Creative approach to teaching theatre in COVID lockdown

  • Date

    Tue 26 May 20

Screen grab, showing a number of students taking part in an online theatre workshop with Mella Faye via Zoom technology

When lockdown struck it looked like theatre students might miss the chance of a lifetime to be part of a brand new piece of gig theatre but, thanks to the ingenuity of one lecturer, support from the Lakeside Theatre, and virtual reality headsets shipped around the world, they got a unique virtual learning experience instead.

Second-year students in the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies, had been due to work with actor and director Mella Faye, playing the part of the chorus in her reinvention of the Greek tragedy Oedipus. The intensive artist-in-residency was due to take place at the Lakeside Theatre this summer.

Instead Dr Liam Jarvis, who teaches the Models of Practice theatre studies module, tore up the script and created a virtual residency which offers exciting opportunities for creative approaches to learning in the time of coronavirus.

“Summer term ‘intensive weeks’ are vital to our offer because they are about creatively innovating under time pressure, collaborating with exciting guest artists in industry conditions and most importantly fostering a strong sense of community between students, teachers and invited theatre practitioners,” explained Dr Jarvis.

“At first, the challenges seemed insurmountable. But one hurdle at a time we found creative solutions.”

Instead of watching Mella Faye’s previous production, Medea Electronica, in a theatre, the students, some as far away as Singapore, were sent virtual reality headsets so they could be inspired by her work together whilst physically being thousands of miles apart.

The students were asked to research a Greek Myth and develop a one-minute pitch for their reinvention of the story in preparation.

Led by Mella, they took part in online vocational storytelling workshops and assessed independent creative activities.

With the support of Barbara Peirson and Chris Williams from the Lakeside Theatre, the students were able to write and rehearse from their homes and use breakout rooms for group discussion.

Dr Liam Jarvis, wearing glasses and a red jumper
"The online delivery of drama teaching in 2020-21 could lead to some exciting new creative discoveries in an industry that is necessarily changing and adapting."
Dr Liam Jarvis department of literature, film, and theatre studies

Mella, whose theatre company Pecho Mama makes progressive, music driven performance, said: “When I make work I have to dig really deep into my humanity in order to find the gold. I asked the students to do the same; take a chance and bring their most vulnerable, authentic selves to their creative process.

“They were obviously nervous but they all threw themselves fully into the work and the learning. I was so impressed by how committed and dedicated they all were and the result was so rewarding.

“Each student delivered a professional, creative, well-researched pitch for a piece of work they wanted to make. And each one reflected such a distinct and unique artistic voice. It was heartening for everyone to see what they could achieve via an online platform.”

Dr Jarvis added: “This experience taught me about the resilience of our students, that drama and online collaboration can be a way of building a meaningful and galvanised sense of community, and that the online delivery of drama teaching in 2020-21 could lead to some exciting new creative discoveries in an industry that is necessarily changing and adapting.”

What the students thought

Marina Cusí, one of the students who took part, said: "What I loved most was getting to know Mella and receiving plenty of daily advice from her. It's always nice to have someone so experienced to help you to develop a project.

"It taught us that in times of hardship one must be resilient and come up with new and original ideas to overcome difficulties, and that we live in an new era where art can still happen from wherever we are and despite how far apart we may be."