Playful Learning in Actor Training: The Impact of COVID-19 on Spontaneity and Intuition

Anna McNamara*


The ability to readily access creative imagination is an essential tool for the actor. Games and playful approaches to learning are vital to enable the actors’ learning space in both traditional and non-traditional settings. Since 2020, the impact of COVID-19 has necessitated remote learning to facilitate drama and actor training, and this has been a beneficial tool in ensuring the continuation of study and engagement. Whilst this utilisation of technology has undoubtedly brought much innovation, this study will consider what has been compromised or even lost in this transfer of activities in actor and drama training. Perspectives are drawn from a practitioner working in a U.K.-based professional training conservatoire at Higher Education level and examines the compensatory allowances that may need to be made in the creative training process moving beyond the global pandemic.
Keywords: games, actor training, play, Zoom, Perezhivanie

This paper draws from the perspectives and experiences of a member of teaching staff at the Guildford School of Acting (GSA) during the extended periods of online learning and teaching necessitated by the global pandemic arising from COVID-19 from 2020 to 2021. GSA is a U.K.-based vocational conservatoire providing professional conservatoire training at foundation, undergraduate and postgraduate level in Acting, Actor Musicianship, Applied and Contemporary Theatre, Musical Theatre, Theatre, Theatre Production and Stage and Production Management. Founded in 1935, GSA is part of the University of Surrey and a founder member of the U.K.’s Federation of Drama Schools (FDS), accredited by the Council for Dance, Drama and Musical Theatre Training (CDMT).

In March 2020, all activity at GSA was, in line with the U.K. government guidance, pushed online and delivered via virtual platforms such as Zoom until the end of the academic year. From October until December 2020, all delivery was achieved via a hybrid pedagogic model, with some activities taking place in the studio under social distancing regulations compliant with U.K. law at the time, supported by complimentary online delivery of further classes. The spring term of 2021 saw an enforced return to fully online delivery until March, when a phased return toward hybrid delivery was undertaken in line with the U.K. government guidance. This twelve-month journey brought about a rapid learning curve for students and staff alike at GSA, as detailed in the case studies that follow. This experience will have undoubted resonance globally across the professional performer training sector. Brand new pedagogies had to be determined in an aspirational, dynamic and agile response to the social constraints experienced in the U.K. through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Actor training in the U.K. traditionally engages students and staff in high numbers of contact hours, often between 25 and 30 hours a week, in shared spaces that facilitate experiential and interactive learning experiences. Actor training is a practical and physical collaborative undertaking. The shift of delivery of actor training to platforms such as Zoom demanded a rapid reimagining of long held pedagogic approaches, through trial and error, and as I reflect upon in this article, traditionally accepted and oft utilised pedagogies did not always translate easily. One such area of actor training tradition is the utilisation of games. This article outlines the traditionally accepted value of games within actor training pedagogies and proposes that the value of games as a pedagogic tool did not transfer from studio to screen in a direct manner. A consideration of the phrase learning loss is offered, in light of the perceived lack of success reported in the application of traditional drama games via Zoom through my experience as a case study.

Theatre Games

As a practitioner, I both accept and teach that the act of concentrating on concentrating is both detrimental and futile: “The harder you try, the worse it gets. The more you think about what you are doing, the harder it is to do it. . . . The more single-minded you are in your intention, the less responsive you are to the other actors” (Barker 3). Here, Barker, in his seminal book Theatre Games, details the fruitless pursuit of trying for the actor, arriving at his central issue of discovering how the actor can train and develop physically, without becoming cerebrally bound in intellectual analytical processes that serve to bind rather than enable creativity. Viola Spolin too supports the notion of games as a shared experience for the actors, through which technical skills develop through sustained imaginative social immersion. The spontaneity such interaction stimulates, Spolin stated, could invoke freedom and energy through the players’ trust, focus and self-discipline in the game. Spolin saw games as the antithesis of conformity and rigidity. She articulated game play as a “spur to action” (10).

What is . . . well-known in the theatre is that, when the conversion of thought into action runs into problems, the harder you try to make it happen, the worse it gets, and general unhappiness ensues. More conscious mental effort appears to reinforce the obstacles and to cause greater frustration.

Barker 14

Social and community drama practitioner Augusto Boal highlights the importance of the physical work of the actor, with Adrian Jackson’s Preface centring on the word act itself: “The dual meaning of the word ‘act,’ to perform and to take action . . . acting rather than talking, questioning rather than giving answers” (xix–xxiv).

Augusto Boal highlights the importance of the physical work of the actor. Photo: Web/Wikipedia. Accessed 22 April 2021

Famously, Boal’s work systematically incorporates games as a physical dialogue between actors alongside technical exercise, holding the body within space as “the most important element of theatre” (xxx). Chris Johnston, a student of Barker, reflects on this further in his book House of Games, concurring that as we “think less, we become more open to impulse” (42). For both Boal and Barker this did not mean a “generalised, play-about,” but something “more specific” (Barker 4) founded upon principle. Johnston recognised the need for contextually aware selection and deployment of games that account for and speak to and of the participants. Barker worked from the perspective of his own experiences, using these as a set of guiding principles, but also articulated clearly that this was by no means to be considered as the definitive and authoritative homogenised route for all and that differentiated approaches were required to enable appropriately accessible opportunities for all actors to learn and develop. Through the unselfconscious engagement with game playing, Barker assert that the actor “reveals themselves in action” (65) and the facilitator is then able to better understand the group they are working with.

Game playing, Barker believes, capitalises on the childlike ability to readily access experimentation (63) through a scaffolded, but not rigidly constraining exploration that we lose as we move away from childhood. In acting, this manifests itself most readily through improvisation where pre-determined outcomes or products will be unlikely to succeed and little gained by the actor, compared to an open-minded and self-aware approach based on shared physical experiences discovered with a common vocabulary over a sustained period. As Barker articulates, “The actor chooses to express himself through the abstracted activity of play, and to subject himself to the arbitrary disciplines of an artificial situation” (12–13).

An actor’s work is a collaborative process involving many partnerships in the lead into a performance and thus particularly in theatre, where ensembles may be involved in extended contracts performing together, teamwork must be actively cultivated and nurtured and involves “commitment, risk and trust” (Johnston 37). For Barker, games are “parables” (9) whereby the process is explored in favour of the product, thus shifting the emphasis and preoccupation away from what is effective or efficient to why something is not working. Collaborative activities in actor training are as defined by Johnston, mutually beneficial in terms of the creation of respectful and disciplined environments. To enable such a community, willing generosity is required from all participants. This is not something that can be given or demanded by the facilitator but is arrived at via voluntary contribution and playfulness. Johnston articulates that playfulness does not necessitate foolish frivolity, but the permission to be granted by and to the actor to express vulnerability. This allows the participants to approach work with spontaneity within safe parameters defined by the spirit of the game.

By using games, the facilitator moves away from the didactic imparting of concepts or the pursuit of technical acquisition and shifts the focus toward a more actor-centric approach that enables the individual to reconnect freely with a more pleasurable playful state of being. This enablement of playfulness without inhibition, Barker expresses, releases the pressure of pursuing product-based outcomes. Johnston too agrees, stating that for him, process and content become inextricably linked, as does Spolin: “When the goal appears easily and naturally and comes from growth rather than forcing, the end-result . . . will be no different from the process that achieved the result . . . remembering that process comes before end-result, we free the student-actors” (12).

Johnston highlights the learning about relationships and collaboration as an ensemble as a potentially more powerful tool for the actor in training than the traditionally conventional curriculum comprised of “Stanislavskian craft” (iv) and agent showcases. Key to Johnston is the enablement of “participatory, democratic” (xii) practice, building on Barker’s promotion of “physicality, fun and playfulness” (ix). This approach, Johnston asserts, allows the work of the actor to be freely dynamic, immediate, active and engaging.

Joyce Priven and Susan Applebaum also define theatre games as structured play through which freedom can be achieved. Concurring with Johnston and Barker and drawing upon the legacy of Spolin, they acknowledge play as central to the work of the actor, focussing the actor on the others in the space and the activity and away from their self. As with Barker, this for Priven and Applebaum is not a hierarchical didactic process, but instead speaks to the ensemble in circular form. Johnston considers the equitable arena of the circle and the implication of taking or holding the centre of the circle as a space with defined edges. Circles are a familiar fixture of the theatre rehearsal room, as articulated by U.K. acting tutor Dominic Rouse, programme leader for the BA Acting programme at GSA:

We sit in a circle to begin because it has all the classic resonances of what that it. There is an equality inside it, it gives us a clear structure to work from, and we know the circle can hold us, so we can be fluid and dynamic within it or away from it but we always have somewhere we can return to that is a baseline, and gives a very inclusive sensation.

Rouse qtd. in Hanratty and McNamara 39

The centre of the circle, as Johnston identified, can be a vulnerable space, with the edges of the arena affording security, but acknowledges that centre stage also grants a sense of “membership” (37), surrounded by a non-adversarial, non-confrontational audience-ensemble that holds the safe space.

Student-Staff Partnerships and the Co-Construction of Learning Environments

Acting and actor training is not a solo activity. It does not happen in isolation. Responsible for leading lessons and projects on devising processes, I recognise that learning is dependent upon socio-cultural influences and requires immersion in an environment that enables and supports complex dialectic interdependencies. Vygotsky’s emphasis on play as a “dynamic and complex activity” (Connery, John-Steiner and Marjanovic-Shane 11) and social interaction underpins the perspectives presented here, where learners learn with and from one another in non-linear complex ways. This interrelational process requires the co-construction of shared safe spaces where learning can happen, and support is reciprocated amongst participants. Learning through and as play requires active engagement from the participants. Those involved cannot effectively participate simply because they have been coerced to do so.

Play is a social endeavour that utilises and is affected by signs and signals that combine to construct and influence a learning environment. Thus, perceptions of trust have the capacity to effect emotional responses and affect levels of engagement. Play cannot be instructed and will cease to be a learning experience if it becomes forced or falsely constructed and is not built upon a shared co-constructed understanding. Here, learning is a dialectic social process: “Art is the social within us” (Vygotsky qtd. in Connery, John-Steiner and Marjanovic-Shane 14). Through engagement with collaborative practice, the sense of the learner as I is replaced with an experienced understanding of the ensemble. The collective lived experiences of each participant impacts upon the learning environment.

Whilst educationalists will recognise the term perezhvanie from Vygotsky, acting practitioners will understand this as a Stanislavskian concept. Both Vygotsky and Constantin Stanislavski reflect upon and utilise perezhivanie as the phenomenological intense lived experience of the individual. Whilst Stanislavski is regarded as the more eminent thinker of the two Russian men in terms of acting, Vygotsky’s work had roots in the practice of acting, although the study and application of Vygotskian theory has since moved beyond this context (Rubtsova and Daniels 189). The wider understanding of Stanislavski’s intention behind the use of this phrase is documented as facing issues of translation (Matern 44–50), and the detailed analysis of the comparison of the two Russian contemporaries’ intention behind their deployment of the phrase is beyond the scope of this discussion here. For the purposes of this reflection, I will be utilising Vygotsky’s perezhivanie in my discussion of the personal experience of the actor in training and their investment, engagement and receipt in a rehearsal and creative environment through online and face to face learning. This phenomenological sense of Vygotsky’s perezhvanie informs how I read the students’ terms of reference coming into play within the process of learning: how we perceive the world is shaped by our experiences of it in and before each moment. Thus, each moment of learning is part of a wider qualitative sequence of experiences that constructs development.

From Room to Zoom

Following the necessary transfer of activity from the studio to the remote digital platform Zoom, I continued the delivery of devising collaborative projects in conservatoire programmes. As we are impacted by the conditions in which we attempt to participate, engaging with actor training via Zoom affected the personal experience. When conducting classes and creative sessions utilising games via Zoom, I observed that the co-construction of the equitable creative space became an increased challenge. I initially determined this to be due to Zoom being a pre-determined, defined environment that participants enter, rather than co-design. The act of attempting to engage playfully via Zoom is a brave choice, but it was further complicated by the platform’s enforced divorcing of the intellect from the physical engagement with active learning. This sits at odds with the embodied experiential traditions of actor training and learning in general, which is not meant to “be a private collage of concepts residing within a person’s head” (Connery, John-Steiner and Marjanovic-Shane 12). In alignment with the ethos of Spolin, educationalist Lev Vygotsky referred to process as “an action or verb” (Connery qtd. in Connery, John-Steiner and Marjanovic-Shane 18). Therefore, when attempting to facilitate lessons that required playful interactions to enable a devised collaborative process via Zoom, concerted effort needed to be made on my part as teacher to reengage participants with an embodied active experience that encouraged an ethos of show me, don’t tell me,in the belief that “it is only in movement that a body shows what it is” (Vygotsky qtd. in Connery, John-Steiner and Marjanovic-Shane 10).

Students and a teacher at the Guildford School of Acting engaging in an online class via Zoom. 28 January 2021. Guildford School of Acting, University of Surrey, U.K. Photo: Anna McNamara

Working from the assumption that learning-as-process is a socially interactive and interdependent occurrence, I perceived that the physical disconnection and personal silos arising from delivery via Zoom served to disrupt and block the collaboration required to effectively facilitate development for the acting student. Although the participants were able to share a virtual environment, I judged that transformational reciprocity between learners was stifled by the lack of shared physical space. In the actor training studio, the active engagement of the learners with and within their shared environment and experience is key to engendering playful processes. In the online world, I knew that developing understanding of new environmental semiotics needed to be established. The adversarial nature of the positioning of each participant in relation to others via the display on computer screens, served to silence and block the connection between participants. I felt that it was as though the learners were in rows awaiting permission and instruction from me as the dominating tutor. Such a hierarchical positioning served to reinforce traditions and conventions more often found in schools rather than conservatoires and sat at odds with my personal teaching ethos and practice. Zoom etiquette required a hands-up approach to conversation and input, participants used the mute function, took turns and learned to avoid interjecting, and they were unable to feed off the energy of their peers. Thus, an environment was created that did not support safe risk taking, but exacerbated turn-taking, task completion and passive observation with limited engagement.

This learned behaviour became the antithesis of the playful learning space, with the learner’s knowledge of themselves as a distinct I negatively reinforced by the perimeter of their own Zoom square, visually delineating them from all others in the group. As the participants began to settle into the daily routine of delivery via Zoom, I noticed an increasing acceptance of the rituals demanded by the platform: cameras off if Wi-Fi was poor, microphone muted to minimise disruption, seated to ensure a good view of the screen. These new habits contradicted the components responsible for the meaningful co-curation of creative physical learning environments: integration, interaction, listening, dialogue and physical investment in a shared space. “Daily routines and scripted events . . . provide a synchronicity between . . . actions and language . . . within the highly repetitive and rhythmic patterns of their daily lives. Eventually, thought and sign overlap, converging to create a series of new behaviors” (Connery qtd. in Connery, John-Steiner and Marjanovic-Shane 89).

As outlined above, creative and playful endeavours require voluntary commitment. A growing lack of demonstrable commitment by the participants to engage with games and creative play over Zoom created a dilemma for me. Should I continue to adapt the games in light of the participants’ engagement and persevere with playful approaches to learning, or should the endeavour be abandoned in favour of more conversation-based interactions? Acting is not limited to speech and such an approach diminishes and vastly underestimates a craft that carries meaning making and play at its core; stories are told with far more than just words. A person’s bias can be self-affirmed, and on reflection I was uncertain as to whether games and playful approaches to learning even translated at all to a platform such as Zoom, or whether a new pedagogic approach should be pursued, but the central conundrum of how to gather the ensemble without playful learning remained.

My desire was to enable a co-created creative learning environment. The conventional tool to aspire toward this was to use play and games, but these required investment and willingness on the part of the participants to engage with the process and student feedback via formal reflection activities was not wholly positive: “We have 2 hour sessions and about 15 minutes of those is the lecturer on zoom doing children’s games” (Anonymous student feedback).

Reflecting on this comment from one of my students, I came to wonder if the platform created a space that proved too exposing to the participants and deterred them from risk-taking without the shared sense of the co-created physical and tangible environment to encourage them in their undertaking. Pursuing playful learning and games was not working and was only resulting in a polite and solo response to the game as an exercise, rather than an experience. The central issue remained: how then to engage bodies, feelings and voices in creative learning in the given circumstances? In other situations, the environment, as a shared evolving co-construction could be actively reimagined, “a person contributes . . .  through commitment and consumes the benefits of supports and gains that the environment contributes to the role” (Moran qtd. in Connery, John-Steiner and Marjanovic-Shane 147), but the constraints of the conventions of Zoom appeared to defy this time and time again.

Lessons Learned: Getting Rid of the Guru

Learning, creativity and environment are inextricably linked. They are not to be pursued as end points and outcomes but are the ever-evolving developmental processes that enable one another. Learning is found at the intersectional dialectic point of creativity and environment. Therefore, the eschewing of product brings the high value learning process back into focus. The issue for me lay not in the inability for the platform to support playful learning, or the inappropriateness of the conventions of traditional game playing within linear digital communication tools. Instead, I came to realise, the point itself was the attempt to engage with equity, collaboration and investment, and to aspire to overcome the hurdles faced through collected dialogue, negotiation and listening as an ensemble. I came to acknowledge, appreciate and empathically listen to the intense lived experience, or perezhivanie, of the students. Thus, the adversarial viewpoint presented by the visual layout of Zoom as a storyboard tool lessened, as my focus moved away from the perceived product of the digital platform and, instead, tuned into the stories being held by the participant students within their spaces.

Students at the Guildford School of Acting employing games in COVID-compliant studio practice. 15 March 2021. Guildford School of Acting, University of Surrey, U.K. Photo: Anna McNamara

Such an act required me to shift my perspective away from viewing my students as an audience consuming my performative delivery of instruction on Zoom. Now, I consciously sought to act as a facilitator of the student ensemble, collaboratively responsible for creating a shared virtual space that was constructive and playful. This required an abandoning of a long-learned script and an acknowledgement that I as teacher did not hold any of the answers in this new world. This realisation empowered the learners to take a proactive role in the design of the learning space, specifically in this case study by utilising breakout rooms, where smaller group activity could enable the student voice and support their construction of their own creative environments within the constructs of the digital platform. All it took was for me as teacher to get out of the way of the process. I had to recall that creativity, like game playing, cannot be insisted upon, and student feedback become more positive as a result:

(Anna) is keen to build personal relationships with her students. This made me more comfortable and confident to take creative risks, as I know I would be supported if I failed. Her response . . .  is incredible and her feedback is always reassuring. This module was my favourite class to attend . . .  I am sure this is, by large, because of Anna’s teaching.

Anonymous student feedback

Many have written about the negative impact of the guru upon the learning environment. Ross Prior asserts that such a practitioner has little or no engagement with learning and teaching processes and can be over-reliant on didactic instruction, favouring product over process. In The Right to Speak (1992), Patsy Rodenburg discusses what she terms “The Myth of the Voice Guru” (16), highlighting these teachers as individuals who dictate to their classes and erroneously understand themselves to be the central point in the learning process. Rob Roznowski (2017) in Roadblocks in Acting continues this theme, articulating that “the role of the teacher is to “guide and assist (the student) in their own discovery process . . . set the parameters” (12). Daron Oram, voice tutor at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, also refers to the negative impact of the guru and describes his journey as a teacher as one that called on him “to let go of the position of expert” (279).

As Rouse reflected above regarding circles in a physical space, the facilitator that steps away from the role of the guru and actively unlocks the locus of control can enable the co-construction of metaphorical spaces that are dynamic, fluid and accessed equitably. The experiences of the participants, their environments, their perezhivanie are essential components of the collaborative learning conditions. To truly co-create, all must have equitable access to engage and this includes the full acknowledgement of the phenomenological aspects of each participant’s terms of reference and their accordingly diverse receipt of the cultural signs and signifiers of the environment and community they find themselves a part of. I came to realise that it is not for the teacher to didactically instruct action from a fixed perspective. Rather, I understood that my role was to enable connections, interactions and understanding through models that evolve and respond dynamically to support the learners to accountably co-author their own outcomes. Enabling the facilitation of a co-constructed learning environment required active effort to rid the learning space of the guru.

Students at the Guildford School of Acting in studio practice pre-pandemic. Date unknown. Guildford School of Acting, University of Surrey, U.K. Photo: University of Surrey

Just as the actor must not become bound by the act of concentrating on concentrating, the actor training facilitator must not fixate on their perceptions of student learning loss. Increasingly, narratives of loss and missing out have been played out in the media with regard to the impact of social distancing and restrictions upon education due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is my view that such a viewpoint will only serve to feed a narrative of deficit and learners as consumers being owed something they did not receive. Instead, the reflections arising from my experiences in this case study posit that, instead, the learner must be supported in that moment of perezhivanie with a focus on enabling a collaborative co-constructed learning environment. Such partnership among learner and facilitator, if conducted authentically, will speak to what the learning needs to be in that moment within the given circumstances particular to that specific cohort. To do this, the facilitator must put aside any notion of their self as the empowered guru and consciously act to unlock the locus of control.


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*Anna McNamara is Director of Learning and Teaching at the Guildford School of Acting, University of Surrey. She trained in Musical Theatre at the Guildford School of Acting before moving into teaching full time in 2001, gaining an MA in Education. Anna holds teaching qualifications in dance, singing and music, and drama. Anna is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. In 2017, she was awarded the University of Surrey Vice Chancellor’s award for Teacher of the Year.

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