Virtual theatre is accessible and provides new opportunities for students.
Virtual theatre has become the solution for artists and students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since theatre was so inaccessible pre-COVID, some believe that online content is building bridges of accessibility theatre has never seen before. Others believe it is building barriers.
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Art forms are constantly changing and evolving and while this does not take away importance from the traditional methods the new methods are just a new way of learning the art.
Whether or not virtual theatre is true to the artistic form, we cannot deny that theatre artists have been challenged to adapt their work. This is what actors and writers and lighting designers do best; if the team encounters a problem, even if it is on opening night with a full house, everyone scrambles to find a solution. Now, the task is to find what is most constant in theatre and introduce it to the virtual world. For many artists, the heart of theatre is connectivity; togetherness. Some believe that the digital landscape does not bar us from this intimacy, but rather asks us to find new ways to connect. Frankly, theatre has been inaccessible for a long time. Classes and performances on Broadway and at the West End are all grossly expensive and there has been a pervasive narrative that theatre is for the rich. Even the stories we tell are antiquated. New generations of theatre artists are committed to color-conscious casting and representation of nuanced stories. It might seem like the COVID-19 pandemic has wedged a wrench in the process, and while it has done its damage, artists cannot help but find that the social distancing byproduct of the health crisis might be changing the way we look at theatre for the better. Now, it seems that the virtual world is creating something of a “bridge for…students and Broadway stars alike,” according to drama critic and teaching artist Cristina Pla-Guzman. For her own classes, she has brought in friends, colleagues, and other professionals in the field to inspire and make connections with her students. In the pre-COVID world, these kinds of intimate conversations would never have happened for so many reasons: scheduling, money, priorities. Things have changed in the theatre, yes, but the industry has not been wiped out. Artists are problem-solving and they are reconsidering what it means to hold power in their industry. According to Pla-Guzman, it is clear that “theatre can still connect us,” if we accept what connectivity in our current world actually looks like. I am a playwright and recently wrote a piece that some actors and I staged over Zoom. Friends from all over the world were able to pop in from the comfort of their kitchens or their couches. Then, they were able to go about their evening, as if nothing profound had just happened, but in reality, we had all just tuned into a live event from wildly different time zones. At the end of the “show,” the audience turned on their cameras to chat together. Actors noted that we had found a new intimacy. One where an audience member can figuratively hold an actor’s close-up face in their hands while sitting miles apart from them. One where fifty people can experience the same fleeting performance all at once. Senior theatre student at the School of Dramatic Arts at the University of Southern California, Casey Gardner, explains that she unexpectedly rediscovered the power of theatre in these trying times, by “connecting with people across the world through telling a story.” Isn’t that theatre? In a world where most of us can no longer safely touch, this must be theatre’s specialty: the sheer magic of togetherness.
In some cases, a theatrical experience is no longer expensive or a distance away. However, it is important to note is that there is actually a wide range of access levels to devices required for something like an online theatre class. Should a student need to share a computer with relatives at home, attending online Zoom classes becomes nearly impossible. Editing software for videos, should the students be requested to upload them, can slow down a computer’s software. Not to mention access to a steady WIFI connection. Even students at the University of Southern California who do have access to devices for virtual performance classes, say they experience difficulty when trying to learn online. Alex Policaro, a dance major, explained that USC provided her with studio spaces to safely practice. However, when dance classes were moved online, explained an article in the Daily Trojan, she had to find a space large enough o rehearse, and ended up bruising her back and knees while dancing in her garage. Similarly, cinema major Daniel Proa chose to attend USC to learn from accomplished professors and also to have access to their expensive equipment. Although he paid a $300 insurance fee at the beginning of the year, classes were eventually moved online, he had to travel home, and he no longer could use the devices needed for projects. Some argue that aside from the fact that accessibility is questionable, students are not being appropriately prepared for their fields. One might ask: how could a theatre student succeed in the industry without in-person training, which we are all hoping to move back towards? While theatre can surely still connect us virtually, one wonders if theatre classes’ purposes have to change while online.
[P1] This new method of acting allows for opportunities and connections not previously possible in the past style of teaching.
Rejecting the premises
[PR1] Part of the reason classes are taught in groups in theaters or dance studios is to give students access to the grounds and equipment which they do not have with this new style of teaching. [PR2] It is harder to make corrections for things like dance and movement due to the distance of a screen.