Baptism of fire

7 April 2020

Graduating without a final show is like emerging without being immersed, says Lucy Donaldson

A fortnight ago my university shut its doors and we entered the abyss. An abyss filled with new deadlines, new digital platforms and a new version of what graduation may look like. I am a finalist student studying Drama and Theatre and most formative moments of my degree have been cancelled. For the first few days it was raw. We processed our lost energy, creativity, and performances. We had the most collaborative and all-encompassing aspects of our degree severed by the pandemic, at the end of the process with no performance to show. Of course, I recognised the need for this to happen, but the overriding fear, shock and numbness of the escalating global situation was overwhelming.

Over the last few days my peers and I have started to adapt our work into digital formats – challenged to harness our talents in more specific ways and through new means. Digitising set design, developing sound cues and projection with the spare time we now have – we have stretched our ideas to the edges of what is defined as theatre. Although challenging, archiving our work has proved somewhat rewarding as we see our concepts come to life. But a laptop screen will never be the same as a stage. You can’t recreate an ensemble’s sharp intake of breath before the adrenaline of performance takes over – no matter how many zoom calls you have. My peers and I have missed the final negotiations and finishing touches of what we imagined our final performance would be. I miss the shared experiences, space, anxieties, and mistakes. I’ve missed the debates about whether the green wash was green enough, or whether the sound was too sharp or too soft. We’ve missed knowing what our audience would have understood from our work – knowing the success of our creative decision and gaining trust in our own creative intuition.

But whilst we miss the true and intended ending of our degrees, we also miss the cautious baby steps into the industry. We’ve spent three years preparing to transition into an industry that at this very moment has fundamentally changed. And whilst working digitally has allowed me to become more assured of the career path I want to take (producing), I don’t know what I will do with this once the world opens up again. Where will this year’s graduates go? Will there be space for us to intern and carry on learning? How can we reshape the most formative stages of our education for our own gain and fulfilment? Will we create more immersive work that reflects our collective craving for connection? We can adapt and overcome all we like, but until there is space for us to emerge into again, it is hard to imagine where our constricted creativity will end up. The theatres are closed, the fringes are cancelled and our introduction is paused.

Of course, these things will start up again and we always have next year, but my anxiety lies in whether we will be visible. With the artists that came before us also having to re-establish themselves and their work, will there be space for the Class of 2020? At the moment it’s impossible to know where we will go and what new challenges we will face.

Having said all of this, we have two things to our advantage. Firstly, we have had to creatively adapt to an unprecedented situation as we teeter between the roles of ‘student’ and ‘artist’ – a unique predicament for us all. And secondly, we have each other. An entire year group faced with the same circumstances and a drive to emerge, maybe not this year, but in the years to come. Although we will emerge without being fully immersed, we will bring fresh eyes, digital skills and an unprecedented ability to adapt and overcome extreme pressures.

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Photograph: Beatrice Debney