Facing COVID-19, what are the possible solutions for theater educators?

Jul 8, 2020

Written by Wei-Ping Chen
Translated by Tien-ying Hsu
The world has been affected by COVID-19 since the start of 2020, with the performing arts community bearing the brunt. Especially in March, theaters started to close one after another. Many freelancing theater professionals realized their livelihood was being severely challenged. Amid this global crisis, while their peers try to keep theaters and performing arts companies operate as usual, some theater professionals seek answers to a different question: what can they do when schools are shut down? 
Successful cultivation of technical theater professionals relies much on education at schools. Now that the world’s schools adopt long-distance teaching due to the pandemic, teachers need to familiarize themselves with e-teaching software, adjust their teaching methods, and build a good learning environment for students “above the clouds.” To learn about how the world’s theater educators cope with the pandemic, the OISTAT’s Headquarter and Education Commission held four closed meetings and two public discussions under “OISTAT Chat #2 & #3 - How Theatre Educators Cope with COVID-19.” Theater educators from all over the world gathered up to share their thoughts, including their e-teaching experiences in the past two months. The goal of the event was to bring a string of hope to teachers and students under quarantine. 

How do theater educators teach online?
“How do we teach technical theater through long-distance courses, despite that on-site practices are usually required?” Many educators had such a question in mind at first. While theory and history may be taught via online meetings, the equipment and materials needed for learning technical theatre are not always available from home. How can a student learn to make costumes if there isn’t a sewing machine or a mannequin? How can students learn theatrical lighting when they cannot try out lights.
To enable students to keep using theatrical tools, some schools have sent simple equipment to students at home. Connecticut College, for instance, purchases learners’ sewing machines at $89 each from Walmart and sends them to costume majors, using students’ administration fees. Anders Larsson, Vice Chair of the Education Commission, OISTAT (Sweden), noted that it is possible to set up simple theater lights at home, with just a palm-sized DMX converter connected to a computer and a few cheap LED lights. 

A tutorial for setting up ENTTEC DMX and lights
Of course, not every school has budgets sufficient for purchasing extra equipment. Some projects also require immense teamwork and space. Thus, many teachers have been looking for online alternatives, hoping to help students build up professional skills in challenging times. The most impressive instance was “Orange Jackets - Behind the Scenes at the Olympics” shared by Ian Evans (UK). The course uses the opening ceremony of London Olympics in 2012 to train stage managers, showing a video of the ceremony which includes the stage manager’s calling-cues. The students are first asked to listen to the stage manager’s calling-cues. They are then encouraged to practice calling cues on their own, using a different video without the stage manager’s voice. 
E-learning is never easy, and it sets limits to creativity
When it comes to the challenges and difficulties faced, discussions at the forum became fervent. The subject of “Internet access and relevant facilities” alone already inspired many to share. Some students do not have personal computers, but only cell phones. Internet access can be unstable to some. The bandwidth at home is not enough for a family to use the Internet at once. Some operating systems do not support software for theater craft. Teachers need to know well about what students can get at home first. Then, they must work with the school’s technical department to provide students with the learning essentials. 
Wright State University has set up Wi-Fi repeaters and boosters at the school’s parking lots, for students to use Wi-Fi in their cars. Quite a few students would also drive to the parking plots of McDonalds, Starbucks, and local libraries to acquire stable Internet access. William Kenyon (USA), Chair of the Education Commission for OISTAT shared that one of his students only has an old computer at home. With assistance from the school’s technical department, the student has been able to use a computer which is based in a research lab remotely, and has thus completed all class assignments. 
Other than technical problems, whether students’ homes are suitable for e-learning poses a major challenge. Some students join the class on their kitchen tables because their homes are small. Others find themselves interfering with their family members because everyone works and studies from home. William Kenyon suggested that teachers should set rules first, and such include helping students build a proper schedule for class. Also, if their family members pop up on the screen, the family members should be requested to join the class and answer questions. The rule of the thumb here is: students must always show respect to the class. 
A limited learning environment is not entirely unbeneficial, after all. Marina Raytchinova, an associate professor of scenography at the National Academy of Art in Bulgaria, noted that students are required to make models for her class. One student was not able to make physical models at home due to limited space. Thus, in a blink of time, the student learned to build 3D models on a computer. 

Education: aside from teaching, companionship matters much more
Other than finding new ways to teach, teachers are even more concerned about how they can live through this special time period with students, and help them stay physically and mentally healthy. 
“Let students bring their pets to class!” Quite a few teachers spoke of the importance of pets. In times when it is unlikely to meet up with friends, pets become the pillars of support to students. On the condition that the pets will not disturb others, they are allowed to keep students company in class, and this is considered a good idea. 
Also, in pre-pandemic times, teachers and students in the theater department usually spent lots of time together on campus. Thus, teachers could learn about each student’s characteristics and personalities both through daily conversations and theatrical work. When everything was suddenly transferred to the cyberspace, challenges naturally arose, especially in terms of building relationships with students. Teachers now need to spend more effort, making sure every student is in a good physical and mental state. Students who enjoy group activities are especially prone to becoming psychologically unwell during quarantine. 
What is the next step for theater educators?
At the event, the majority of teachers from around the globe expressed a positive attitude. It was obvious that due to the lockdown, people cherished such a “face-to-face” much more. However, the teachers also expressed their worries about their students’ future. “What can students do after graduation?” “Can they get jobs without difficulties?” After all, the world’s largest theatrical stronghold, Broadway, has also been impacted by the pandemic.  There's no guarantee that students can walk smooth paths after they graduate. 
“I put my shoes on and get myself ready for teaching.” Challenged by the pandemic, teachers around the world are still trying to teach better online. They hope that they and their students can all adjust well to the circumstances. “What is the next step for theater educators?” There might not be a correct answer to this question. But the predicament has surely made teachers rethink the definition of education and the nature of it.