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Can Theater Studies Succeed Online? How Covid-19 Has Reshaped the Performing Arts

“This isn’t the first time virtual reality technology has been used in theater. There have been other plays where audience members would put on virtual reality goggles, which I think is very interesting.”

Summer Solon, Actor and Performer

While many online education opportunities highlight left-brain dominant subjects, like engineering, legal, or medical studies, how can remote learning support the study of theater and acting?

In the wake of Covid-19 and stay-at-home-orders, theater and performing arts students were among the nearly 1.1 billion learners across the globe affected by school closures, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). These statistics include learners in pre-primary, primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of education, demonstrating the widespread impact of closures across the education industry. As a result, schools offering theater and performing arts have been forced to seek online solutions in lieu of their usual in-person classes.

Even in this difficult period, however, the move has borne some innovative classes.

For example, NYU’s Tisch School of Drama experimented in launching a new course integrating virtual reality (VR) technology for students to use in practice and producing a play for a tele-audience in a social virtual reality space. We spoke with professionals in the theater and performing arts industry to give their take on whether models like this could be applied elsewhere—and how else theater and drama studies may succeed online.

Entertainment Industry Hard Hit

The performing arts and entertainment industry at large—including in-person plays and performances as well as content production for film, television and streaming services—has been forced to shut down as part of the effort to stem the spread of the pandemic.

The sustainability of theater and live art performances are particularly threatened.

“Theater is a live art form that was developed as something to be to be shared in person and describe the human condition,” said Patrick Olsen, a classically trained actor with bachelor’s of arts in theater and political science from the University of Southern California, who is based in Los Angeles and works in voice-overs, theater, and film acting. “So figuring out how to do that online is certainly a challenge.”

Live performances in indoor spaces have been closed through the end of the year. Broadway theaters have shut their doors until 3 January 2021, while West End theaters in London are closed indefinitely.

All theaters have lost the major source of income from ticket sales, and some have already gone into liquidation. According to The Economist, the Royal Shakespeare Company in London is getting about a quarter of its normal income from philanthropy, while some 70 percent of theaters could be out of business by year’s end.

Some outdoor spaces are planning to hold performances, though this will require logistical planning for social distancing safety measures.

The Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC) and the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) announced a collaboration in June to engage with medical experts to create scientifically rooted guidelines for their members to safely return to work. The two unions will work with Dr. Mark Cunningham-Hill, Dr. Laura S. Welch, and Dr. Stephen Anderson, who have experience advising the company Johnson and Johnson during prior pandemics. They aim to create an action plan protecting the health of union members in workplaces.

Production for films has restarted in some countries, like Norway and South Korea, and the entertainment industry has adopted remote-work protocols where possible. And while it is clear that circumstances vary widely country by country, the World Economic Forum comments that consumers’ dwindling confidence in physical venues remains the biggest short-term risk.

And this lack of confidence extends to education with many students unwilling to return to campuses in the fall semester, even with some schools touting plans for safety and reduced risk. Many schools have opted to instead implement distance learning for classes in the upcoming semester. With remote learning dominating education through at least the end of the year, which begs the question of whether an education traditionally taught at brick-and-mortar institutions and demanding in-person interaction to learn can succeed online.

Spotlight on NYU’s Innovative Program

One innovative program to emerge in the initial fallout of stay-at-home orders was the NYU Tisch School of Drama’s launch of a course, the Brendan Bradley Integrative Technology Lab, integrating virtual reality (VR) technology for students to use in practice and producing a play for a tele-audience in a social virtual reality space.

Guest teacher Michelle Cortese, a VR product designer for Facebook’s AR/VR Experiences team, guided six students from the Drama and Game Design departments to write and build a performance to be executed in social VR to a tele-audience. To achieve this, the course combined skill sets pulling on theater artistry, animation, and Facebook’s Oculus Quest headsets. In the class, students had full avatars to interact with one another in the digital space.

Professor Orlando Pabotoy directed the students via Zoom in planning their play, “The Clouds,” and the final production ultimately streamed online this past May.

With the successful production of NYU’s VR play completed, the hybrid education model combining acting and technology presents a clear example of how theater and performing arts education could work online. But whether models like this can be applied elsewhere is a topic experts and professionals in entertainment are discussing throughout the pandemic.

Experts Weigh In: The Feasibility of Performances During Covid-19

The performing arts and entertainment community are endlessly creative. So there is definitely room for exploration of theater and performing arts in the digital space. Learning the practice online is also attainable, two experts we spoke with shared.

“A friend of mine at the American Conservatory Theater in Northern California did a Zoom theatrical experience of the play ‘In Love and War Craft,’” Olsen shared excitedly. “And it got glowing reviews.”

Summer Solon, an actor, performer, and personal trainer with a bachelor of arts in theater arts from the University of Arizona, commented she has also seen a lot of explorative forms of performing arts popping up online, like variety shows, and has been exploring the production of performing arts in the digital space in her own work with others.

“So it certainly can be done, but then you start to get into a philosophical question of, ‘What is theater?’” Olsen said. “Film acting is the child of theater, but with the recorded digital online version of theater, you get into this question. Recently, in July, Hamilton was released on Disney Plus. So, then the question is whether that theater or is that something different, something new? In theater, there are far more intimate moments where you hear the crowd, but in this version, there is none of that.”

In terms of mixing innovative tech like VR with acting, Solon commented thoughtfully, “This isn’t the first time that virtual reality technology has been used in theater. There have been other plays where audience members would put on virtual reality goggles, which I think is very interesting. Then, they had the actors in the space who would perform on a virtual reality set. But even then, the actors and audience were still in the same space.”

While VR is an interesting tool to explore in using for acting, you also have to consider the practicality of both performers and audience members having access to a VR headset and digital set up to support that, Solon explained. And so far, VR technology has been treated by the general public more as a novelty item and most people do not personally own them.

So then, schools have to think about how to teach acting online in a way that is conducive to learning and practical.

To Study Online or Not to Study Online? That is the Question

“I know at USC specifically, some professors were really innovative,” Olsen said. “Professor Edgar Landa, who is the stage combat professor at USC, had his students do their final project of stage combat fighting against themselves when they went online.”

“In Edgar’s example for his students, he essentially had his one hand, which just took on a life of its own and his hand started attacking him,” Olsen laughed, amused at the thought of the lesson example.

“His students also got really inventive as to how to be doing stage combat. And obviously that’s a class that is kind of in the middle ground of being a performance class, but you’re not working with a text and you’re not bringing a previously written story to life with a group of people. But it is an interesting exploration for students in using the physical body to tell stories digitally.”

Beyond the digital aspect, learning online will also be a different experience for different age ranges of students, Solon explained. Younger students will often require parents to facilitate the process, whereas older students will be more autonomous and able to manage their learning online.

For students currently considering studying or adapting to learning performing arts and theater remotely, both Olsen and Salon suggested textual learning can be best facilitated online, as performance classes will require more in-person and hands-on learning.

“I think learning online can support students, but I don’t think it’s the most efficient way,” Solon said. “When you’re acting with someone you’ve got to read their energy and it’s hard to do that over the phone or you can’t see facial expressions or gestures over Zoom. Often with digital spaces, there are lags and like delays in the recording.”

“A good amount of what I learned in theater school was from doing productions and being there doing those things, which would just completely change in a setting where you’re going to school online,” Olsen said. “I think certainly classes that don’t have a performative aspect, such as the history of theater or any like textual studies class, probably would be what I’d recommend current theater students to emphasize currently. As far as performance classes go, I’m not sure how effective it would be online. I’m not sure how all theater schools will handle doing that, but if it were me, I would probably be strongly considering taking time off from school to allow for things to cool down.”

Chelsea Toczauer

Chelsea Toczauer is a journalist with experience managing publications at several global universities and companies related to higher education, logistics, and trade. She holds two BAs in international relations and asian languages and cultures from the University of Southern California, as well as a double accredited US-Chinese MA in international studies from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University joint degree program. Toczauer speaks Mandarin and Russian.