Dramatic performance is all about the dynamic interaction between people and audiences, using verbal and nonverbal expression to convey complex emotions, thoughts and narratives. Ideally, then, theatre arts instruction and learning experiences are best provided in person. But the remote learning environment of the COVID-19 era has severely cramped face-to-face instruction.
Theatre arts educators have had to get creative. Fortunately, the imagination, adaptation and improvisation needed for effective remote instruction are the bread and butter of theatre arts education professionals.
How Are Theatre Arts Educators Adapting to the Virtual Classroom?
Theatre arts professionals are known for seeing limitations as opportunities, for good reason. Take the one-person show where solo performers use silence and emotional space to drive character development and dramatic expression. Or imagine the narrative possibilities of successful improv theatre, presented without the benefit of a script or rehearsal. Not bound by these conventions, actors can co-create stories, characters and environments spontaneously and prodigiously.
This line of thinking can be equally successful when used in virtual theatre education. The limitation of teaching a drama lesson via Zoom opens up a plethora of opportunities for teachers and students to educate and learn creatively.
Teachers can use the confines of a small screen to demonstrate how whole-body movements and feelings can come through in subtle facial expressions and nuanced fluctuations in vocal timbre. Students can challenge themselves to create props out of whatever they have on hand at home and bring these mundane items to life with creativity and spontaneity, the bedrocks of dramatic performance.
What About the Technology Side?
Teachers must also learn and facilitate student learning of the technological aspects of online drama instruction. They must manage the virtual environment and set parameters for interaction so lessons can proceed seamlessly. This means preparing and teaching technological requirements, like mic and camera procedures so students know when and how to "pass the mic" during a Zoom script-reading, rehearsal or performance.
Virtual classroom software can further help teachers organize, distribute and collect lesson materials and student assignments. These and other platforms also allow students to collaborate on projects, sustaining the development of teamwork and social skills, both important elements of drama education.
What If Technology Fails While Students Are Performing?
Learning technologies can be powerful educational tools. They are indispensable for both synchronous and asynchronous virtual teaching. But technical glitches and mishaps are sure to happen. Again, this edge of unpredictability can actually be a good thing for encouraging spontaneity and improvisation.
For example, a glitch in a Zoom performance provides moments of uncertainty during which students can play with the situation and incorporate it into their acting. Have students learn multiple roles so they can fill in on the spot if someone's screen drops out, promoting versatility and the ability to think on one's feet. Turning unexpected situations into learning opportunities for students can help them develop the vital and transferable 21st century skills like teamwork, critical thinking and problem-solving that will impact their success in any future career or vocation.
This environment also promotes student-led learning and peer teaching, encouraging students to bring their unique contributions to the class. One student might select or make music and sounds to accompany a performance. Another may instruct the class on camera placement and lighting or even the making of cardboard and paper light diffusers.
By taking a creative approach to teaching drama online, educators can help students explore the theatre arts as well as their own strengths and interests. The virtual environment can support innovative methodologies that promote differentiated learning, broad skill development and experimentation. This is the essence of engaging theatre arts education, whether in person or remote.
Southeastern Oklahoma State University (SE) offers a unique, fully online Master of Education in Curriculum & Instruction with an emphasis in Theatre Pedagogy. Degree candidates study teaching methodologies, acting theory and theater production combined with the exploration of modern applications of learning technologies and culturally responsive education. The integrated knowledge students gain from these studies will foster creative, inclusive learning spaces in the virtual theatre education environment.
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