AntigoneNOW: rehearsing, making and performing Antigone online

Sinéad Rushe, May 2020

24 hour streaming on 22 May, 2020
midnight (22) to midnight (23) Pacific Standard Time

I was invited as the Spring 2020 Granada Artist in Residence to the University of California Davis to direct a stage production of the Greek tragedy, Antigone, at the Wyatt theatre, in the Seamus Heaney translation. With lockdown, when it was becoming clear that I wasn’t going to be able to go, my American collaborator Margaret Kemp and I started to imagine what we could do instead. Given that we were in a world pandemic, a global crisis, it felt essential to try still to do something. How could we follow through on our collaboration, creativity and community engagement in this unprecedented moment in history? How could we create a piece that would speak to this crisis? We decided to make a performance film instead, rehearsing online, creating it online and performing it online.

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Digital Revisions & Disciplinary Crises

While this post aims to contribute to the conversation provoked by Jonathan Pitches’ ‘Embodied Learning Online‘, it is primarily a sharing of thoughts that emerge in light of the current climate caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and has been informed by two years of research on online, remote, and collaborative teaching conducted in collaboration with Hannah Schwadron (FSU, US) and Theron Schmidt (UNSW, Australia) under the title ‘Planetary Performance Pedagogies’. Hannah, Theron, and I are planning to launch a series of online seminars that build on this discussion by mid-May. If you would like to learn more about that, feel free to drop me a line at felipe.cervera[at]lasalle.edu.sg.

Like many practitioners, educators and scholars, I have been involved in developing and implementing online strategies for theatre and performance-based courses over the last few months. Additionally, I have had the benefit of thinking through this ‘digital transition’ with various friends and colleagues while trying to figure out how theatre and performance should respond to the moment. In digesting these conversations, my first coherent thought about the current situation is that we are facing a disciplinary crisis. This crisis is visible in the various ways in which theatre and performance makers and especially educators are trying to “move online”. However, these efforts — besides not being *really* online but rather emergency reactions — are symptoms of a deeper problem surfaced by the pandemic.

The actual crisis that we face is the crisis of performance knowledge and its systematization into a structure of transferable skills or their display. This is a crisis in the foundational arguments that dance, theatre, and performance made to academia in their fight to legitimize their knowledge(s) as distinct from, and not a subsection of, literature or history (for discipline and degree specialization). It is also a crisis that unsettles the argument that they made to the contemporary economy on their value and specificity concerning other media. Of course, the issue stems from the dislocation of face-to-face teaching and presenting, which by extension, questions too the irreplaceability of tacit and embodied knowledge as being the ontological condition to performance pedagogy. The problem lies slightly beyond the classic debates on liveness and media. It cuts to the core of the specificity of performance knowledge and how it is organised, transferred, and shared.

We are not *really* teaching online, but adjusting to an emergency. This is a pivotal point to have in mind. The situation we face will teach us more about how to teach theatre and performance (and their study) remotely, digitally, and online. But what we are actually doing right now, for the most part, is fumbling to adjust tacit and embodied knowledge into a medium of teaching that we have made sure to pose as its contrary. And we made this point in the pursuit of validating the specificity of live, synchronous, and face to face performance as a legitimate, award-granting medium of instruction and proper academic object of knowledge. In dealing with the current situation, many of us have had to promise our institutions and our students, explicitly or not, that our programmes can and will continue *online* (of course, when online is even an option). As we begin to realize that we are likely to have to adjust or even redesign the curriculum to fit the emergency’s aftermath, it is also important to bear in mind the ways in which the boundaries of our discipline will bend, and maybe even break. That bending/breaking will be a fight for the institutional survival of our field, for sure. Yet, at the same time, it will teach us a thing or two about performance, epistemology, and their interaction. It will show us what performance can do when assemblies are illegal or not allowed. And it will also teach us a lesson to care for our less/non-institutionalized colleagues and our less/non-digital students.

The pandemic has already taught dance, theatre, and performance that remoteness is compatible with learning, teaching, and collaboration. Physical distance does not mean social distance. The situation, thus, invites collaborative efforts, both in proximity and remoteness, to address the disciplinary crisis we face. In the conversations that I have had with friends and colleagues in Singapore and elsewhere on this matter during the last two months, the debate has tended to ask whether what we have done (moving online) is good or bad for the protection of our discipline; or whether we should “go back” to embodiment as a way to retain what is properly ours, or whether university-based dance, theatre, and performance disciplines have finally met their end; or whether we should activate the politics of performance studies and its adisciplinarity to safeguard our future in the post-pandemic university. These are all debates that exceed my contribution to this post, but I remain open to continue to unpack.

Looking at the pattern, however, my instinct is that the actual task at hand might be to spend valuable time re-evaluating the ancillary arguments that hold dance, theatre, and performance together as academic disciplines, and that in doing so we should be ready to unlearn. I also suspect that at the same time, we need to be ready to defend performance knowledge now more than ever, both within higher education and outside of it, and that maintaining the cliché binary of live/online will do us no good in that fight. Multimedia epistemes and pedagogies have been around for a long while, after all.

Felipe Cervera is a Lecturer in Theatre at LASALLE College of the Arts (Singapore) and holds a status-only appointment at the Centre for Drama, Theatre, & Performance Studies of the University of Toronto. His research focuses on collaborative academia (teaching and research), and in the interplays between performance, science, and technology. He serves as associated editor of Performance Research and Global Performance Studies

Embodied Learning Online

As we enter a near global shelter at home response to the COVID-19 pandemic, performance practitioners and educators are rapidly shifting to virtual online resources for their training. Institutions are shuttering but our practice and educational work continues. Unlike the plagues of previous centuries, our contemporary technology allows us to converse, move and share knowledge despite the suspension of face-to-face encounter. However, virtual and online learning has been critiqued extensively as a platform for embodied transmission.

The following post by Jonathan Pitches aims to dispel some of the critiques of online learning as being insufficient for embodied practice and learning. We hope it’s a useful provocation for our readers to explore more digital learning and to comeback to the blog with their own posts to add to the conversation.

Embodied learning – a guide to moving online

A few days ago thousands congregated in the UK to show their appreciation of the health workers on the front line of the coronavirus pandemic, a mass gathering of isolates facilitated by social media, recorded on our phones and re-distributed online. The #clapforourcarers national event echoed those held all over the world, bringing together communities in unprepared isolation to make a simple gesture of respect and humility to the doctors, nurses, and care-workers working in the health system.

In the last few weeks there have been seismic movements in the relationship between online and off-line activity: myriad examples, like the #clapforourcarers initiative, of creative people taking their skills online to encourage others to explore new activities in their homes. Pub quizzes, fitness sessions, cookery classes: all are upscaling to national dimensions to keep countries sane, not to mention an entire education system (from nursery to PhD) which has converted to online teaching and learning overnight.

In this definitive digital moment, what are the things to look out for as beacons of good practice for online embodied learning? What can be achieved? I write from the perspective of a Lead Educator and designer of a FutureLearn course, Exploring Physical Theatre, a Massive Open Online Course which five years ago was groundbreaking, heretical even – at least for Russian theatre training purists. In just a few days, online specialist training has become the new normal but carefully crafted and insightful embodied practices delivered digitally remain rare. Here are some of my reflections derived from teaching nearly 30,000 students techniques of Russian actor training. I have arranged them as an acrostic.

Experience is key

Even in the asynchronous world of an online course, key events structured into the learning can be galvanising for students – the promise, for instance, of moving from theoretical ideas to practical investigation at the beginning of a new week.

Massive cohorts can work

Some online courses have been critiqued for being mechanistic and non-interactive, but if care is taken large groups of students can have a bespoke experience – moderators can support lead educators to reply to comments and students support one another in self-organising clusters.

Bodies change online

Teaching a very precise, physical form, using video tutorials, enables an educator to gauge how deeply the students are embodying the principles of the training. Students who upload examples of their training can be given precise feedback, in ways which are very similar to studio training.

Organisation of resources is vital

Online courses, just as with face-to-face modules, construct a journey of learning. It is this level of organisation and curation which distinguishes them from more piecemeal online offerings.

Digital artefacts can be key to the learning experience

Gauging Learning can be challenging when your students are all over the world or silent in comment threads. Asking for the uploading of a digital artefact, capturing their learning, appeals to different learning styles and creates a gallery for others to comment on.

Young and old will engage

Theatre studios tend to be populated by young fit people. An online space brings a much wider demographic of learners together and some of the typical hierarchies experienced by trainees can be dismantled.

Jonathan Pitches is Professor of Theatre and Performance at the University of Leeds, UK and a FutureLearn lead educator. He has trained with Russian masters in Vsevolod Meyerhold’s system of ‘biomechanics’ and has been teaching students these principles since 1995.