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From Zoom to the Stage: A Performing Arts Degree During A Pandemic!

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Nottingham chapter.

2020, the year that our lives and the “normal” societal functions were…. how does one put it… completely and utterly thrown 180 degrees in the opposite direction! Aka, the Covid-19 pandemic *insert jazz hands*- a little topical article reference for you there… and I mean if you are not aware of the Covid-19 pandemic, … who am I kidding you are all aware of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

For many students across the globe, our teaching was thrown online over Microsoft Teams or Zoom, and we had to receive our £9,250 a year university education from our bedroom, aka our new office, and for some students their dance studios. 

This week, I spoke with two BA (Hons) Musical Theatre students Fin and Callum from Italia Conti, of whom both spoke of their experiences as Performing Arts students during the pandemic. 

Just a little side note as to why I decided to write this article. Fin is one of my lifelong childhood best friends, we have grown up together, and watching him pursue his dreams of attending a drama school, and watching him do this through a pandemic, well it brings tears to my eyes. So, I wanted to try to convey in some way and do justice to just how hard it was and is to be a performing arts student during a pandemic


How did you feel entering and beginning a musical theatre degree that was for the foreseeable future going to be online? 

Fin: “Before you even start you know the dream, you go in every day to train, and this just wasn’t the case. When on zoom you are receiving acting, singing, and dancing lessons, it just did not feel like drama school you had been forever imagining. It was a lot bleaker, spending first year at home in the living room, using a kitchen chair as a bar, it just was not what I was expecting drama school to be – the buzz was removed”

Callum: “The opportunity to attend a drama school like Italia Conti does not come around often, when you get an email saying they want you, and at the age of 18, you take it. I knew that nothing was going to stop me from accepting my place, despite the circumstances, and whilst it was different than what you had hoped, as a performer you just want to begin training as quickly as possible. It was tough and lonely, and for a degree like musical theatre that involves a lot of energy and developing friendships, it was hard.” 

How did you feel knowing you were training in an industry that at the time was closed? 

Fin: “I am going to be honest; it scared the life out of me, I was terrified. It is expected when you graduate no matter what degree, that you go out and you search for a job. Yet, we didn’t even know if there was going to be this opportunity. We could finish our 3 years of training and theatres may not even be open, but we do not have training in anything else, so it was terrifying.”

Callum: “I agree, it was scary, but this industry is scary no matter what, as you are not guaranteed a job, when you graduate you are on your own, self-employed, and for drama students in general, there is a lot of uncertainty. But when your industry is closed, and there are only online jobs available, you are going into an industry where no one wants to work online, you want to perform to a live audience, and whilst the industry as a whole did the best they can during the time, it was just not the same. But this is also an industry, where the Chancellor at the time, Rishi Sunak, said musicians and other people in the arts sector “should retrain and find other jobs”, so it’s scary anyways despite the pandemic.” 

How do you think the government could have better responded to this/ if anything? 

Callum: “Drama school and university in general, is expensive. The tuition fees are high, but you are prepared to pay this to receive the training, but unfortunately, we just didn’t get the training we deserved. The contact hours that we were expecting to receive, we just didn’t get. Also, I think in another point, during lockdown, we were faced with a period where people were seeking entertainment, and it was down to the people in our industry to provide this and provide distractions. So, for the industry to then be disregarded was difficult to hear and see.”

Fin: “As we were saying, to hear that MPs were disregarding musical theatre and acting as a degree and as a profession, was hard and difficult to understand. Because for me, my dream job is to be a performer, and is a job just as noble, and should be just as regarded as other jobs.”

Could you describe any changes in the way that professors taught/ felt during this online teaching period?

Callum: “This was at a time where everyone was adapting, it wasn’t just students, teachers also hadn’t done it before. They had to figure out how to make the most of classes, as there is so much that you simply cannot do over zoom. At the end of the day, the teachers did the best they could, they had to find ways to improvise lessons from home and send to students to then work from home. We all got the most out of it that we could, given the circumstances.

I think, upon reflection, it was difficult to see the shift in teachers, in how you saw them on zoom, to then being back in the studio…. It was harder for teachers to keep energy up from home because everyone’s on mute, and they were not receiving the reciprocated energy back from the other students, it was just silent…. I think it took a lot of professionalism from the teachers. Though, having said this, I think a benefit from this online teaching period was that, given that everyone in the industry had no other jobs, we received a lot more West End performers giving lectures, which meant that students were able to talk to industry specialists – for example we received a master class from Charlie Stemp.” 

Fin: “There was an air of leniency that went both ways, teachers were filming themselves for 9 hours straight and they had to have their cameras on, teachers were adapting as well as students.” 

What motivated you to keep going? 

Fin: “To be honest, I forgot why I was doing it, I lost a lot of motivation, but I think what it came down too was the hope that the industry was going to come back, and Italia Conti, no matter whether on zoom or not will benefit my career, and at the end of this degree, I will be in a good position to tackle the industry.”

Callum: “For me having industry professionals come in, was a big boost, as you realised that everyone in the industry – students or not- were in the same position. Our idols were jobless, we realised they are people as well, and we are all on the same level. This boosted me to keep going because if they are currently doing it, so can we.”

What was your degree like, navigating the uncertainty of in-person training to online? Has it suffered? 

Callum: “Well, it was easy to blag a dance on zoom and do acting scenes with the scripts next to you, but when you go back into the room you are fully exposed and you must have the stamina to actually sing and dance, which was hard. But this did mean that technique was hindered, and piecing everyone back together technique wise in the studio when we went back in person, meant covering things that should we have been in-person from the start wouldn’t be happening… This also caused a lot of injuries at home, as teachers cannot fully help you from across the screen, particularly when you have around 20 students to watch, and some with cameras off.” 

Can you describe the first moment you went back on stage again? 

Callum: “Weird, because you would think that you would be like wow, we are back, but at this stage, you had worked so hard, and it was almost more a feeling of this is what I deserve, but it was a quick turnaround, so we didn’t really get to enjoy it as much as I had hoped.” 

Fin: “I agree it was a weird feeling, it was such a quick turnaround that we had no time to think, but it felt like a job even though it wasn’t, and in that way, it was exciting to see an insight into what the rest of our lives could look like.”

Job prospects? Do you think that this will be harder now because of the pandemic? 

Fin: “Yes. When it opened again, there was a flood of people trying to get jobs, so competition is so high, and the audition potential has now increased in numbers, and this has boosted the level of talent on the West End, as people are fighting for it more.”

Callum: “For me, I think there would have been competition anyway, as people are always going to be at auditions. But this has caused a big change for the industry, as first-round auditions are now more likely to be self-tapes as they are cheaper and easier. So, in this way, competition has increased just based on pure ease. And, in terms of the industry as a whole, I think the pandemic has caused many knock-on effects, given that the industry was stopped for a period of time… ticket money needs to increase, new shows are developing, buildings need refurbishments, but people have also lost money from the pandemic. And now with the cost-of-living crisis, shows that would normally be sold out are now at half capacity because people simply cannot afford to go.”

What did you do to help your mental health? If suffered during this time?

Fin: “During the first lockdown in March 2020, I had to learn how to take the time to deal with my mental health which in a sense helped, but when you went from doing nothing, to now in 9am-6pm lessons and your mental health dips, you now do not have the time to spend time thinking. So, I think after the first couple of months in first year, I started to, as soon as my classes finished, recognise that I needed to do other things to take my mind out of the repetitive nature of the online zoom classes.” 

Callum: “Drama school is one of those places where you are told to leave your emotions at the door, but at the end of the day we are human not robots, and you recognise that you need to take moments to step out. If you were having a hard day, when on zoom you could just close your laptop, but now I think a knock-on effect is that people just go home and leave the studio.”

…. Okay, so I would just like to firstly say thank you to Callum and Fin for allowing me to interview and talk about their experiences in a Performing Arts degree during the pandemic. But I would also like to just simply say wow, my respect for not only Fin and Callum, but drama students across the globe has reached new levels. 

Hearing them talk about experiences in, for example, ensemble singing on zoom – like I mean what… how they managed to deal with that, I will never know- but also hearing their unfaltering passion as drama students is inspiring. I just hope I have done justice to just how hard they have and are working. 

Amy Applegate

Nottingham '24

Blogger at Her Campus Nottingham <3 Third Year Economics with Hispanic Studies Student