Getting to London
Right up until the 24th of September I had not been sure whether I would make it to London.
The process of applying and starting the MA Advanced Theatre Practice had been a strange one from the beginning. It had begun when I saw the audition notice online back in late 2019, that the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama was holding auditions in Sydney for their acting and MA programs. I made the trip to Sydney for my audition and remember vividly wearing a mask on the walk due to the smoke from the bushfires. I remember thinking how strange that was, not knowing how familiar it would become.
It wasn’t until March that I received confirmation of my acceptance onto the course. Covid-19 was just bubbling to the surface. Within the fortnight I had lost all my work and all scheduled shows. Suddenly following an artistic practice felt precarious. I didn’t know if moving to the UK to devote myself to a year of study was the best possible idea at this time or the worst possible idea… or even going to be possible at all.
Skipping ahead to September; past lockdowns, travel exemptions, visa centre closures and numerous emails to admissions, I landed in the UK. It is not lost on me how lucky I was to still be able to complete this project during this time when the pandemic has been so devastating to the Arts Industry and how grateful I was to feel supported by the Trust in this endeavour.
As many students would know over the last 18 months, online learning has posed its challenges. Especially when working in a collaborative, theatre devising course where emphasis is so often placed on the ‘liveness’ of the form. Perhaps what I hadn’t anticipated was the oddity of not meeting the majority of my classmates and teachers in person. Despite these challenges it has also opened my thinking to how to create collaborative environments across distance, which feels particular pertinent to my practice and collaborations, which will exist across various time zones and oceans.
First term of the course was a hybrid experience of online learning and practical laboratory work, working in small clusters in rehearsal room to mitigate the risks of Covid. For me, this led me into the Scenography cluster unsure what to expect, but having any expectations surpassed.
Below I have attempted to reflect on three of the year’s particular highlights of the course, which have seen me grow and develop my artistic practice.
I had worked before in what I would now understand to be scenographic practices however, learning on this module has reframed the way I think about performance and the techniques I use to create performative spaces. Working with the architecture and bodies of the space, sound, light and projection, my experience of this term was creative heaven. Working with a collection of talented artists from all around the world, we continued to find ways to transform a studio of the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in new and unanticipated ways.
The physical restrictions of Covid and safety management became interesting creative provocations; how do you move an audience through space? How might you create smaller, more intimate one-to-one interactions?
I started to think more about installation-based performance and how my practice could become more cross-disciplinary. I experimented with headphone theatre and sound production, I made miniature fragments exploring movement through spaces and encounters with performance and I became interested in interactions with projections using live video feeds. My work over the term culminated in the showing of a fragment called Objects in the Mirror are Larger Than They Appear.
The piece attempted to reflect the experience of constantly having your image reflected back to you, which we were experiencing through video conferencing technologies throughout the pandemic. The work attempted to create this gaze in a dynamic, three-dimensional experience for an audience. The ideas from this fragment have continued to resonate with me over the year and is forming the basis of my research in the year two MFA I am about to undertake.
Perhaps the extreme circumstances bonded our class more than might have happened in another environment but what particularly exceeded my expectations was how close our Scenography cohort became. Despite creating solo fragments, we were deeply invested in the work of our collaborators, supporting their work wherever we could both practically and critically. Thanks to the emphasis from our tutors on processes of documentation and our investment in each other’s work, we became very good at documenting the happenings in the space; making sure we were documenting not only our own work but the work of everyone.
In our final showing I found myself working and performing across other pieces; our cohort working as one energetic collective of individual makers.
The closeness of this term and our ability to work in space with each other became something to hold onto as the pandemic worsened.
Dana McMillan is a theatre maker, writer and performer. Her solo performance practice uses devised processes to combine original, poetic text with physical performance to examine how a queer feminine gaze operates in theatrical spaces. She also creates work across disciplines, including in installation and site-specific performance.