Rehearsing Othello on Zoom: the theatre students pursuing their dream during a pandemic

Published in The Evening Standard January 21, 2021

While 2020 may be behind us, the new year brings continued uncertainty for the UK’s theatre industry. And if the situation is bleak for staff and freelancers facing shuttered venues, it’s surely even tougher for the next generation of talent: young people still studying – who have had to return to remote learning online this month, as schools and colleges shut once more – as well as those who graduated last summer with little chance of working.

Remarkably, many young people have already managed to shine despite the gloom of Covid-19. Forging a career in theatre is never easy – but the pandemic has revealed both grit and positivity among emerging artists turning a dire situation into an opportunity.

Shakira Newton, 24, is in her final year at East 15 drama school in Essex. While she admits that performing Shakespeare via Zoom or while wearing a mask has been “pretty bizarre”, it hasn’t put her off a career in theatre. Instead, she says, Covid has just brought home the importance of “having a Plan B, C, D, and E…”

Luckily, Newton already has a few of those covered. She writes as well as acts, and during lockdown, her first play got a rehearsed reading online from Wildcard Theatre Company, attracting feedback from industry professionals as well as friends and family. It was an opportunity she’d probably never have got in normal times, she recognises.

Newton also produced a podcast, Getting Creative, for the National Youth Theatre (NYT), interviewing people in the creative industries. And as the founder of Rush, a showcase for young black talent – which Newton launched with NYT in 2019 after being dismayed by the lack of diversity at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – she started streamed that online too, via Facebook.

The digital Rush showcases in March and October got a fantastic response – “much bigger than if we did it in person. So we managed to find some good in all of this,” Newton says.

She’s not the only one finding openings online. During lockdown, Tiajna Amayo was working for the Girl Guides – and writing her first web series, Conspiracy, during lunchtimes. The 24-year-old from Brixton is also a member of NYT, and they shared it via their Instagram account. It attracted over 10 thousand views – and has led to meetings with Urban Myth Films, who make shows such as Merlin.

“Having a project stops you from going crazy in lockdown,” says Amayo. “Writing Conspiracy was the therapy I needed. And it was nice working with other young actors who felt the same: still trying to be creative and get that content out there.”

Amayo is now part of the NYT’s Rep Company, a free alternative to drama school. She’s been in socially distanced rehearsals for Othello, which have now had to move online in line with new restrictions. But such processes haven’t dimmed her enthusiasm for a career in theatre.

“I think it’s done the opposite,” she says. “Obviously it’s scary to see all the theatres locked down, but a lot of things are still happening, so it’s not putting me off.”

The same goes for Josh Collins, in his third year studying Production Arts at Guildhall School in London. If studying Shakespeare is tough via Zoom, you might think backstage and technical courses would be virtually impossible – but for Collins, it’s opened his eyes to different ways to make work.

“We’ve been broadcasting all our shows live online. It’s not the same, but there are a lot of good learning opportunities: incredibly useful skills we can transfer into film and TV,” he says.

Live streaming can mean new audiences: an Opera Triple Bill streamed by Guildhall in November attracted 3,500 views; the auditorium capacity is just over 300.

“It’s a massive increase, which is great,” says Collins, who production managed the show. “The other great thing is it’s free. A lot of young people probably wouldn’t choose to go and watch an opera, but if it’s free they might tune in and change their minds. It’s never going to replace live shows, but it’s nice to make it a bit more inclusive.”

As production manager, Collins’ role would always include health and safety. In a pandemic, that means something quite different – and keeping a whole theatre Covid-secure was an enormous responsibility for the 20-year-old.

“One of the really important things for me was maintaining a clean and socially distanced workspace – but how do you sanitise a whole theatre?” he says. He instigated company-wide wipe-downs of the entire venue every four hours.  

Studying clearly continues to be strange, then – cleaning skills weren’t exactly trumpeted in syllabuses – but for 2020 graduates, the situation seemed even more desolate. For many performers, third-year showcases are how they get an agent. Unbelievably, the industry had no online equivalent – until this year.

Olivia Beardsley and Isaac Stanmore are working actors. Knowing the importance of that first step on the ladder, they set up Showcase 2020: an online portal where agents and casting directors can watch hundreds of graduates. “We had so many people saying ‘I can’t believe this didn’t exist before’,” says Stanmore.  

Two young graduates, Liam Gartland and Alice Croft, had a similar brainwave. While both had first jobs lined up before they graduated (from Guildford School of Acting and ArtsEd respectively), their tours were inevitably cancelled. Nonetheless, they felt like the lucky ones.

“So many of our friends didn’t even get to finish their final year or get an agent. We felt it was our job to make that happen, and get people networking,” says the 22-year-old Gartland.

So they set up The Grad Fest: a two-week, online summer fringe festival showcasing over 300 graduates. Cabarets, plays and industry Q&As were streamed via Instagram, Zoom and YouTube. The company was even founded digitally: Gartland, based in London, and Croft, living in Lincoln, connected via social media and worked together for months before meeting in person.

Fired up by the success of the festival, they went on to stage a live, full-length musical at London’s Garden Theatre as well as many more online events. From one showcase for agents, 13 out of the 17 performers got representation as a result.

“That was a highlight for us,” says Gartland. “It’s a bit of hope for graduates. If we can give someone their first credit, that could get them in the door for a hundred other things.”

But founding The Grad Fest has also been transformative for their own careers. Gartland now wants be a theatre producer. And while the 23-year-old Croft declares stagily that performing is “her destiny”, founding a company reminded her what other skills she has. “I love being a leader, I adore directing, I adore graphic design, and I adore creating websites, so why wouldn’t I want to do all those things?”

There will be a Grad Fest for 2021 graduates, but beyond that, planning is tricky. “It’s important that in the meantime we stay active,” says Croft, “that we’re doing our research: what’s going down well on YouTube? We haven’t ventured on to TikTok yet – that’ll be next.”  

“The best type of theatre is live, in a theatre – but it’s not the only type of theatre. It’s important that we keep up with the times, turning those negatives into positives!” Croft laughs. Hers is a fiercely determined optimism, but one many young people seem to share – and which can’t help but inspire confidence in the next generation.

The Evening Standard Future Theatre Fund, in association with TikTok and in partnership with the National Youth Theatre, supports emerging talent in British theatre. Find out more at or get involved by entering the TikTok Breakout award #FutureTheatreFund #TikTokBreakoutStar

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