Talking theatre

June 14, 2020

Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) Forum, a three-day online event, organised by ASSITEJ, Pakistan and TIET, India, sought to address the challenges faced by theatre arts in times of pandemic

Don’t get me wrong for quoting JK Rowling but one thing many of us may have overlooked amid all the Trans-exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF) war that is happening on Twitter these days is her response to @TheboRadebe14’s suggestion to write a fantasy novel about the year of Covid-19. Rowling replied: “Honestly, I don’t think anyone’s going to want to relive this year.” (@jk_rowling; June 4). True as it is, it did get me wondering if there was any aspect of this year that I’d want to relive.

At the risk of making an understatement, I’d say that so far it has been a rough year for everyone, regardless of who they are and where they may be. Despite that, for members of academia, internationally, it has also opened doors for much needed collaboration and dialogue, by offering opportunities of participation, thanks to ZOOM app and virtual conferences, to people who may otherwise be deprived, as well as by pushing us all in making a swift transition to a mode of teaching and learning that many of us had not hitherto considered. However, just because we now have the option to conduct lessons online does not mean that it is a viable medium for all fields and there are disciplines in sciences as well as arts and humanities that cannot offer the full learning experience in a virtual environment. So, how are those practitioners coping with online teaching was the thought running through my mind as I joined a session, titled Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) Forum: Current Pandemic and the Future. The event was organised by the Association of Theatre for Children and Young People (ASSITEJ), Pakistan, and Theatre I Entertainment Trust, India, and held in the virtual world on June 5, 6 and 7. The purpose of the forum was to bring together TYA’s Asian practitioners to share best practices as well as address the challenges they might be facing in their work since the world went online and social restrictions took place.

As I was allowed inside the meeting room, Imran Khan, president ASSITEJ, India, welcomed the audience which consisted of teachers and theatre practitioners from more than 12 countries, including Pakistan, India, Kazakhstan, Iran, South Korea, Turkey, UK and Australia. In his introductory note, he stressed the need for practitioner-led proactive solutions such as these forums, as arts and artists are generally neglected in the governments’ priority list in times of crisis such as the pandemic.

The event was moderated by Shoaib Iqbal, founder of The Little Art, a not-for-profit organisation devoted to empowering children through arts. Each invited speaker got 15 minutes to talk about their experience of taking theatre for young audiences online and then the house was opened for those in attendance to share examples from their own practices, making the forum a truly interactive experience.

Over the course of next two days, various themes such as the challenges of physical-to-screen adaptation, lack of resources and funding, accessibility, children’s security, filtering digital clutter and evidence from practice were addressed.

Speaking in response to Iqbal’s question about their strategy during the pandemic, the first panelist for day one, Lahore-based eastern classical dance exponent and the founder of Harsukh, Bina Jawad shared the initial hurdles they had faced from community members in providing dance training to children. In that context, she stressed upon the need for artists to be resilient and passionate.

Bina Jawad discussed the possibility of arranging several outdoor events for a small group of audience. While this may not be practical for teachers, an adapted version of it could be implemented.

Talking about the upcoming Tamasha Festival she discussed the possibility of arranging several outdoor events for a small group of audience in case the lockdown continues. While this may not be practical for all teachers to emulate at the moment, an adapted version of it could be implemented straightaway, as discussed in chat by audience members, in the form of neighbourhood-specific “balcony performances” made famous by Italians.

Ruchira Das from Think Arts, India, was more to-the-point in her response and shared the “Isolate, Create, Connect” model that her company has developed in collaboration with Barking Gecko Theatre, Australia, to meet the challenge of delivering theatre education, essentially a live audience, via screens.

According to this model, through weekly videos, children are given a creative challenge that they work upon individually and then share online with others, thereby creating a ‘shared’ scrapbook of creative responses to the pandemic. Teachers in Pakistan wishing to work on this idea can guide their students to take part in the same project, given that it is open worldwide, or use this model to create a whole-school creative response to the pandemic that can be shared via a virtual exhibition.

The first panelist on day two was Sue Giles, the artistic director at Polyglot Theatre, Australia. Talking about Polyglot’s approach to theatre education during the pandemic, Giles highlighted the difficulty they initially faced in designing their response, wondering if online work was a stop-gap or a real opportunity to widen their practice. Careful of access limitations, they eventually offered a two-level response — first, by creating a webpage, Polyglot at Home; listing various activities children could take part in by using materials casually available at home.

The second step was to use dedicated learning management systems (LMS) — Canvas, in their case — to encourage child and artist collaborations. They also shifted one of their existing programmes, Voice Lab, where a children are invited to share their thoughts with a concealed speaker, to an app (Voice Box), thereby recreating a meaningful physical experience in the online world. Teachers reading about Giles and her colleagues’ practice can take points on coming up with a similar response that offers a combination of low-tech and high-tech activities to ensure access but also on making use of existing softwares to their advantage.

The second panelist for the day, Evgenia Startseva, Kazakhstan, mentioned her involvement with “baby theatre,” and the additional challenges it posed during the pandemic, as most of their target audience would be grown up by the time the lockdown is eased. So, she and her team decided to take this time to develop their craft, which can be an alternative to online lessons many teachers can offer to their students, as well as utilising themselves. In setting up professional development tasks for students, they can give them voice rehearsals, acting practice, costume designing and similar tasks that do not require internet connectivity or physical presence.

I could not attend the third day’s session live due to clash with other commitments but thanks to ZOOM recordings, I can offer you what the panelist, Minivoosh Rahimian shared about her practice in Iran. Access and funding being a big issue for her team, they thought of using their limitations as an opportunity by using radio to narrate stories to children and offer a few theatrical activities. This is an avenue already being explored to some extent in Pakistan by a lot of teachers who have used YouTube instead of radio to create private storytelling and activity sessions for their students.

Looking back at my experience of attending this forum, and listening to the practices of theatre teachers around the globe, the point I am taking home is that there is no single way of doing theatre online, because it is essentially an experience rooted in live performance. However, there are different strategies, which we can still employ to provide a taste of theatre to our students, and perhaps use this opportunity to reflect upon the potential expansion of “doing theatre” in post Covid-19 world. Speaking of which, when the time comes, let us continue with the tradition of online academic collaborations such as the TYA Forum, because that certainly is an experience no one would mind reliving.

The writer is a distinction holder in Children’s Literature and Literacies from the University of Glasgow, UK. She is currently employed as a lecturer at UMT, Lahore. She tweets at @readlikematilda

TYA addresses challenges faced by theatre arts in times of pandemic