During the coronavirus pandemic, drama schools have moved their training online. Students and teachers give Samantha Marsden their top tips for adapting to a virtual training environment
Jean Sangster, head of voice at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, says: “Away from your electronic world, for your own development, keep working on your voice, connecting breath and sounds to your body and yourself. Speaking text aloud each day with a sense of freedom and abandon will allow you to stay connected to the wonderful instrument in your body. It will enable you to work with more meaning and connection to your voice when you are online. Actors need to develop a visceral feel for text, inhabit the actual words, and live in the poetry. Read aloud all sorts of material, building up your confidence, respect and joy of language.”
Teaching online presents limitations, but it also opens up new possibilities. Italia Conti course director Richard Mulholland recommends that you “use the technology to learn new things about yourself as a performer”.
He adds: “While many of us are used to self-tapes, actually watching yourself on screen while performing or teaching is, for most of us, a new experience. After getting over our lockdown hair (speaking primarily for myself here), you may notice things that you haven’t noticed before – mannerisms, posture and habits – as you perform. Acknowledge the things that work and the things that need work. Embrace the technology – and use it to your advantage.”
Daron Oram, a senior lecturer in voice at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, says: “Being expressive vocally in your home environment is hard, unless you live with other actors who understand your training. First, have a conversation with your household about when the best times are for you to do your vocal work at full volume. When you begin, don’t skip the warm-up. If you need to keep the volume down, try to work with less resonance and stay relaxed, rather than going into breathy voice or constricting.”
Caroline Leslie, head of acting at LAMDA, recommends changing from a living space to a working one. She advises: “Getting away from desks is good. And trying new imaginative exercises and new ways of approaching process is proving more fruitful than trying to approach things as I might have done before.”
Leslie also recommends regular, brief breaks – pausing every hour or so for students and teachers to move out of the environment they are working in.
McCallister Selva, a third-year BA acting student at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, explains: “At the beginning of this difficult time, I was mourning the loss of my last few months at RCS. Thankfully, I’ve been supported by the acting staff, who have opened up many networking opportunities and new creative possibilities. I’m using this time to create an audition portfolio of speeches, as well as work my way through a list of classic films I’ve never seen before. So many things seem out of our control right now, so the main thing I’m focusing on is keeping an open mind and creating space for personal and artistic development.”
The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama is keeping regular one-to-one contact as a central part of its ethos, as well as regular masterclasses with agents and industry professionals.
Vivien Care, head of musical theatre at RWCMD, says: “It’s turned into a fascinating process for the students to learn about the technical requirements of digitally engaging with potential employers, and working out the intricacies of self-taping for our online showcase. The online Stephen Sondheim 90th-birthday celebration has been a huge inspiration to us. It’s an industry-wide movement in musical theatre: the biggest casting directors are now often casting this way, so it could remain a big part of casting in the future.”
Matt Leventhall, head of lighting at RADA, says: “Remember that as theatremakers you are used to going above and beyond. The extra mile is what turns banal recitation into five-star storytelling. There’s no reason you shouldn’t apply this to your work from home. Too many of us are hoping that the best we will achieve is to ‘get through’ the lockdown. Change your mindset and think about how you can excel now, instead of waiting for ‘normality’ to resume. No one knows when that will be.”
Brendon Burns, head of applied theatre and community drama at Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, says: “The first step for us was recognising that we couldn’t just move what we would normally do in the studio online – it’s obvious but can be hard to accept, and let go of attachments to tried and tested schemes of work. It is important to look at the curriculum as a whole and be open, where possible, to re-ordering training to prioritise learning that is best suited to online delivery and home learning. This might be self-tapes, interview and discussion techniques, or radio work.”
Italia Conti programme director Bradley Leech explains: “Working on your own can lead to frustration at ‘not getting it’ straight away. Remember that actor training is cumulative: it’s a process, not an end game. While conservatoire training cannot be delivered purely online, there are some real advantages to working in this way. It is still training, so give it that focus and respect. This won’t be forever. Staff and students should be especially mindful of their mental health. Staring at a screen all day must be balanced with real self-care.”