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Heightened Expectations: The promise of diversity, sculpting a changing sector

NIDA CEO Liz Hughes was invited to speak at the 5th Annual TEQSA Conference, on the theme Heightened Expectations. In an inspiring speech, she spoke of the incredible year that was 2021, and the unexpected and outstanding outcomes that it has produced.

NIDA CEO Liz Hughes was invited to speak at the 5th Annual TEQSA Conference, on the theme Heightened Expectations: The promise of diversity, sculpting a changing sector. In an inspiring speech, she spoke of the incredible year that was 2021, and the unexpected and outstanding outcomes that it has produced.

My journey at NIDA started in December 2019. I’d come in with a pretty big to do list.

Very soon after walking in the door, I realised that I had arrived at a special place where almost every day I would witness a moment of creative magic.

Many of the writers, directors, set designers, actors, costumers, props and set makers that bring to life the content we see on stage, screen and beyond started at NIDA. And those alumni, are everywhere!

I passionately wanted to harness the awesome creative DNA of NIDA, and at the same time support its evolution and modernisation.

My key priorities when I started were increasing the diversity and inclusion at NIDA, encouraging a greater exploration with technology in creative storytelling, supporting creative and diverse voices, harnessing entrepreneurial skills, and creating greater access to NIDA’s education. And of course, ensuring financial sustainability.

Embracing the opportunities of disruption

I was in the role for literally weeks before quickly getting a sense that this virus was going to be a challenge. NIDA, a mostly in person, practiced based learning offering had to quickly move with the times. Moving embodied training online was imperative.

The first thing we did was started to collaborate with the students.

For anyone who’s part of NIDA, they understand the magic that the creative and ambitious students bring to the organisation. We literally went together side by side to tell each group of students the news – we had to close the NIDA campus, go home and work out a way to teach and learn remotely. Many students were devasted - especially in their third year as this was their major work in their degree.

So, we took a moment and I offered to the students two options: to do nothing and see when this thing called Covid would end and be a victim to the situation. Or grab the opportunity of the disruption and to invent the future of the performing arts.

They went for the latter.

And I believe, what they learnt, and what they experienced, has changed them for the better.

The first big challenge was to work out how to deliver a comparable learning experience.

Instead of our traditional June production season, we created a Digital Theatre Festival with six productions on virtual platforms.

Each production had to be developed and produced online, had to have strong creative outcomes and we needed a creative lead for each production. Our brilliant Director in Residence, David Berthold, found six creative lead artists.

They came up with ideas within the constraints, worked with the actors, stage managers, costume makers, props makers, sound, lighting and sey designers - remotely through Zoom mostly, and incredibly created six fantastic productions.

We had one production, directed by Emmy award winning Sean Stewart who suddenly found himself available, called Roundabout – which we ‘opened’ on gaming platform Twitch.

It was a love triangle with three actors and six characters. The actors were given a 350-page script which they had to learn quickly and then the audience would vote in the chat stream as to what character they played. We did around six performances for the Sydney and LA time zones, each performance was completely unique as the audience controlled the choices of the narrative.

Towards the end, the actors had the chat stream brought into their view and they started to improvise with the narrative and incorporate it into the performance.  It was an amazing production, all created remotely (Sean was in LA the whole time) and really showed the power of NIDA’s teaching, and ability to adapt.

Another production was a two-hour live sci fi performance with multiple cameras and sound effects being dropped in live. I was blown away to see the tech wizardry driving the production.

Another production was shot entirely by individual students on their phones.

Lockdown, was a narrative generated by the students, with the raw energy and honesty of the moment.

The expedited learning was incredible across all the courses that NIDA offers. It included technology, screen practice, courageous storytelling and, of course, working under enormous pressure.

The resilience of the students was impressive. And this resilience continues. The students easily collaborated with the creative artists so the hierarchy that often is present in productions was eroded.

On the vanguard of innovation

The industry collaborations that were built during the pandemic have lasted.

One Technical Theatre and Stage Management alumni continues to collaborate with LA based Sean Stewart and international creators of games and interactive media companies and juggles three time zones, Sydney, US and UK. He’s grateful for the adversity that the pandemic created.

I believe performance schools such as NIDA will be the breeding ground of the next vanguard of innovation in the games sector.

I also learnt so much during this time. I appreciated the special NIDA creative DNA at this moment and realised how well performance training prepared NIDA in dealing with the pandemic.

Performance training embraces improvisation, engaging with audiences in many different forms (often non-linear) and an entrepreneurial spirit of throwing it all together and getting the show on the road.

Performance training is life skills training and the skills taught are mostly found in the top ten of the skills that we will all need for the future of work. We are proud, that at NIDA, that’s what we set the students up for.

A more inclusive learning environment

Over the last 18 months we also expedited our transformation to a more inclusive learning environment, and this was helped along through the BLM movement and through multiple conversations with alumni, students and other stakeholders who generously provided their feedback.

We still have a long way to go, but the commitment to diversity and being a truly accessible organisation is now embedded across all areas of the organisation and is non-negotiable.

We also addressed mental health in a big way and employed several psychologists and counsellors to assist and mentor students as they go through their often-challenging journey at NIDA. This is also now in place forever.

In closing here are a few takeaways:

  • Co-creation with students and ensuring they have agency is critical and the way it must be. We attract really talented and brilliant individuals and we want to ensure we have an environment to co-create with them.
  • Lean into and embrace the opportunities of this disrupted world – we have embraced many innovations from the pandemic
  • Always choose a positive frame
  • Performance training sets you up with all the essential skills that you need, in any sector.

For more information about the conference:

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