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How Birmingham's Drama and Theatre Arts staff and students kept theatrical performance alive during the pandemic

As the academic year comes to a close and the country begins to open up again, I am asked the same question by friends, family, and strangers: “How did you do a drama degree in a pandemic?”. I explain that we adapted as best we could, traversing Zoom calls and lockdowns the same as any other degree. This is often followed by “How did you put on shows?” - an understandable question, given the logistical impossibilities faced by the British theatre industry for well over a year now. Every time, I find myself telling them about the week I had a green screen in my bedroom for the Production module.

The Drama and Theatre Arts (DTA) Production module is, for many students, the pinnacle of our undergraduate degree, in which students can be part of a full-scale theatrical production as a performer, technician, or stage manager. When we realised that the pandemic wasn’t ending any time soon, many of us worried about how - and, indeed, if - the Production module could continue. Having now performed in a digital production of Love and Information by Caryl Churchill under the skilful direction of Christa Harris, I can safely say that DTA has embraced the hybrid medium of digital theatre to create a thoroughly enjoyable student experience. 

A screenshot of an undergraduate performance on Zoom during the COVID19 pandemic

Typically taking place in DTA’s theatre, George Cadbury Hall on the Selly Oak Drama Campus, four ticketed productions are created across the year with the professional guidance of internal and external directors, and the assistance of first and second year single honours DTA students. Students spend hours of most days in intensive on-campus rehearsals, providing an insight into the production process expected in the theatre industry.

With terms like “Zoom fatigue” already entering the country’s vocabulary, I was concerned as to how the module could replicate a professional rehearsal process that was physically safe and that accounted for our mental wellbeing. When we were told that all four Production Module groups would rehearse and perform exclusively online with shorter rehearsal blocks spread over an extended timeframe, I was relieved. As difficult as it was to lose the opportunity of rehearsing and performing in-person, this decision provided much needed certainty: the module would go ahead unaltered by the ever-changing lockdowns and regulations, and we wouldn’t be stuck behind screens for hours on end.

From the onset of the rehearsal process of Love and Information, we embraced the form and opportunities provided by digital theatre, rather than focusing on its limitations. Our bedrooms were transformed into sets using green screens and ring lights, and we experimented with the digital medium by exploring camera angles and virtual settings. Christa Harris brought dramaturgical focus by envisioning our performance as aliens simulating snapshots of human life, guiding our collaborative approach to the text. We were given opportunities to discuss the possible themes and expressions of the script, the ambiguity of which was key in creating a performance that suited our interpretations as well as the digital medium.

Our ideas were prioritised throughout; we were assigned multiple parts based on our interests, allowing us to form character arcs in one-on-one rehearsals with the director. We developed these alongside our scene partners through textual discussions and experimentations with voice, physicality, and intentions, producing the excited energy of a rehearsal room that so many of us have missed. A DTA alumna herself, Christa Harris’ playful yet focused approach to the rehearsal process encapsulated the department’s ethos, using the limitations of the pandemic as an opportunity for us to create new theatrical possibilities.

By the time rehearsals began in March 2021, two Production module performances had already taken place, enabling the module leaders to deliver a smooth production process. Monday mornings were reserved for Zoom calls with Module Leader Dr Gianna Bouchard, where we could comfortably ask questions and write our portfolios. Thursday morning costume fittings were deftly adapted to an online format by Costume Supervisor Undreia Capewell, and our costume, prop, and tech pick-ups were a stress-free opportunity to briefly say hello to the SOVAC building on Drama Campus, as well as some of the Theatre Crafts team. Rehearsal schedules were built with Zoom fatigue in mind: once we completed our initial group explorations, we were only on-screen for our scenes and group run-throughs, giving us time to rehearse and learn lines away from the screen.

When production week arrived, things felt calmer than expected. I did miss the buzz of an in-person changing room on show night, and performing in my bedroom was a little surreal, to say the least. Yet everything had gone according to plan; lines were learnt, props were ready, and the show could go on. Prior to the pandemic, that would have seemed such an ordinary thing to say, but as we prepared to go onto the digital stage, the ability to perform in a show felt like a tremendous gift. The performances were expertly programmed and cued by Production Manager Danny Warboys and Stage Manager Linda Muirhead, who was assisted during rehearsals by the wonderful second year Stage Management students, Abi Morris and Lizzie Hayward. The design and lighting visions of Scenic and Costume Designer David Crisp and Lighting Designer Phil Speck worked beautifully in the digital theatre, helping to achieve the professional edge that makes the Production Module so valuable to students looking to enter the theatre industry.

At a time when drama students and professionals have faced so much grief, the Production module was a source of resilient creativity. Certain losses remain: our cohort will never perform our shows to our friends and family live in George Cadbury Hall, we may never meet as a group in-person, and we will never know the typical experience of the Production Module.

While allowing room for this to be felt, I am impressed by the extent to which the module team adapted without sacrificing quality. This was, for many of us, our final taught module at the University of Birmingham, giving a sense of normalcy and fun to conclude an exciting / busy / experimental / tiring / inspiring / confusing / life-changing / illuminating / pandemic-filled / brilliant three years.

Hayley Gow