Theatre work at the University of Tampere received international recognition

Submitted on Wed, 12/07/2016 - 10:59
Nätyn verkko-opetus/ Kuva: Jonne Renvall
Shakespeare’s lines from Finland and the United Kingdom can be heard on the same stage. Student actors Juho Rantonen and Saga Sarkola rehearse a scene with student actors from Coventry University (in the background). Photograph: Jonne Renvall

Coriolanus Online project won an international education award

Mikko Kanninen ja Tiina Syrjä/ Kuva: Jonne Renvall
Mikko Kanninen, Tiina Syrjä and Tom Gorman won the Excellence in Education Award at Coventry University. Photograph: Jonne Renvall

Theatre work at the University of Tampere has received international recognition. The online teaching project on Shakespeare’s plays, which UTA is conducting with Coventry University, won the Hybrid Learning Innovations Award from the Teaching Innovation Awards competition organised by the University of Pennsylvania and QS International. University Lecturers Tiina Syrjä and Mikko Kanninen participated in the awards ceremony in Philadelphia on 6 December.

In June, Coriolanus Online received Coventry University’s prize in the category for the internationalisation of the curriculum initiative. Tiina Syrjä, Mikko Kanninen and Tom Gorman also received Coventry’s Excellence in Education award.

Coriolanus was the first part of the two-year Immersive Telepresence in Theatre project, which will continue in 2017 with King Lear, another Shakespeare play. Student actors from Tampere and Coventry will continue to cooperate with the help of a technology based on telepresence.

The rehearsals of Shakespeare’s plays are carried out by using the telepresence technology so that the actors are physically in Tampere and Coventry but they are still rehearsing the play on the same stage through videoconferencing technology

The technical glitches of telepresence have been fixed

At first, telepresence-based technology was called virtuality, but telepresence is now the commonly used term. Kanninen says that instead of virtuality, the project uses actual spaces which are conjoined via technology.

The chances of rehearsing a play via telepresence have improved as the technical glitches, which bugged the project at the beginning, are now almost all in the past. Kanninen is very happy because the speed of contacts between Finland and the UK has grown nearly forty-fold; at its biggest about twenty-two gigabytes per second travel in the cable.

“Twenty-two gigabytes means six DVDs per second. You could not even begin to fathom that the whole Greek literature can now travel through the cables 8000-fold every second,” Kanninen enthuses.

A little over ten years ago, the Theatre at the University of Tampere was equipped with cables in view of future needs. In spite of these preparatory measures, the University still had to pay thousands for new fiber optic network cards and other finishing touches.

Technology enables the meeting of cultures

New technology helps to build connections between cultures and people at a time when nationalistic politics is creating new obstacles and giving cause to prejudices.

“We must have international cooperation in order to avoid isolation, ignorance, fear, hatred and xenophobia,” Kanninen says.

Working online is an alternative for ecologically unsustainable travelling, such as long flights. Kanninen describes the feelings of the student actors in the two countries as “a sense of community”.

“They formed a community without meeting in person. When we stopped using the gadgets at the end of the week, the students were like they had been switched off life support. All that closeness, understanding, meeting of cultures and identifying with each other had happened for real.”

Benefits for both parties

Coriolanus Online brought the students from Tampere in contact with a living Shakespeare tradition. Instead of just flying a few experts to give lectures and direct plays in Tampere, the British expertise came directly to the University Theatre. The benefits were not one-sided as the British students also learned a lot.

“They got the opportunity to experience a different culture and had to do their best with our students. The peer-to-peer learning was shared so it was not just one partner teaching the other. One should always choose cooperation partners in a way that saves the resources of both.”

Telepresence even in a bar

The cooperation between the students in Tampere and Coventry did not rely on just one technology. Kanninen says that the telepresence room where the dance rehearsals were organised and where the students practiced their scenes was just one aspect of the entire project.

The students used a Facebook group for organising their daily schedules. Mobile devices were used to follow lectures given by Tom Gorman in Coventry, and the students rehearsed their lines on Skype.

“We used various online tools from which the students chose the suitable ones for each task. The students opened a remote connection on their laptops when they went to the bar Telakka in Tampere and connected with the students in Coventry. In other words, they went to the bar together,” Kanninen laughs.

A multidisciplinary university supports theatre studies

The special feature of the theatre studies at the University of Tampere is that they are a part of a multidisciplinary university.

“Our education is different from that offered by art colleges, which are based on the idea of pure art. They do not conduct research on digital performance environments, which is a key thing here,” Kanninen says.

The education in Tampere also differs from the one offered in Helsinki because the researchers at the University of Tampere conduct high-quality research on university pedagogy, which is quite rare even on the global scale.

Corporeality and embodiment are also taught in theatre studies at the University of Tampere.

“We have no use for all that equipment if we do not think about how we should get back into the body and experience, into the discoveries of the body and flesh. Who represents such things better at our University than theatre studies? We should be at the top of the pile because of it.”

Kanninen thinks that theatre studies will also play a role in the Tampere3 higher education cooperation.

“I believe it is likely that the merger of the three universities in Tampere will be carried out in some form even though the project has taken a few steps backwards in the recent weeks. During the reign of the present government, product orientation and the spirit of selling have become the new normal at universities, and it is not something they want to give up when it is finally a living reality,” Kanninen adds.

Text: Heikki Laurinolli

Edit: 7 December 2016 at 15:10. The erroneous mention of prize money was removed.