Drama schools are developing plans that will give students the best possible experience when the new teaching year begins in September. Sarah Lambie speaks to staff about ‘blended learning’ and prioritising first years
As lockdown restrictions ease, drama schools and conservatoires are planning their autumn 2020 intake around the government’s evolving guidelines.
The Office for Students has given schools an end of June deadline to publish plans for new and re-enrolling students. While nothing is set in stone, a few busy drama school staff members were willing to share their developing contingency plans.
Sean McNamara, head of Guildford School of Acting, is also chair of the Federation of Drama Schools. “Different schools are taking their own approaches,” he says, “because of the mixed economy of the federation. There are 20 schools, all constituted very differently. Because they all have their own structures and their own reporting processes, we couldn’t impose a 20-school-wide policy, but what we’ve had is our version of Cobra – the principals of the 20 schools have met on a monthly basis via Zoom, sharing ideas.”
Kit Thacker, managing director of Drama Studio London, sums it up like this: “All drama schools have four options: 1) delaying the start for new students until later in the year, 2) teaching everything online, 3) a hybrid of some skills work online and limited face-to-face teaching, and 4) starting fully in the late autumn. Option one is a decision we have decided not to take, so for us it is now a matter of planning all three of the other contingencies and tempering our hopes with pragmatism.”
Paul Clarkson, head of acting at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, explains that the initial challenge has been auditioning the new cohort; it is usually a two-stage process, culminating in “10 or 11 recall auditions with around 24 to 30 students at each, in Bristol, experiencing a full day at the school with voice sessions, improvisation and speeches”. This year’s final recalls have been 20-minute Zoom calls with little opportunity to assess suitability for ensemble work.
“There is a big difference between starting a new academic year with students that you know very well already, and going into a new academic year with a cohort of students who have never even been to Bristol, and never met each other, or us,” he adds.
Crucially, Clarkson says, the plan is to get that new cohort of students to Bristol for their first term. “We’re looking towards what’s termed ‘blended learning’, hoping, with a priority on the incoming students, to get small groups into the school to work with us while others work online. There might be a morning that we can bring in seven out of a 14-person cohort – we have two of those, both BA courses.
“I think it’s important that they feel part of the school right from the start. If we were distance-learning they would feel very dislocated and not part of the community. So even if they are coming in to do one acting basics class or one very gentle voice class, that’s going to be preferable to teaching everything online.”
Thacker at DSL describes a similar plan: “My guess is that we will be running a hybrid school for a month or so. We have already re-configured the building and we are working on the consequences and practicalities of very small groups of around six in each on-site class.”
As is the case at BOVTS, other schools are making their first year students a priority.
Bradley Leech at Italia Conti says: “We anticipate that there will need to be additional support processes in place for new starters, and that we would need to prioritise in-person teaching and physical resources for these students.”
Likewise, McNamara says: “We’ve looked at the risk assessments of our spaces, how we can fit the students that are coming in September into what we have, and we are looking at a number of possible scenarios to minimise disruption to the training across our programmes.
“Vocational training is designed to be experiential and we want to ensure our first-years can access that training at the beginning of their programme whenever possible in a face-to-face learning environment to develop a baseline of technique and skill.”
He continues: “The important thing is that we establish them as a company, and that they get to know the teaching and the institution. Whatever the guidance on social distancing is, it’s important we’re able to maintain the integrity of our training within a physical environment.”
However, that face-to-face process will have to be carefully managed, says McNamara: “Dance and singing are known as super-spreading activities because of sweat, because of breath, so we’re having to look at how our building can be Covid-secure in terms of cleaning regimes, and the flow of students through the building, to make sure that they’re not crossing each other. Options include a phasing of delivery and staggering of the timetable so that we are able to optimise space, time and protect the student experience, and thereby minimise disruption to an effective training environment in the autumn term, while ensuring the safety and health of students and staff.”
This issue of space is a common theme. Clarkson at BOVTS explains: “It’s clear that there are going to be very few spaces at Downside Road that we’re going to be able to use safely. We’re excited that Fiona Francombe is joining us as the new principal. She has lots of connections in the city, so we’re hoping that we may be able to access much bigger spaces – we’re talking to Tom Morris at Bristol Old Vic too, because obviously there’s not a lot happening there at the moment.”
Dance and singing are super-spreading activities because of sweat, because of breath – Sean McNamara
I wondered whether many incoming students have requested deferrals in the hope that training might resume ‘normally’ in 2021, but both McNamara and Clarkson tell me that this has not yet come up with their new BA cohorts. “I think because they fight so hard for those places, they just don’t want to make the choice not to come, and because it’s a three-year programme, they know that it won’t be like this for the whole three years,” says McNamara.
“I suppose there’s also a mentality at the moment that if not a lot is going to be happening out there in the industry, maybe this is a good time to train,” says Clarkson, “and by the time they’ve trained, the industry might be back to something that we recognise.”
The adaptability of creatives is undeniable: “If someone had asked me six months ago if actor training could be delivered online, I would have asked what world they lived in,” says Thacker. “The past 10 weeks have shown that with a lot of determination by students, and hard work by staff, some is quite possible. It’s not ideal of course, but it’s far better than any of us would have imagined.”
A spokesman for the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland said: “We recognise that the world is changing and that the arts are changing too: for those already in arts-based professions, as well as those training to enter them. Our students will need, more than ever, to be resilient, adaptable and creative, and our learning environment needs to adapt to reflect this and prepare students for a professional life in which they will need to become even more adept at change.”
“We’re very adaptable,” agrees McNamara. “We’re very agile, and ultimately we’re all creatives, so we’ll find a way to deal with it.”