Teaching drama online: 'All the world's a stage'

Teacher Anne Looker was anxious about switching Shakespearean drama online – but her students showed amazing creativity

Anne Looker

Online learning: Why teaching drama, such as Shakespeare, remotely in schools can be rewarding

Drama performances are often all about the art of improvisation and making use of limited space, props or even actors. 

Adapting to circumstances like this has also been at the forefront of teaching drama this term as lockdowns have returned in our country, meaning key stage 3 classes have had to work on scenes from Shakespeare through the medium of video conferencing platforms.

This has meant some creative approaches have had to be taken – the results, though, have been fantastic and show that sometimes great ideas can come from the most constricted parameters.

Teaching drama online: Setting the scene

I set the students the requirement to produce a "news report" on Romeo and Juliet (Act 3 Scene 1 - the death of Mercutio and Tybalt) and for A Midsummer Night’s Dream to perform a modern adaptation of the lovers in the forest (Act 4 Scene 1 - the lovers find themselves confused about who loves whom, once the meddling fairies use the love potion).

This meant they had to get together on Google Meet in groups and work out how to perform the scenes remotely, with no props or space to interact or easily talk through their ideas.

But any fears that the students would be overwhelmed – or, indeed, underwhelmed – were immediately banished when they began uncovering all manner of props from home. It is amazing what can be done with an eyebrow pencil or your mum’s hair extensions. And they set about discussing innovative and intriguing ways to stage the scenes remotely.

For Romeo and Juliet, students quickly delegated roles. They were sensitive to the requests of the group and the more able students usually took the role of the news reporter, overseeing the structure and quality of responses to questions.

The excuses for minimal contact, based on the Princes’ warning about the feuding families, were included and blamed on social distancing.

Meanwhile, the A Midsummer Night’s Dream group spoke of how messages were misunderstood and misconstrued because of the restrictions of face masks. Each performance, as always, offered a unique insight into what students have learned about Shakespeare. 

Digital development 

These performances also helped the students to develop their digital recording skills as they used various tools to film, edit and broadcast their shows.

For example, some chose to record their own parts and then send them to the coordinator in the group. This student spliced together clips, sound effects and backgrounds in the app iMovie. 

Others utilised the screen record option on the Google Meet, adding suitable backgrounds from the option available on the extension.

While this worked well, it definitely underlined the importance of taking time to learn how to use such apps – both for students and teachers.

Most students are usually proficient, though, and you could even get a student to help teach others in the class before final performances are due, such as giving tips on how to make the most of such apps, detailing how clips can be edited together and how to use news templates or add sound effects from YouTube.

It’s worth the effort as the merging of various clips and sequences in a seamless way meant that performances appeared professionally made and the students got a real buzz from seeing the final versions looking so good.

Post-show reviews

We reviewed each performance, using a Google Form, providing constructive feedback to groups on what worked well and how to improve in the future.

It was clear that the students had thrived but the "reflect and review" task, completed by each student at the end of the performances, was very enlightening as they outlined what the experience had taught them.

They were honest about the process, citing issues such as internet connection and the difficulties with working online as a group as barriers.

However, they approached these as problem-solving opportunities, identifying solutions like pre-recording and checking volume and delivery. 

Some developed contingency plans, such as making sure that time allowed for errors or internet outages, helping to develop the sort of life skills that will always stand them in good stead.

Learning lessons

Elsewhere, I was intrigued to hear the benefits they noted from performing online. 

Some highlighted their increased confidence: the camera acting as a safety barrier between them and the class, and the fact that scripts could be hidden behind the camera to help with their lines. 

Others spoke about how they could focus on an individual during their speech, and how the class would not be distracted by others in the group.

Their greatest enjoyment seemed to be the availability of a range of props and costumes. They thrived on the opportunity to grab items to support their performance, often selecting gender subversion because they had the resources to do so.

Overall, what it shows is that with some innovation, adaptability and the timeless appeal of Shakespeare, there is no reason why drama cannot work equally well remotely as on the stage. All the world’s a stage after all. 

Anne Looker is an English teacher and community service coordinator at St Christoper's School, Bahrain

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