19 March, Sydney, Australia

By Simon Masterton

I teach in a drama school. It is a small, sociable place, rich in physical contact and extroversion. On Wednesday, students were told they were to have ten days without classes followed by a move to online learning for up to four months. On Thursday, the last day of classes, timetables were upended so assessments could be completed in person, even with unfinished work. You can’t help but look for meaning in days like that.

In the morning, my voice pedagogy Masters students were discombobulated. Two at home sick, dialling in to our tutorial via Zoom. The other four, tense below a can-do surface, fearful of losing part-time work on the fringes of the performance industry. We spent an hour talking about tech and preparing for the coming months before we could begin our anatomy class. Afterwards I sent them an embarrassing video I had made as a student myself, to give them some ideas about an upcoming presentation. I wonder if I did that so as not to be forgotten.

Then, over the course of the next two hours, in what would have been our singing class, the second year actors performed all of their half-rehearsed Shakespeare plays: The Merchant of Venice and then A Midsummer Night’s Dream. At a gallop. No costume, no set, no blocking to speak of, Shylock and Antonio absent. Much running about, laughing, swapping roles, paraphrasing and skipping the boring bits. It was unutterably wonderful and I alone witnessed it. The glee on their faces. Maybe it was a panicked defiance, or maybe it was nobody giving a shit. 

At lunch I passed 50 or 60 of them dancing together in the atrium, music pumping, eyes closed, distance between. A head of department was filming them with her phone, desperate to join in, but kept apart by a sense of dignity.

In the afternoon, two more plays, this time by Tennessee Williams and Will Eno. Less fluid, less joyful. This was the final year actors now, worrying about being judged, worrying about not having completed their process before showing their work. It was decent, but lacked delight. I was moved at the end anyway, because I was already mourning: I am saying goodbye to these students before I am ready to. 

Good playwrights know community is fleeting. People come and go and there’s no holding onto them. I work in education, where the learners will – and should – move on and forget. Yet I crave the community of my workplace. What I have let myself in for is a yearly dose of last Thursdays. Just as magnificent and just as sad.