Reimagining Production Pedagogy in Response to COVID-19: A New Pedagogical Model for Creating Virtual Online Performance

Tessa Rixon,* Anthony Brumpton,** Carly O’Neill***

Abstract

In the face of a global pandemic, with the shutdown of the Australian theatre industry and the wholesale shift to online modes of delivery within tertiary institutions, Queensland University of Technology academics in performance production and scenography developed a new pedagogical approach to shift the highly practical, studio-based theatre production program into the online space. This paper will present the teaching model that emerged from the university’s Virtual Theatre Production (VTP) Project, a collaborative project which shifted normal performance processes for five student theatre works online. The VTP Project engaged students, staff, industry experts, designers, directors and partner companies in a new online collaborative process. Constrained by real-world budgets and restrictions, student designers, technicians and managers were guided by a team of expert lighting, vision, sound, set, props and curatorial mentors to combine traditional analogue techniques with digital design processes across a range of software and platforms. This paper will detail the development of the pedagogical approach that underpinned this work; the project’s strengths and weaknesses; and finally, present the tested model for future use in creating online training grounds for undergraduate production students in an unstable educational environment. The pedagogical model builds on the emerging conversations around performance training online during the COVID-19 pandemic (Cervera, Schmidt and Schwadron; Pike, Neideck and Kelly), and expands on the notion of crisis-prompted remote teaching (Gacs, Goetler and Spasova; Hodges, Moore, Lockee, Trust and Bond). 
Keywords: production arts, COVID-19, digital pedagogy, scenography, remote teaching; online teaching

Our performance training grounds have been shaken by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and as we emerge from successive crises it is vital to understand the evolutions that occurred in our studios in response to an emergency shift to virtual classrooms. This paper studies one approach to form virtual spaces for the training of undergraduate Production Artists as part of the crisis-prompted shift to online teaching in the first semester of 2020. As educators in the Production Arts, we suggest that the training of designers, managers and technologists has been uniquely situated to adapt to changes in the tertiary sector through experimentation with virtual modes of teaching, design, collaboration and performance presentation. An interrogation of the Production Arts’ response during this crisis can unearth new discoveries for training in remote, online and virtual modes. Performing and Production Arts educators need new models based on real-world cases to support the design of digital learning experiences or “pedagogies” if they are to cope in a rapidly evolving, resource-scarce post-COVID-19 tertiary sector.

Through critical analysis and reflection on our own shift online, we offer a new model for use in the design of inquiry-guided digital pedagogies. Our model grew from the training of undergraduate Production students in Queensland, Australia during COVID-induced socially isolated online teaching when live performance was no longer possible. The resulting Virtual Theatre Production (VTP) projects engaged students, staff, industry experts, curators and partner companies in remote collaboration to design five theatrical works to the point of realisation. Constrained by real-world budgets and restrictions, student designers and managers were guided by a team of expert lighting, vision, sound, set, props and curatorial mentors to combine traditional analogue scenographic techniques with digital processes across a range of software and online platforms.

This paper details the development of our approach and the project’s strengths and weaknesses before presenting the pedagogical model. While this method sprung from a teaching crisis brought on by the global pandemic, its potential goes beyond emergency use only and into the planning and design of digital inquiry-guided experiences for undergraduate production students in a shifting educational environment.

Let’s Be Honest: Crisis-Prompted Remote Teaching versus Planned Online Teaching

It is necessary to begin with a brief consideration of terminology. “Online teaching,” “remote learning” and “virtual learning environments” slipped into the lexicon of performing arts educators practically overnight, and yet, while our platforms shifted from the classroom to the Zoom meeting, it is necessary to divorce our pandemic response from traditional online teaching.

Instructional technology academics Charles Hodges, Stephanie Moore, Barb Lockee, Torrey Trust and Aaron Bond argued in a response to the sector’s shift online in March 2020 that “well-planned online learning experiences are meaningfully different from courses offered online in response to a crisis or disaster” in the aspects of planning, support, resources, review and evaluation. Our own experience—and that of many performing arts educators—could be more appropriately labelled as “emergency remote teaching” (Hodges et al.) or, better yet, “crisis-prompted” remote teaching or instruction (Gacs, Goertler and Spasova). Writing on the impact of the pandemic in their language education discipline, Adam Gacs, Senta Goertler and Shannon Spasova released a detailed process of preparation, design, implementation and evaluation as the pandemic was unfolding, offering a valuable framework to guide educators in both planned and “rapid transitions” to online platforms (385). Alongside a suggested structure, the authors offer helpful guidance on communication, establishing learning communities, providing feedback and remaining visible, present and authentic through difficult teaching experiences.

The following analysis adopts Gacs et al. structure (albeit retrospectively) to provide structure and clarity, and we strongly recommend performing arts educators arm themselves with such frameworks before embarking on similar processes where possible. While we as educators worked hard to ensure our crisis teaching was relevant, meaningful and engaging, let us simply tell it like it is and acknowledge the urgency of this transition and the subsequent impact on planning, execution and review is divorced from the rigour of traditional online teaching—which commonly has more time, space, people and money in development than the rapid solutions afforded by an unfolding global pandemic. 

Crisis-Prompted Remote Teaching and Digital Pedagogies within the Performing Arts

We are not alone in this observation. As Felipe Cervera argued in April 2020,

We are not *really* [sic] 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 while production and performing arts educators fumbled to adjust to a new world of remote and online training (the authors of this paper included), this community was essentially building upon years of digital pedagogies within the arts. As Caroline Wake argues in her pivotal comparative study of digital pedagogies in theatre, performance and dance, arts institutions and educators have adopted a range of blended and online-only approaches for over twenty years. These methods are far from perfect however, with issues such as educator/student resistance to digital approaches, technical hurdles and the greater sweep of equity, diversity and accessibility concerns still requiring further research scrutiny to resolve (12). As Wake and others offer through the growing conversation which emerged before and as the pandemic developed,[1] this is not new terrain for our disciplines, and yet we still have much to learn.

The pace to understand and enact digital pedagogies naturally quickened as the pandemic unfolded, with new perspectives emerging on the performing arts’ pedagogical response—aphorisms from which have found themselves woven into our own critical reflection. Shane Pike, Jeremy Neideck and Kathryn Kelly offer an exemplar of Zoom-based training strategies for theatre students, while Heike Roms casts light on the live/performance art discipline’s response in her editorial for TDPT volume 12, released as the crisis was developing. Dance academics Susan Gingrasso, Tuomeiciren Heyang and Rose Martin proffered multiple paths forward as they grappled to adjust embodied practice into the virtual space.

One relevant perspective published on the cusp of the crisis came in Felipe Cervera, Theron Schmidt and Hannah Schwadron’s planetary performance pedagogy, a “spatially and temporally distributed teaching and training” approach which combines remote and experiential modes of interaction (2). Their argument is valuable to our own work for multiple reasons. First, while formed pre-COVID and not designed for crises or purely online delivery, their framework provides relevant insight into current digital pedagogies based on inquiry-guided approaches. Second, as the authors located their study within the training of acting and musical theatre students, a gap emerges in the need for models that specifically address the Production Arts. We therefore offer our work as a response and an addition to the foregoing approach.  And finally, the authors offer essential prompts, support and “simple truths” for educators navigating this space, to wit: “acknowledge the distance. Distribute the thinking with each other and our networks. Post to class and colleagues to thoughtfully provoke. Assemble structures of remote companionship. Don’t do it alone” (17).

In concluding, the authors encourage educators to focus on the how and the why rather than “what assignments and which digital platforms” (Cervera et al. 18). Amidst the talk of transitioning online and choosing the “right” teaching platform and collaboration technologies—a consideration arguably heightened in the Production Arts discipline due to our standard reliance on technology to create and collaborate—we found it necessary to pause for a moment and recognise that regardless of the medium used to connect with our students, our remit as educators remained the same. As Roms (117) suggests,

We can still foster conceptual imagination and critical thinking when we guide students through online tasks and prompts; we can still encourage collaboration facilitated by virtual meeting spaces; we can still be there to answer questions and clarify misunderstandings by way of emails or chatrooms; and we can still connect face-to-face, even if our faces are now neatly lined up in small windows on the screens in front of us.

A Need for Production Arts-Specific Models for Digital Inquiry-Guided Pedagogies

A review of the existing conversations on online, remote and digital pedagogies both pre-and post-COVID highlights a need for Production Arts-specific discourse. “Production Arts” refers to the industry of practitioners who sit in the broader performing arts field and apply specialised design, technical and management skills in the collaborative process of realising live performance, encompassing managers, technologists, designers, operators and others working behind or beside the scenes to create live performance.

The absence of conversation regarding the Production Arts’ response to COVID-19 appears to be a symptom of a broader gap in discussion regarding theatre and performance production training more generally, with some noticeable exceptions.[2] That is not to say production, design and management educators have not mobilised throughout the pandemic. International gatherings hosted by the International Organisation of Scenographers, Theatre Architects and Technicians (OISTAT) drew large numbers, and the subsequent OISTAT Online Education Week saw educators gather virtually from around the world offer solace, support and possible solutions to shared challenges. There remains a need, however, for deeper understanding of the diverse global approaches to training Production Artists that emerged in 2020 as well as tested models of digital pedagogies geared towards production artists which will inform the design of learning experiences post-COVID.

We address these needs by considering: how can Production Arts pedagogy adapt to online and remote modes of learning sparked by the unique situation bought on by COVID-19 while ensuring quality of student experience?The following analysis is offered to start the conversation on how the highly practical, traditionally resource-intensive Production Arts discipline can thrive in a digital mode. Our approach and the resulting model may assist in the refinement of existing or the development of altogether new digital and potentially hybrid approaches to teaching production artistry. 

A Case Study of Production Arts Training Response to COVID-19, Lockdowns and Social Isolation

Located in Brisbane, Australia, the Bachelor of Fine Arts (Technical Production) prepares students for careers in the Live Performance industry across the disciplines of management, design and performance technologies. Located within the School of Creative Practice in Queensland University of Technology’s (QUT) Creative Industries Faculty, the degree focuses on the three key pillars of the Production Arts—design, management and technology. The program combines traditional lecture/tutorial studies with highly practical studio and theatre-based learning in stage management, scenography and production practice (lighting, sound, stage mechanics, costuming, props and projection), and it collaborates with Acting, Drama and Dance disciplines to stage a number of live productions in each teaching year. At the core of our teaching philosophy is an authentic inquiry-guided pedagogy which “promotes the acquisition of new knowledge, abilities, and attitudes through students’ increasingly independent investigation of questions, problems, and issues, for which there often is no single answer” (Lee 6).

In response to the pandemic crisis, on Friday, 13 March 2020 Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the suspension of all essential mass gatherings over 500 people. Further restrictions soon followed, essentially shuttering the live performance and events industry in Australia. With restrictions continuing and an impending national lockdown, the formal decision was made to cancel all live student performances within the School. This was quickly followed by a university mandate to shift to online-only delivery by mid-March. The situation necessitated we separate assessment items from our embodied practice counterparts in dance and drama as each study area sought to design appropriate solutions for students. With live performance deeply embedded in curriculum design, teaching methodology and assessment milestones across our undergraduate program, we rapidly began to plan alternative online pedagogical approaches and assessment strategies whilst staying true to the inquiry-driven nature of our program. The following analysis of our process is based on Gacs, Goertler and Spasova’s four step process of preparation, design, implementation and evaluation.[3]

Preparation

Gacs, Goertler and Spasova (385) suggest a well-planned online education course can take years in the preparation phrase—our process, like that of many of our colleagues, was more of a “rapid transition,” taking place in under forty-eight hours. Our preparation took four steps: We began by acknowledging our program’s core teaching philosophy of inquiry-guided learning, recognising that any remote/online solution to our traditionally practical in-theatre production assessment needed to retain certain core elements. Next, we reviewed the existing practical assessment items, which to date were dependent upon collaboration with Acting, Drama and Dance cohorts and involved our second- and final-year students. The team then extracted the key learning outcomes relating to assessment items, analysing how assessment outcomes mapped to the unit outcomes in order to ensure alterations aligned to broader course learning outcomes and student progression would not be impacted. A resource audit was conducted, which revealed a simple list: the Internet; access to university licensed software; two year levels of Production students; our core team of three ongoing staff; and an array of industry mentors already engaged to provide support on now-cancelled theatre productions. The audit made very clear the resources we lacked: access to any sort of physical space; the ability to conduct face-to-face teaching; and, critically, no live performers due to the siloing of each discipline as a result of the university lockdown.

Design

With our available resources identified, we designed the program by first cherry-picking existing models of training, creative development, design and rehearsal processes, pulling together the elements predicted to best translate through online delivery. An assessment framework was devised based on our obligation to learning outcomes and available resources which was then framed by three real-world parameters:

  1. Venue: Our university’s traditional proscenium arch theatre was chosen as the designated venue, and a 3D model was built by staff for use in the project.
  2. Budget: In collaboration with industry, we devised a realistic budget for each department.
  3. Time frames: Each team were bound by the same hypothetical timeline to bump in/load in, plot, rehearse and stage their productions. 
QUT’s Gardens Theatre was selected as the venue for the project, based on the students’ familiarity with the space and its design and technical capabilities. This 3D model was built in SketchUp by staff

With the skeleton of an idea in place we worked to build the assessment task with details and support structures. The resulting assessment was nicknamed the Virtual Theatre Production project. Our cohorts were divided into five groups, with an intentional mix of second and final year students. Three teams were curated by industry professionals, and two were curated by final year students with a focus in directing and scenography. The title “curator” was an intentional choice to signify the shift away from traditional director-led teams and allow more flexibility in an unfamiliar virtual devising process. Theatrical texts were assigned, ranging from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, classic Australian and international plays, and a work-in-progress adaption of Keri Hulme’s Booker Prize winning novel The Bone People. Students were allocated positions as stage managers or lighting, sound, costume, props or vision designers, and they were tasked with designing, managing and planning fully conceived theatrical works to the point of bump-in/load-in. Groups were required to meet each week for a minimum of two three-hour rehearsal sessions, one production meeting and one to two mentoring sessions using Zoom and Teams. Mentoring sessions were grouped by department and facilitated by an industry mentor and QUT staff in their area of speciality. The opportunity for dedicated, discipline specific mentoring was a unique opportunity provided by the project. For example, the five student stage managers were able to have three online sessions per week with three highly experienced professional stage managers, providing an important forum for industry connection that had previously been suspended due to the shut-down of the live performance industry.

Rather than attempt to stage a live performance in an unfamiliar virtual landscape, the outcome became a fully designed theatrical production—from plans, renders, audio and vision content, prompt copies, schedules, budgets, and more—presented via an in-depth, hour-long creative design presentation at which all departments were required to present. The decision to steer away from a “full” performance outcome was driven by the lack of live performers and physical assets, while attempting to ensure students learnt skills that would be relevant to their careers in the production arts once we return to truly live performance. Certain aspects of the task were left open: teams were not limited in the length of time they could spend collaborating beyond rehearsals in mentor meetings, software sharing session, paper plots and more. Critically, we did not impose any specific software or technique for the process. While we teach and provide access to a variety of programs from SketchUp, Vectorworks, QLab, Isadora, Premiere Pro, Audition, Reaper, AfterEffects and ETC’s Augment3d (in beta at the time), students were free to choose their own tools.

Implementation

The VTP projects spanned two months, concluding with five one-hour-long creative design presentations in late May. For the first six weeks, the project overlapped the day-to-day classroom teaching of the BFA program, which had also shifted into the virtual space. The VTP “rehearsals” were held over Zoom and students were given free-reign over these sessions as they adapted what is traditionally an actor-focused activity to a design-focused exploration of read throughs, discussions and deep critical analysis as well as reflection of the text. Students were assessed not only on their creative outputs but their demonstration of knowledge, analysis, communication and engagement across the entire process. Made possible through detailed and laborious collection of mentor and staff feedback for each student, this method echoed our standard approach to assessing undergraduates on traditional theatre productions.

3D visualisation of lighting and set design for VTP project “Crazy Brave.” Lighting: Isaac Stevenson. Set: Ju-Ting Hsu. A more detailed overview of student work from the project can be accessed here. Photo: Isaac Stevenson

The outcomes from the students’ process were surprisingly varied. Each team found their own approach to the process of realising (albeit virtually) the scenography of their given text while handling the logistical and management challenges that arose from the birth of an entirely new collaboration mode. Such diverse approaches reflected in the manner each team communicated their final designs. As well as the traditional plans and renders, students presented 3D set and lighting visualisations, layering in costumes and vision design content, working across a range of CAD programs, audio software and even non-traditional programs such as Unity. Some used small domestic 3D printers to test prop concepts while others blended digital approaches with traditional techniques: one costume designer used a combination of hand drawn and digital collage renders before creating a full-scale design in her living room using mail-ordered fabric (see below). In one noteworthy design presentation, the students staged key scenes from their production of Romeo and Juliet over Zoom using the ETC lighting visualization software to portray lighting, costume and staging transformation, with sound layered in via Qlab. The stage manager called cues to her peers over Zoom throughout the sequence from a digital prompt copy, visible in the corner of the screen.[4]

Digital costume renders of VTP project “Romeo and Juliet.” Costume designer Michelle Hair created Juliet’s wedding dress in her living room. Watch a behind-the-scenes video of this process here. Photo: Michelle Hair
Evaluation: Shifting from Crisis Response to New Pedagogical Process

To arrive at a new model to support the design of digital inquiry-guided Production Arts learning experiences, staff critically reflected on the projects throughout the second half of 2020 and identified key successes, challenges and observations. We were in a fortunate situation during this period due to Australia’s response to the virus: restrictions were eased in Queensland and the majority of our teaching returned to face-to-face or hybrid modes from July to November.

Successes

Generally, we group the pedagogical successes of the project into four outcomes:

A deep and rich engagement with the text: Industry curator and writer Shari Indriani remarked that the duration and intensity of the project allowed designers and curators alike to delve deeper into the process of world creation as compared to a traditional process. For example, during the pre-production phase of a “normal” in-theatre production, student designers would have a maximum three to four hours of contact with their director/choreographer to brainstorm the scenography of the production, as compared to upwards of four hours per week during the VTP projects.

Autonomous, student-driven innovation: The open-ended design of certain aspects of the inquiry appeared to instil a sense of autonomy and ownership in the students. While still guided and supported by staff and mentors, this freedom encouraged students to find individual solutions to creative, technical, management and logistical challenges by drawing on traditional theatre approaches and new, experimental methods for virtual collaboration and design.

Space for play and experimentation with new technologies: A direct result of this autonomy was the rich and varied experimentation with both established and non-theatrical technologies and techniques. Many students explored new software in their process, with the duration and nature of the project naturally allowing more time for self-directed play above and beyond what had been taught in class. Several creative design presentations left mentors asking each other “Did you teach them that?” with the response “They said they were interested, so they must have figured it out themselves!”

Mentoring program: Finally, the mentoring program was an enormous success of the project. The bringing together of students in smaller groups based on department (lighting, sound, and so on) resulted in detailed discussion with mentors as well as peer-to-peer problem solving. This connected students to the mentor support and experience while also forging peer support networks vital for the project and personal wellbeing during lockdown.

Challenges

There were several general challenges encountered by staff and students as well as some specific to management production roles:

Zoom fatigue: As the semester unfolded and lock-down continued, students and staff were increasingly fatigued by hours and energy expended collaborating online. The VTP project overlapped day-to-day teaching activities for the first six weeks: students’ afternoons and evenings were spent in online VTP meetings, rehearsals and mentor sessions, all the while spending increasingly large parts of their recreational time consuming screen content. This impacted morale and productivity, and while staff attempted to address the issue by reducing other screen-based teaching activities, more consideration on how to orchestrate such a time-intensive screen-based program is needed.

Resources and support: Resourcing and supporting the projects was a continual struggle for both staff and students. Software licensing; accessing technical equipment; institutional flexibility (or lack thereof!); acquiring, downloading and learning various online communication platforms and digital programs; reliable and consistent Internet—all threatened progress at one stage or another.

Beyond simple logistics, we were conscious of the ethical ramifications of this resource challenge within our diverse student cohort. Without careful management, digital pedagogies run the risk of reinforcing existing privilege (Wake 14), and while the VTP projects sought to offer a level playing field in terms of software, the individual student’s access to equipment was unable to be addressed in the scope of our resources. If not addressed, this “attainment gap” could severely disadvantage certain students in digital learning experiences such as the VTP project (14).

Adapting traditional roles and responsibilities into a virtual space: There were a variety of challenges specific to students in stage management positions within the project. Without a physical production to manage, students in these positions worked with academic staff and professional mentors to evaluate and redesign the role of the stage manager in this virtual world. Traditional parts of the theatre making process (budgeting, scheduling, administrative tasks) were easier to adapt; however, as so much of a stage manager’s function is to prepare and manage the creative space (the rehearsal room, the theatre, the stage), the question became: what happens to the stage manager’s function when these physical places are removed? While it is envisaged that some of the discoveries and paradigm shifts prompted by COVID-19 will be retained or take on a hybrid form going forward, it is acknowledged that the role of the stage manager can never fully be realised or replicated in a virtual space.

Observations

The team of staff and mentors observed several general trends emerge across the projects regarding student behavior but also our assumptions and approaches as educators in this new mode:

Students’ inability to self-regulate:Linked to the issue of Zoom/screen fatigue, we observed many of the students lacked the ability to develop alternative strategies to support their mental and physical wellbeing during this time. Students were struggling to switch off—both literally and emotionally. As one student told staff, motivation was also impacted by the purely virtual nature of the project: “It was also sometimes hard to keep motivated during the project knowing that it would never be a real production—as our pre-pandemic assessment would have been.” As the issue of self-regulation emerged evident, academic staff took a whole-of-course approach to better manage students’ screen-time requirements and develop non-technology-based approaches to cope with their health during lock-down and a period of intense online learning. More focus is needed on this issue in future iterations.

The “digital native” fallacy: The assumption that today’s undergraduate students are “digital natives” was inaccurate and unhelpful in the designing of this technology-dependent learning experience. While our cohorts are proficient in a range of software and equipment, the shift to online-only thrust them into a new world of systems and challenges. Unless the program of study has benchmarks or course-entry requirements for a specific level of technical capabilities—or staff can rapidly embed training for a wider range of non-theatrical digital design and collaboration tools—educators should not assume a level of technical expertise, or indeed an aptitude for adopting new platforms and technologies, merely because students are young.

The need for educator empathy: As the semester drew on, unpredictable issues arose from the complex and varied domestic situations of our student cohort. As staff witnessed students’ personal challenges laid bare through the Zoom frame, we recognised empathy and compassion was critical to the success of the project. These challenges included fraught domestic arrangements from share houses to unexpected returns to the family home; international students who elected either to stay in Australia but now were cut-off from their families and countries of origin, or return home and subsequently faced challenges in engaging with the programs synchronous components; financial hardship for students who lost employment; time management issues from students whose employment significantly increased during this time, especially those in “essential services” of retail and supermarkets; and finally, access to a quiet, private space appropriate for learning. There was a pressing need to establish a “compassionate learning environment” (Gacs et al. 383) as this literal view into our students’ personal situations required staff to work with empathy and understanding

A New Model for Digital Production Arts Pedagogy for Inquiry-Guided Projects

Our model captures the successful guiding principles established prior to commencing in March 2020 as well as the discoveries made as a result of reflection and critique. While this approach to digital pedagogy grew from crisis-prompted remote teaching, we exclude that context from the title as its application exceeds purely emergency applications. The model is broken into two parts—what we deem essential project-level components and overarching external parameters.

A model for digital pedagogy for inquiry-guided Production Arts projects
Essential project-level components

We argue these four components are essential for a meaningful, authentic student experience:

Authentic task framework: This first component ensures the boundaries of the task educators set for their students are reflective of real-world practice, relevant advances or events in industry and encourage students to engage with inquiry that will benefit their future careers. We enacted this in the VTP projects through deliberate choices around budgets, timeframes, spaces, roles, teams, texts and more.

Student-driven teams: An essential component to allow for the freedom of process, of creativity and experimentation. In times of crisis-prompted teaching, we argue, the student’s sense of control over their process flows more strongly from peer partnership than teacher instruction, and this sense of control bolsters student by-in and engagement with the inquiry.

Promoting agency: Students must feel supported and encouraged in their individual processes of inquiry to act independently and exercise free choice. Educators can promote agency through design of the task framework—for example, being flexible and adaptive regarding process and product, as well as software choices. The student team structure and careful briefing of the industry mentors also empowered students to navigate and control their creative process. 

Industry mentors: The mentorship program was essential through the VTP projects and is necessary to bridge the gap between the assessment task and the institution to the real-world and industry.

Overarching project parameters

We identified there are three main overarching project parameters that educators need to consider when designing and scoping a new digital pedagogy:

Institutional frameworks and policies: This includes careful analysis of your institution’s policy around digital teaching activity and its agenda in this space. Timetabling and resource allocation policies and procedures will impact any moves made at the project level, as will existing assessment models in your institution. Course/unit structures and study plans naturally need to be factored in, as does the actual philosophy/grounding principles of your program itself.

Real-word relevance: Whatever we do within the institution must be reflective of authentic creative practice, and when designing a task such as the VTP project we needed to consider our responsibility to our students in ensuring their studies were relevant to graduate outcomes, as well as our responsibility to the industry itself. We are training future leaders, so a project such as this—no matter its scale—should interrogate questions of the evolution and sustainability of our industry.

Student wellbeing: A crucial factor that guides the design of such training programs should be student wellbeing. This includes a careful consideration of your cohort including socio-economic disparities or issues; access to resources such as safe learning spaces, Internet and technology; a whole-of-course approach to balancing screen time requirements; and a consideration of how to support mental and physical wellbeing—all underpinned by educator empathy.

We strongly suggest educators draw on Gacs, Goertler and Spasova’s framework for preparation, design, implementation and review of online teaching in tandem with this model, while also adopting the authors general guidance for teaching online (387).

2020: The Year of Two Friday the Thirteenths

The crisis that prompted the tertiary sector’s rapid experimentation with digital pedagogies is far from over, and we are now witnessing with alarm the shutdown of both Australian and international performing arts departments in the name of cost-saving by compromised institutions. As theatre practitioners, we are naturally a superstitious lot and could not help but make connections between the events of this year and 2020’s dual Friday Thirteenths. We do, however, find ourselves somewhat buoyed by 2020’s grim sense of humour: Friday, 13 March heralded the start of a colossal shift in our tertiary institutions and our professional industry, and yet we were able to spend Friday, 13 November in Queensland back in the studio with our students, welcoming the news of state theatres returning to 100% capacity. We are grateful for the ability to return to campus to make work and to teach in hybrid modes, yet we feel the pernicious impact of COVID-19 in the insecurity we face both within the institution and the industry. A silver lining may be that, perhaps as educators and artists, we collectively emerge stronger, clearer in our purpose, having rebuilt our programs into “something more sustainable” as Heyang and Martin suggest (11). Only time will tell.

It was our aim here to offer one example of how Production Arts training can adapt to new modes of delivery as a result of crisis-prompted online teaching. This module can support other educators looking for case studies as they design new digital pedagogies in response to the dramatic shifts bought on by the global pandemic. We now need to consider: how will Production Arts educators incorporate the successes of remote teaching into our return to the studio, and what does the future hold for digital pedagogies in this discipline? We must also ask: how do we adapt within a post-pandemic world of institutional changes, budget, staffing, spaces and equipment restrictions while still offering authentic, meaningful educational experiences for our students that lead to sustainable careers within a recovering industry? While the model detailed here can’t solve this wicked problem, we are glad to offer it as starting point.

Notes and acknowledgements: We acknowledge the traditional owners of the land where QUT currently stands, the Turrbal and Yugara peoples, and pay our respect to their Elders, lores, customs and creation spirits. Always was, always will be.


Endnotes

[1] Theatre, Dance and Performance Training ran a special edition entitled Digital Training in 2019, which built upon Caroline Wake’s call for deeper investigation of digital pedagogies in the disciplines.

[2] See Phillips and Newman’s review of teaching practice with the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, and Zezulka’s pedagogy of theatre lighting.

[3] Gacs et al. also recommend a design review process with a pilot study, a copyright review and crucially, an accessibility check to ensure all learners can access and consume online content. Due to the rapid nature of our transition however, this step was absorbed into the critical reflection we conducted as part of forming our model.

[4] Footage of this example, and others from the various design presentations, can be viewed here.


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*Tessa Rixon is a practitioner-researcher with a focus in digital scenography and interactive systems in live performance. As a Lecturer in Scenography in the School of Creative Practice with the Queensland University of Technology, Tessa lectures in performance design, computer-aided design and performance technologies. Tessa’s research promotes new modes of integrating established and emergent technologies such as motion capture, Augmented and Virtual Reality systems into live performance; exploring the symbiosis of interactive technology and embodied performance practice; and showcasing Australian performance design practice and histories. 

**Anthony Brumpton is a Lecturer in the School of Creative Practice at Queensland University of Technology. His professional practice and research investigates augmented aural realities (AAR) through the lens of Aural Scenography as an approach for inclusion, placemaking and environmental awareness. His teaching fields include technical production, sound design and intermedial theatre. Anthony has over 20 years professional experience in the fields of music, sound and technical production, having created hundreds of creative works across Australia and internationally. Anthony currently resides in Queensland, Australia on the land of the traditional owners the Gubbi Gubbi. 

***Carly O’Neill is the Lecturer in Stage Management within the Bachelor of Fine Arts (Technical Production) at QUT. She has 20 years’ experience as a professional freelance stage manager working across most live performance genres, with particular specialisations in classical and contemporary music, and ballet and contemporary dance. Carly was the Senior Stage Manager at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre from 2004–2013 and has extensive regional, national and international touring experience. Carly has been the Lecturer in Stage Management at QUT since 2009 and is currently the Study Area Coordinator for the BFA (Technical Production) and continues to freelance as a stage manager and show-caller. Her research explores the career transition experiences of female stage managers in Australia.

Copyright © 2021 Tessa Rixon, Anthony Brumpton, Carly O’Neill
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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