How will the teaching of drama and acting in HE develop post pandemic?

In the article I look at hybrid/blended learning and discuss how it relates to the teaching of acting in Higher Education since the pandemic forced most teaching in HE online from March 2020. The article draws on five different case studies sourced from pedagogic literature that bring forth findings and examples of blended and online learning pre and during the pandemic.  I draw on Kolb’s Model of Experiential Learning (Kolb, 1984) as an effective theory of learning to compare the different examples cited and draw my conclusions. I conclude by focusing on my own field of the teaching of acting in Higher Education and discuss what changes will last after the pandemic.


Written by Steve North | PUBLISHED ON 31st January 2022 | Photo by Kyle Head on Unsplash

Introduction

The last 14 months have seen huge changes in all areas of teaching. With lockdowns forcing educators and students into online sessions on apps such as  Zoom and Teams, most had to adapt very quickly to a completely new way of teaching. For educators teaching acting this was especially challenging. I teach screen acting in a UK university and used Zoom for teaching online for the first time in March 2020. Given that acting is by its nature “is a rich hinterland for discovery and should not be disavowed but rather engaged with as a source of power for the student in their creative endeavours” (Landon-Smith, 2020), the notion of working online would seem to hinder any student wishing to work and develop as an actor with others face to face in studios, class rooms, rehearsal rooms. What was the response from other educators in my field?

Context

Firstly I will try to define what is meant by blended / hybrid learning and why Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle model is a useful theory to apply to understanding the teaching of it. Blended Learning can be defined in many different ways but the Ghent University project report in 2014 argues that ‘the most common interpretation is the one about the blend of online and offline learning’ (Boelens,  Laer, De Wever and Elen, 2015). This broad interpretation is the one most educators will recognise from their teaching in 2020 and 2021.

As “David Kolb’s interest lay in exploring the processes associated with making sense of concrete experiences – and the different styles of learning that may be involved” (Smith M. K. 2001, 2010), then his Experiential Learning Cycle  model provides a strong basis for analysing and comparing the case studies cited in this article.

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle.

1. Concrete Experience:

Kolb described this as “immediate and personal” and “the focal point for learning, giving life, texture and subjective personal meaning to abstract concepts and at the same time providing a concrete, publicly shared reference point for testing the implications and validity of ideas created during the learning process” (Kolb, 1984).

2. Reflective Observation:

After engaging in the concrete experience, the learner steps back to reflect on the task. This stage in the learning cycle allows the learner to ask questions and discuss the experience with others. Communication at this stage is vital, as it allows the learner to identify any discrepancies between their understanding and the experience itself. Good vocabulary also allows a solid review of the events that occurred.

3. Abstract Conceptualisation:

The next step in the learning cycle is to make sense of these events. The learner attempts to draw conclusions of the experience by reflecting on their prior knowledge, using ideas with which they are familiar or discussing possible theories with peers. The learner moves from reflective observation to abstract conceptualisation when they begin to classify concepts and form conclusions on the events that occurred. This involves interpreting the experience and making comparisons to their current understanding on the concept. Concepts need not be “new”; learners can analyse new information and modify their conclusions on already existing ideas.

4. Active Experimentation:

This stage in the cycle is the testing stage. Learners return to participating in a task, this time with the goal of applying their conclusions to new experiences. They are able to make predictions, analyse tasks, and make plans for the acquired knowledge in the future. By allowing learners to put their knowledge into practice and showing how it is relevant to their lives, you are ensuring that the information is retained in the future.

Kolb’s cycle of experiential learning. Adapted from Kolb, David A. (2015),
Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development.

Case studies

The five case studies I am using from my literature research are:

  1. Always on Education and hybrid learning spaces (Trentin, 2016)

Journal article from Educational Technology by on Hybrid Learning spaces. This gives some context of the research being done in this area pre Covid.

  • Devising in the Pandemic: Trauma and a dramatic redesign of a youth theatre tour  (Weltsek, 2021)

This paper reflects on a youth theatre play that was originally planned for a live performance and had to be completely re-imagined due to an enforced lockdown in March 2020 for an online performance instead.

  •  Response to COVID-19 Zooming in on online process drama (Cziboly and Bethlenfalvy, 2020)

Norwegian paper published by drama educators in Sept 2020 looking at the experience of working online with two groups of university students in two different countries through the pandemic.

  • Drama in the face of a pandemic (Hidajad, 2020)

Journal article looking at how acting training can be used to mitigate the stress caused by Covid.

  • Building Creative Critical Online Learning Communities through Digital Moments (Barber,. 2020)

Mixed methods case study measuring student perceptions of a pedagogical strategy called “Digital Moments” for developing creative, interactive online learning communities.

Pre-pandemic

Case Study 1.

To set it in context its useful to look at an example from before 2019. Trentin makes the point that learning by doing can only work if the learner has suitable tools and resources.

“Learning-by-doing pedagogy is based on the premise that the student must have control over and responsibility for his/her own learning process. To do this he/she must be provided with suitable tools and resources. The teacher acts as a mentor, a guide who helps shape and direct the learning path, encouraging and nudging the learner on. But when the teacher finishes his/her action of direct facilitation of the individual (or learning group), technology can take over and offer learners (or learning groups) other types of support (for example, the educational apps, the OERs – Open Educational Resources, etc.) enabling them to pursue their learning paths autonomously.” (Trentin, 2016: 34 )

Trentin sees the potential in educators having the knowledge of how to use it to change their students learning.. 

“What can promote this diffusion is not the quantity or type of technologies used but an understanding of why and how to use them to potentiate, improve, and even revolutionise teaching/learning processes by exploiting the new means of communication and knowledge acquisition which the same technologies have brought to everyday life.” (Trentin, 2016: 35)

Educators need to be trained in ‘tools and approaches’ that they will be proposing to their students. In 2016 no one knew what was coming.

“If we wish to diffuse knowledge, skills, and culture about always-on education, it is necessary in training teachers to use tools and approaches which are based on the same (technological and non-technological) resources and didactic/educational methodologies which they in turn will be proposing to their students.” (Trentin, 2016: 35)

It is worth noting that learners using blended learning can start from different points in Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle and help each other and educators to reach the applying point of the cycle.

2020 – The Pandemic

By April 2020 many universities around the world were forced to go online. Case studies 2 and 3 show what Kolb names the concrete experience of drama learners and educators as being effectively thrown in the deep end of blended learning by moving from face to face teaching to online in a matter of weeks if not days. The cycle of reflection and then conceptualisation moving to active experimentation follows a similar cycle in both studies.

Case Study 2.

In 2020 a youth theatre in Indiana was in the middle of devising a play they were about to tour when the pandemic struck forcing all classes online. Weltsek’s paper on how they adapted provides a first-hand account of the immediate changes and challenges faced by drama educators and learners.

‘”Once the students decided to redesign the play for a virtual platform and add elements of the pandemic, their attention shifted to which sort of format they would use: synchronistic or asynchronistic. One pressing problem that would define their choice emerged—how an online production could be as powerful as live theatre. A major obstacle for this transition from live to virtual was the physicality of the play—specifically, they were concerned with not being able to make physical contact with one another.  Characters had to be redesigned with the quarantine in mind and rely on separate individual locations being joined within the common virtual platform to provide meaning and context to particular scenarios.” (Weltsek, 2021: 175 )

The experience of working on devising online from the individual students provided some new ways of learning how to develop characterisation and help with the feelings of isolation.

“When the pandemic forced the students into quarantine, the redesign process likewise became a space of self and community sharing, discovery, and healing. For Reb, the redesign of the play, and being able to share those feelings with his fellow classmates, became a way for him to find healing within the trauma of isolation and loss of personal freedom and identity.” (Weltsek, 2021: 179)

Welstek reflects by finding inspiring potential emerging from the new enforced working environment.

“The design process becomes a way for deep personal and social reflection, where what we design and how we design it are inseparable from who we are in time and space. There is no doubt that the pandemic has changed forever the way we see, under-stand, and do education. Rather than a catastrophe that has destroyed our way of life, this case has shown that there is potential for incredible learning and massive personal growth.” (Weltsek,  2021: 180)

Case study 3.

 Cziboly & Bethlenfalvy’s paper on devising a performance online from scratch with a mixture of BA and MA performance students from Norway and China showed how many educators were starting from almost an isolated place at the start of the early lockdowns.

“Most drama educators faced grave challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our field requires live action, and participants need to co-create socially in a shared space. From one day to another, we found ourselves in a situation where we had to create theatre and drama from an isolated room, where we were sitting on our own and seeing others only through a screen. Space was not shared any more, and all activities were reduced to two-dimensional images on our laptops. Many thought that doing drama in such circumstances was impossible.” (Cziboly and Bethlenfalvy, 2020: 645)

Their experience of facilitating group work online showed the kind of practical challenges many drama educators will recognise.

“When facilitating, one of the greatest challenges we faced was that, since we were not sitting in a circle, it was impossible to make and keep eye contact with the participants. Addressing someone was especially difficult when the group was working in role: when we said the real name of a person, we interrupted the fiction; when we used a fictive name, many times the participants were unsure whom we are talking to (even if we agreed in fictive names in advance). We felt that a far greater level of energy than usual was necessary: the participants were just watching a screen in their homes, and at any moment, they could decide to switch to their email or social media without anyone noticing.” (Cziboly and Bethlenfalvy, 2020: 647)

They found some advantages as well.

The online space also offered a few work forms that are not accessible offline. Responding to a question, writing messages and blog entries or conducting a quick poll were all possible in the chat feature of these platforms; this allowed everyone, even the more usually silent participants the opportunity to contribute simultaneously.” (Cziboly and Bethlenfalvy, 2020: 648)

Learning from the experience they found that Dorothy Heatcote’s Teacher-in -Role was useful.

“Dorothy Heathcote’s claim that the facilitator stepping into role is the quickest way of moving a group into the ‘as if’ of drama (Heathcote, 2015: 74.) proved to be as true working online as offline. We found that Teacher-in-Role functioned as a powerful template, it helped participants to dare start (en)acting in front of their cameras – whether alone or in a room shared with roommates. When we showed a scene in role, we had to learn that since they could only view these scenes ‘through a window’, anything and everything that was visible gained meaning: the background, costumes and props, objects, even the smallest movements and gestures.” (Cziboly and Bethlenfalvy, 2020: 649)

They conclude by reflecting on action.

“Drama is needed in such periods to reconnect with our communities and to understand the complexity of the crisis we are facing from multiple perspectives. For us, the lockdown was a serious learning process, a period when we had to learn to adapt our routines to demanding and challenging situations and, for us, to reconsider our function, operations, effectiveness and even our role as drama educators.” (Cziboly and Bethlenfalvy, 2020: 649)

It is interesting to note how similar the experiences of both case studies 2 and 3 are in terms of Kolb’s model of reflective learning. Both papers share;

  1. the concrete experience of having to adapt live theatre to move online due to pandemic.
  2. Reflecting in and on action on the experience by both learners and educators. 
  3. Conceptualisation – Both educators and learners draw conclusions from what they have gained form the experience.
  4. Active experimentation that there is potential for ‘incredible learning and massive growth’.

Case Study 4 – Asychronous blended learning using actor training methods.

In Indonesia, a university in Sruyabaya did a study using several actor training methods such as vocal workouts and breath exercises, which they recorded as asynchronous videos to be used by people to increase immunity and improve mental well being of people during the pandemic.

I”n times like today, the arrival of the Corona pandemic has become something that is threatening. Anxiety everywhere, feeling threatened, feeling uncomfortable, and feeling insecure are things that accompany the arrival of the pandemic. Victims fell and spread everywhere, however, if we take a deeper look, the majority of victims do not have good body resistance. Anxiety and feelings of discomfort are actually one of the contributors to decreased endurance or body immunity. In drama or theatre, there are methods of increasing immunity. Exercising the body, engaging in vocals, breathing exercises and meditation are all part of the theatre or drama training pattern. How is the drama training pattern to increase body immunity against Covid 19?” (Hidajad, Abdillah, Sugito, Dwisasanadjati, and Suryandoko 2020: 1117 )

They used social media to highlight these videos and came to a conclusion which again highlighted Kolb’s cycle of learning.

“From the results of the research stages starting from define, design, and develop, it can be concluded that drama or theater is a form of media that can be used as an educational tool. The flexibility of the performance form in drama expression gives the possibility of many choices of forms. People today no longer like the form of information with a lot of writing, nor do they like it in the form of speech.” (Hidajad, Abdillah, Sugito, Dwisasanadjati, and Suryandoko 2020: 1126 )

Case study 5 – Pedagogical developments.

My final case study measured  a pedagogical strategy called ‘Digital Moments’ which was created for developing ‘creative, interactive online communities’. Using “Digital Moments” as a way to build inclusion in two synchronous graduate online courses, the author Wendy Barber describes how the teaching strategy increased student participation, developed student ownership of learning, and encouraged collaborative processes between participants.

“Each week students met synchronously in Adobe connect. Classes of 20-25 students entered the virtual room to find share pods in which they each uploaded a ‘Digital Moment’. The content of the pod could include a variety of pictures, quotes, colours, links to describe in a single snapshot where the person was at that week. As weeks passed, students began to arrive earlier to class, in advance of start times, and began to look forward to connecting with classmates and sharing their own digital moments with others.” (Barber 2020: 387)

Concrete experience and reflective observation of Kolb’s experiential learning cycle can be applied here. Barber goes onto highlight how this moves into the conceptualisation stage and writes about how the roles of teacher and learner become less defined.

“As a unique pedagogical strategy, qualities which one might not normally associate with traditional online learning emerged: empathy, humour, risk-taking, compassion and a shared sense of community. This is an arts-based qualitative pedagogical strategy that elicits affect from students/learning community members and thus contributes to building relationships, more frequent and higher quality dialogue and interaction amongst students and between students and their teacher. From a group of individuals learning geographically all over the world evolved a close knit community of learners where the playing field was levelled and the traditional roles of teacher and learner become no longer visible.” (Barber, 2020: 387)

In concluding Barber offers an inspiring example of the active experimentation part of the Kolb cycle.

“Students began to see how the development of friendships and simple human qualities like trust, caring and compassion were the real foundation for creating meaningful learning experiences. It also helped them to begin to trust themselves; they began to believe there was an authentic self in each learner who could choose which direction to go, define tasks that were personally and professionally relevant, and which were best left for others to tackle.” (Barber, 2020: 394)

Discussion

 The key findings from the case studies are that actor training and blended learning can and does work. In all the case studies we see evidence of educators and adapting to technology and using it ways that complement and inspire learners. In all the case studies the conclusions mention the importance of reflecting on what has been a time ‘to reconsider our function, operations, effectiveness and even our role as drama educators.’ (Cziboly,  Bethlenfalvy 2020: 649) 

My own experiences teaching over the last year could be seen as Kolb’s cycle being played out by the pandemic. I recognised much of my own experience in case studies 2 and 3. Lockdown in March 2020 and being thrown into teaching on Zoom is the concrete experience, the following months of working out how to use it effectively for screen acting with leaners provide the reflecting in action and reflecting on the experience. The abstract conceptualisation comes from my learning of the new teaching methods enforced by the lockdowns. I am  actively experimenting in planning and trying out what they have learned as we start to return to some sort of post covid landscape in Higher Education. Actor training adapted quickly and new discoveries have been made. The lines between educators and learners become less clear as both are at different stages in the cycle depending on two clear areas. The more knowledgeable other can often be the student who understands the technology better than the educator. 

Case study 4 shows how blended learning using actor training methods can be adapted for other uses. Asychronous videos are accessible to many and work well for learners with other learning needs.

There are of course other learning theories that could be applied, particularly Wenger’s Community of Practice which is strongly highlighted in the Digital Moments Case Study when Barber writes about the blurring of the roles between learners and educators.

Vgotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development would be very relevant here as helping analyse what the learners already know and what they need to know. Mezirow’s Transformational learning theory is relevant to any experiential learning of this kind. Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset would be highly useful to educators and leaners feeling overwhelmed by the huge amount of changes forced upon them by work loads increased hugely by technological necessities.

Carl Rogers’ Learner Centred Teaching and particularly his three core conditions of empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard (Rodgers, 1957) are something many of us have turned to in the last 12 months. Empathy for both learners and educators is important when learning in such extreme circumstances.

Conclusion

How will actor training develop post pandemic? I think it is too early to say. Sourcing articles from drama educators on their experiences from the last year proved difficult. However it is clear from all of my 5 case studies and all their conclusions, that some form of blended learning is here to stay. Kristine Landon-Smith’s paper on a pedagogy for 21st Century actor training ends with these words. Written in September 2020, they feel like a rallying call for all of us as drama educators to heed in the post Covid educational landscape.

By developing practice broad enough to afford all actors the conditions to work from a place of confidence and knowledge, theatre can begin to be enriched by the diversity of all who practice it. Theatres are spaces where we can be different together; artists are change makers, and all artists must be given the same opportunity as each other to make change. (Landon-Smith 2020: 349)


About the author

Steve North is an actor and director who specialises in screen acting and devising for theatre. He was Head of Acting ad Laine Theatre Arts and is currently a visiting lecturer at the University for the Creative Arts. His credits include All Those Things, Unforgotten, Closed Circuit, Hallo Joe, South West Nine, War Horse NT Live, Mongrels, Doctor Wh and EastEnders.

References

Adam Cziboly & Adam Bethlenfalvy (2020) Response to COVID-19 Zooming in on online process drama, Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, 25:4, 645-651, DOI: 10.1080/13569783.2020.1816818

Barber, W. (2020). Building Creative Critical Online Learning Communities through Digital Moments. Electronic Journal of e-Learning, 18(5)

Boelens, R., Van Laer, S., De Wever, B. and Elen, J., 2015. Blended learning in adult education: towards a definition of blended learning.

Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development, David A. Kolb, Prentice‐Hall International, Hemel Hempstead, Herts., 1984. No. of pages: xiii+ 256.

Hidajad, A., Abdillah, A., Sugito, B., Dwisasanadjati, J. and Suryandoko, W., 2020, December. Drama in the Midst of A Pandemic. In International Joint Conference on Arts and Humanities (IJCAH 2020) (pp. 1117-1126). Atlantis Press.

Kolb, A.Y. and Kolb, D.A. (2005). Learning Styles and Learning Spaces: Enhancing Experiential Learning in Higher Education. Academy of Management Learning & Education, [online] 4(2), pp.193–212. Available at: https://journals.aom.org/doi/abs/10.5465/AMLE.2005.17268566.

Landon-Smith, K. (2020). A pedagogy for twenty-first century actor training: intracultural theatre practice which embraces pluralistic identity and plays with difference. Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, 11(3), pp.343–350.

Rogers, C.R., 1957. The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of consulting psychology21(2), p.95.

Smith, M. K. (2001, 2010). ‘David A. Kolb on experiential learning’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/david-a-kolb-on-experiential-learning/. Retrieved: June 2021 ]

Trentin, Guglielmo. “Always-on Education and Hybrid Learning Spaces.” Educational Technology 56, no. 2 (2016): 31-37. Accessed May 31, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44430457.

Weltsek, G., 2021. Devising in the Pandemic: Trauma and a Dramatic Redesign of a Youth Theatre Tour. International Journal of Designs for Learning12(1), pp.171-180.

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