Wednesday, 8 April 2020

So. . . I now run an online college?

The MTA's strange academic year worked out well in terms of the CoronaVirus lockdown. We were incredibly lucky that we managed to complete our 5 performance run of our flagship revue show - Something Old, Something New.  Whilst it's important to note that it's not our Showcase, it is an important production to start introducing our graduating year to the industry.

However, our timeframe did mean that we were able to chat with our students before we ended the term and reassure them in person about how we were going to run an online college if the UK did follow the rest of the world and get put into lockdown. We were even able to chat through roughly how it might work.  We were lucky - 2 days later that's exactly what started to happen. Even though we were then on holiday I did a quick live stream to our private group to remind them not to panic as we'd already spoken about what would happen.

I don't know about anybody else, but I must confess I never had a backup pandemic plan up my sleeve ready for a global shutdown, and with no tech department to help me, I think that I undertook the biggest learning curve of my life (and I thought that I'd already made that journey when I opened the 'real' college 11 years ago). However, I had just 2 weeks to create The MTA Online. One of the things that I felt would work in my favour was that when I created 'the other MTA' back in 2008 I had consciously created a course that I could run and monitor remotely. The idea being that after the college was up and running I could go back on tour and continue to run the college in between my 'real work' as an MD*. The college has a policy that all staff have to be currently working, so the online infrastructure was actually already in place and part of our everyday life.  Our classnote system is online, the timetable is online, there's not a day that goes by where we're not communicating with them via private groups, etc. So it was just the actual teaching to sort out <gulp>

So then it was hitting each problem in order of urgency. The priority was to ensure that all the agent 1:1 auditions could at least be offered in an online format.  So I first made friends with Zoom. What a fast-moving world we all live in isn't it? Suddenly we're all speaking about meeting up in zoom, yet most of us had no bloody clue about it before the pandemic.

The majority of agencies immediately agreed to move their auditions with our graduates online, so that was my first relief moment. We wanted to reassure the students as quickly as possible (even though they don't graduate until September I was aware that they were seeing all the #UK2020grad posts going up which were bound to make them anxious even though they were not in the same position as those graduates that had lost their showcase), so back I went online to live stream some more reassurance. I felt that it was important to be 'present' as opposed to just posting notices.

The next job - was to move our 100% vocational course online.  Finally, after a few years of really fighting against the 'establishment' because I've refused to turn our course into a formal qualification (because our industry is vocational and therefore it's the training that's important not the piece of paper in terms of getting you into the audition room), The MTA came into its own. We could literally rewrite the course to ensure that this would be a valuable term for our students. I was so mindful that they were still paying their fees so I had an obligation to give them value for money albeit in a different way. I was also mindful that our industry had literally had the rug pulled from under it. The MTA has a faculty of very loyal freelancers - the very people that had completely lost their income. So I wanted to try and help to support as many of them as possible too. After all, a college is only as strong as its students AND faculty.  I felt that there was a moral obligation to try to help (if possible)

So emails were sent out explaining that we were going online, and if they wanted to continue to teach for us, they needed to work out how to run online classes. My only stipulation was that the classes had to be interactive. I felt that videoed classes wouldn't allow us to watch and correct the students in real-time, and therefore not achieve the aims of the course which would, in turn, impact the progression that we needed the students to make this term (pandemic or not)

Suddenly I had an entire faculty on the learning curve with me. With that cog working away in the background next up we had to move our auditions online for our 2020 intake. Once again I didn't see the value of them sending in a self-tape as we wanted to work with them, we wanted to interact with them. The MTA's whole day audition is all about getting to know the people, not just the talent. Cue several senior faculty zoom meetings as we worked out how best to run the online audition. Suddenly lockdown was our friend, as when we needed volunteers to help us work it out we were never short of students and graduates willing to pop into the 'virtual' room to help us try out our latest idea.  A plan was formed, the auditionees were notified and before we knew it my senior faculty and myself were all in a virtual room with several complete strangers.

This turned out to be our lightbulb day though. Whilst for sure there were limitations online, it also offered up so many great things. In many ways, we actually preferred the online audition, and it's certainly going to prompt a serious discussion once the dust has settled about how we audition people moving forward. We already offer a free online first-round audition in a bid to save people money, maybe there's a way to move the main audition online permanently - saving them a fortune in travel & often accommodation. Maybe we could offer both options? I don't know. . . but definitely watch this space.

Having experienced a few hours in the 'virtual' college, we all started to realise that there were endless possibilities that we could explore. The MTA does a 50/50 stage/screen split anyway, so actually working with a lens between us offers us lots of opportunities to explore. We live in a world where more and more auditions are via self-tapes. What an amazing chance we had to really focus on all of this stuff.

The dance staff met up and all were confident that they could offer worthwhile online dance classes, voice, and acting were easy to transfer online. Strangely enough, singing was the hardest area, as whilst 1:1 singing lessons could happen with ease, group singing is just not feasible in our 4G world.  After much asking around it seemed like my only option was for the students to mute their mics and sing to a screen? Our students are not singing for pleasure, they are singing to enhance their skill set, we're looking at the nuances of group singing. They might have been blending beautifully, their harmony line might have been divine - but the tutor would never know. However, we did know that the 1:1 stuff worked really well.

Still on holiday we had another live-streamed chat with our students (& graduates. . . as we have a college for life policy and therefore I needed to check in with them too), and as part of our 'checking in with your mental health' chat, we were chatting about what people could do during this lockdown, and lots of people started chatting about learning to play 'that instrument' that has sat in their room for years but they've never had the time to learn it. Cue the next idea. We are not an actor-muso course, nor do we aspire to be, however we all know that instrumental skills are incredibly useful to a performer. So a quick check who could gain access to a guitar to check that my plan would be worth it - and suddenly 75% of the college are now having weekly guitar lessons. Learning in streamed groups expect to see something spectacular at next year's revue (she jokes, but not really).  Then a group came to me as they had access to a keyboard, could we teach them how to play the piano? We're currently putting this in place.

In our senior faculty meeting, we were chatting about the fact that literally, everybody was available right now - so we should try to get some good Q&As and masterclasses going, as they'd work well with this format. It would also mean that our students always had something to look forward to. Days and weeks of lockdown monotony were going to hit hard. We needed to offer them something to be excited about. What an amazing opportunity this online term was going to offer us. Of course, being online meant that we weren't limited to UK guests - so off I hopped over to Broadway (virtually of course), and with the help of our friends, we suddenly found ourselves with one hell of a term. Q&As with film directors, Dexter Fletcher & Joe Wright, writer David Eldridge returns to the college, masterclasses with Cassidy Janson & Annalene Beechey, Q&As with Broadway stars Claybourne Elder, Laura Osnes, Julia Murney, Kara Lindsay, with West End stars Adam Garcia and Louise Dearman, plus meetings with producers, casting directors, resident directors AND a private screening of the Desperately Seeking The Exit thanks to the ever marvelous Peter Michael Marino. . . and. . . well, who knows? 

We're on day 3 and already we've discovered new things, but again because we're completely independent we can implement new ideas within hours. From an 'oh no' term, we're seeing our Pandemic Term as an 'OMG we could do this too...  .' sort of term.

My virtual office stays open for a while after regular classes, so students and graduates can pop in if they're struggling or just to say hello. Our mental health clinician is still available to the entire college 24/7/365 and is of course now just offering online or phone sessions, but it does mean that our lot (& staff) have instant access to a mental health professional if the lockdown is particularly hard for them. 

So that's it, within the space of just 2 weeks . . . I now run an online college. I sit in mission control for hours on end looking at screens, opening up zoom rooms, and planning. What else can we do? Maybe I'll revisit this blog at the end of the Pandemic Term to see if it was really as exciting as we currently think that it's got the potential to be.

Stay safe all 

*this never happened. Turns out running a college is really busy

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