As drama schools prepare to reopen their doors in September, the heads of technical training at GSA and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland tell Sarah Lambie their plans for new and returning students
Continued uncertainty about the lifting of social distancing measures means that drama schools and conservatoires are having to develop plans for a number of possible circumstances when the new academic year begins.
For those students entering their second and third years, it’s likely to be an improvement on their summer term – the expectation at present is that some face-to-face tuition will be possible, but it will be very different to what they experienced at the beginning of the last academic year.
For new BA students just embarking on their higher education, it is arguably more difficult. “We are looking at trying to get the first years on site first because when you’re signing on to a new course, the last thing you want to do is to stay at home with your parents and not even meet anyone,” says Jo Franklin, head of Technical Theatre Arts at Guildford School of Acting. “It’s harder for first years than for those who’ve already gone and made friends and have all of that structure set up.”
Assuming, however, that government guidelines regarding social distancing remain in place, as Franklin explains: “It’s not going to be doable to get all the students back in the building at the same time.”
Some of the theory of technical, stage management and production arts courses can be taught online. Franklin cites the history of stage management and introductions to the various aspects of the role: management theories, documentation and paperwork, and text analysis.
‘You can watch a YouTube video about how to make a prop, but you need to get hands-on with the materials’ GSA’s head of Technical Theatre Arts Jo Franklin
“We can talk about that in an online seminar,” she says, “and we’ll be spending the summer looking at best practice in terms of online learning, to make sure that what we do is as good as it can be. We’re very lucky with the University of Surrey that we have the expertise to help us do that.”
“But, there are certain things you can’t do online: you can’t go up a ladder, you can’t rig or focus a light. You can watch a YouTube video about how to make a prop, which is useful to some extent, but at the end of the day you do have to get hands-on with the materials.”
In the face of adversity, businesses across the world have had to get creative to keep their products and services accessible. An example of this, Franklin points out, are those businesses whose products facilitate technical theatre: “The majority of manufacturers and software providers are offering free student access to online training now, whereas before, you’ve always had to access a physical piece of equipment to do, for example, lighting programming. Everyone’s doing a lot of work towards online simulations.
“It’s been an opportunity for students to catch up on the upskilling that you often don’t have time for when you’re doing a show. Things like computer drawing of plans; QLab, used to programme and fire sound and video cues; Adobe Creative Suite…”
This technology is undeniably helpful for remote learning, but doesn’t account for the more traditional craft skills such as scenic art, costume and prop-making and production carpentry. At the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, head of production Ros Maddison oversees two courses, one of which focuses entirely on these hands-on disciplines.
“We’ve got two programmes: Production Technology and Management, which includes lighting, sound, stage management and stage technology; and Production Arts and Design, which is set and costume design and then the four workshops – costume, props, scenic construction and paint frame. What we would normally do is bring everybody in and rotate them around all five departments in the first term, but obviously that brings with it all sorts of challenges, not just to social distancing but cross-fertilisation of tools with too many users.
“We’ve decided that the better approach is to put these students directly into their chosen specialisms and give them a really good grounding in those in the first term. The feedback is often: ‘The rotations were really great, but I would have loved to have been in my major subject earlier,’ so we’re thinking that this is the time to try that out.
“This means that we can then put them in smaller specialist groups in workshops where they can be isolated from other departments and other students until such time as social distancing relaxes and we can let them mix a little bit more.”