The Drama School Mumbai’s pivot into virtual theatre training during the pandemic is here to stay

‘Learning has to be self-driven,’ says founder Jehan Manekshaw, pointing out that the e-learning initiative is named after Eklavya from the Mahabharata, known for his passion for learning

When the pandemic threw the world into a tizzy early last year, the Drama School Mumbai (DSM) found itself struck by uncertainty. Stuck midway with a student batch, the initial months were tough and confusing to both founders and faculty. In fact, the physical nature of theatre made it one of the worst-hit among cultural practices. But when one of DSM’s founders, Jehan Manekshaw, describes these times, there is no anxiety in his voice. There is, in fact, a rare surefootedness: the kind one has around a familiar room even when the lights are out.

The confidence is not unfounded: DSM’s post-pandemic online initiative, Ekalavya, has seen close to 3,000 students enrolling within three months of starting. The USP of the e-learning course is that it makes quality theatre training universally accessible. But “learning has to be self-driven,” says Manekshaw, pointing out that the initiative is named after the character from the Mahabharata who is known for his passion for learning. Like Ekalavya, the students of the course must strive to learn rather than be taught.

Teaching tools

For Ritu Jalan, a 45-year-old drama instructor from Mumbai, taking the Ekalavya course meant a value addition to her teaching tools. “The course is designed beautifully, and the exercises and tasks kept me engaged,” she says. “I have built a rich ‘tool kit’ for characterisations and have been able to use them to teach drama to my students. I love the ease with which I could do this online.”

However, the new programme’s success, much like Ekalavya’s story, hasn’t come easy. It took many a brainstorming session, inputs from theatre experts around the world, and several rounds of trial and error to formulate it.

A digital performance by students of Drama School Mumbai | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In fact, the public conversation series, Unrehearsed Futures, which discussed the realities of “teaching and practising drama in these changing times” and were held between global drama school heads, trainers, theatre-makers and drama students, is now in its second season. Such a strategic and timely coming together of minds and best practices is perhaps what saved DSM from going under.

DSM first began with theory training on virtual platforms, but slowly performative elements were brought in. “When we started with a new batch — the first one to enrol for a virtual semester — we did so with the awareness that this was new to everyone. I am grateful that both our faculty members and students adapted to the new system quickly. Sure, the occasional challenge arose, but having this community to turn to literally saved us,” says Manekshaw, a recipient of Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar for his work in advancing theatre.

The community he refers to is the one that coalesced online soon after lockdown. Not just theatre students but alumni groups too started reaching out. The way they were engaging with theatre was very different this time around, but the common experience of learning kept them going. Sure, the virtual programme wasn’t as immersive as a physical one, but “we reimagined the modalities of training,” says Manekshaw. The focus was on individual growth in the digital semester, and the physical training came later, during the in-person semester that was conducted in a bio bubble.

Joy in storytelling

For Norman Leslie Doss V., 22, the course was a journey that helped him discover his personal limitations and the ways to overcome them. He learnt what kind of theatre excited him the most and found joy in storytelling. In fact, for this Gen Z graduate from Bengaluru, the screen time involved in eight hours of virtual theatre training was not daunting but the most exciting part of it all.

Reimagining is also how Manekshaw and his co-founders see this new paradigm. It is, in no way, a substitute for the older medium. With Ekalavya, new possibilities for blended learning in theatre have emerged. It is being seen as a new medium that must be negotiated to attain similar as well as different outcomes. It is better, says Manekshaw, in terms of accessibility and scalability but, most of all, it “allowed us to hold space for so many people in a time of terrible anxiety. That is what theatre is; that is what it does and enables.”

The author is a culture writer and an Interfaith Studies scholar.

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