Coline Segers reflects on the benefits and challenges of having to study Drama and Performance online during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This academic year has been, at the very least, unusual. With lectures transferred onto Zoom, many students have found it difficult to be invested and motivated without a usual ‘routine’ to follow, friends to socialise with, and so on. But it is not just our habits that have changed — our curriculum and ways of learning have changed too.
As a student currently doing a Masters in Drama and Performance Studies, studying drama in the midst of a global pandemic has proven itself to be a challenge. Indeed, a drama course is evidently going to be centred around theatre visits followed by interpretations of the live performances, but these are no longer available to us. This has resulted in the entire curriculum being modified to fit what can be watched online. Going to the theatre, discussing expectations in the foyer, the emotion and feelings of surprise, excitement, and apprehension, that buzzing around you during a show, —all in all, the theatre experience— is gone. Another consequence of viewing theatre online, highlighted in a conversation I had with Ellie Hanan Moran, (another student studying Drama and Performance in UCD), is “the absence of liveness”. The main difference between theatre, as opposed to film, is its liveness which consists of the “atmosphere” you experience and the fact “anything could happen” during a live performance. Moran also argues that the production, and maybe even the intent of the directors themselves, may be distorted by the means of capture. For example, the camera does not let you choose what you want to focus on, it forces you to watch a certain character on stage, when one may want to focus on what is happening just behind them. Indeed, a captured performance is often very different from a movie that is produced for the screen: where a movie focuses on specific details, objects, or characters through the use of different shots, a theatrical performance relies on lighting to lead the audience’s gaze, and cannot easily force anything onto the spectator.
Theatregoers around the world now have many more opportunities of seeing international performances which opens up an entirely new perspective on theatre...
However, not all is bleak, and the appearance of online theatre has given us many things. Firstly, new forms of theatre. At the beginning of the year, we were asked to watch Twenty Fifty, directed by Dan Colley for the Dublin Fringe Festival. This interactive play was not originally tailored to be online, but the production team had to radically alter their mode of performance. Instead of being in the same room as the audience and their guest speaker, the actors were seemingly all in different places, on their respective laptops, just like the audience. However, they revealed later that the actors were, in fact, in the same room as each other. This resulted in a piece of theatre that was incredibly collaborative. The audience were called upon to contribute, all spectators could see one another, some of whom tuned in from countries around the world, and could watch each other's reactions. Online theatre has also made itself much more accessible. One of my colleagues, Irati Agirrezabalaga, stated that the result of “companies putting shows online has allowed [her] to access plays that [she] wouldn't have access to otherwise, like the National Theatre at Home series, some North American shows and other European performances”. Theatregoers around the world now have many more opportunities of seeing international performances which opens up an entirely new perspective on theatre, introducing people to the theatre of different cultures which may not have been known otherwise.
UCD has given all of its students free access to DramaOnline, a bank of play scripts and recorded performances, making theatre much more accessible. Another positive aspect of this is the option to rewatch performances. This, of course, is especially helpful as a student for the analysis of theatre as one can watch specific moments of a performance over and over.
Theatre studies are a challenge to follow in a pandemic, and some students come to wonder whether they should have deferred for a year in order to have the true theatre experience at the centre of their studies. However, if this situation has revealed anything, it is that theatre can only benefit from being more accessible to everyone.