bring their storytelling ability to whatever the world throws at them.”

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