From the Perspective of an Educator – Teaching Screenwriting Amidst a Global Pandemic
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreck havoc across the world, it has not deterred educators from persisting in their unending quest to mould the future of Singapore’s media landscape.
Continuing our series of interviews with media educators, we reached out to Leslie Tan, Deputy Director (Academic) at Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s School of Film & Media Studies and President of Screenwriters’ Association (Singapore).
Leslie has over 18 years of experience in the media industry under his belt, having written for local hits such as Calefare and season two of Code of Law. For the past 13 years, he has also shared his invaluable insights in the industry through his work as an educator for scriptwriting at Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s School of Film & Media Studies. Most recently, Leslie took up the mantle as President of Screenwriters Association (Singapore).
Leslie shared with us the challenges brought by COVID-19 to screenwriting education and to the Screenwriters Association (Singapore), and how he feels we can triumph over COVID-19.
How has the education space for screenwriting changed since COVID-19 took over? What are the challenges that you and your colleagues are facing? How have you overcome them?
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the education space has obviously transitioned to an online, remote learning model, with lessons almost exclusively delivered remotely. The most immediate challenge is obviously the lack of face-to-face time and how to keep students engaged with online learning activities.
It’s been a rough period of adjustment but everyone is coping well; I think it helps that we’re all in this together so the students are more receptive to change and to their teachers trying different methods to see what sticks.
For screenwriting, I have always believed that it is best learned through the practice of it – there is no book or teacher that can teach you how to write, you learn how to write by talking about it and doing it.
For years when I was teaching screenwriting pre-COVID, I struggled with finding a way to allow students to write in class but writing is a largely solitary activity – hardly possible to do well in a class of 25 students writing together in the same space. Then COVID came along and it made people stay in insolation, forcing them to examine and reflect – this helps their creative process of writing and that’s a good thing; so it’s really about seeing the silver lining in these dark times.
From the perspective of your students, how has the way they learn changed? What could be better?
Obviously, most people want to return to school and face-to-face classes – human beings are, after all, largely social creatures. But health and safety come first and we have to manage the return to school in a safe and measured way. In the meantime, the way the students are learning has changed and I do think that it has changed for the better.
Many of the lectures are now delivered online and students can access them at their own time, before attending a live online class. Because of this, when they go to class, they can jump right into the discussion with their questions without waiting for the teacher to deliver the lecture – this “flipped” learning method works well to help students pace and take ownership of their own learning.
I think what could be better would be that – when we can return safely to a face-to-face learning model – this “flipped” learning method can continue and all classes contain a mix of online content and face-to-face content. For example, in a screenwriting class, a lesson on act structure could be delivered in a recorded lecture that students can play and replay any time they want to. Then when they go into the class, they can go straight into discussion about it, where the lecturer is there to provide and stimulate discourse rather than instruct directly.
Do you think this change is permanent? Which parts of it should be adapted or let go of?
As I have mentioned above, the “flipped” learning model should be retained, pandemic or not. As for the change being permanent, I would like to think that it is. To look on the bright side, some of these changes would never have come about if the pandemic had not hit us and forced us out of our comfort zone.
I have always believed that it is the constraints that make us creative and I have seen people make use of this extraordinary time to create some truly amazing work, in and out of the education sphere, really capturing the spirit of what it is to be in this time. My hope is that someday, people will look back on the milestones in our education landscape and say that these amazing things happened because of the COVID-19 pandemic and not just in spite of it. That’s how we win over COVID-19.
How has the Screenwriters Association (Singapore) dealt with the ever changing media space due to the pandemic? As President, what are some challenges you have faced and how have you overcome them?
We have had to put some events on hold that we had planned previously and there’s also dealing with the uncertainty and nebulous nature that the pandemic brings, when planning key events such as Pitchfest which we have held annually for the last two years, at year’s end.
We are currently in the midst of planning a slate of online events so hopefully we will manage to roll out some stuff soon. We are also looking at organising some online training courses which are subsidised for members – this will help people make use of this extraordinary period to skill up and keep current.
On the work front, I do think that as writers, because the work lends itself to isolation, the screenwriting trade has been fairly healthy since the pandemic, as compared to some other screen disciplines. With many productions halted during the Circuit Breaker period, development time for projects has increased (that’s always a good thing) and writing can still continue, with many companies taking the extra time to refine stories and scripts, so as to be ready for when production could once again resume.
Obviously, with the restrictions in filming now, certain considerations have to be taken when writing scripts (no large crowd scenes, no scenes of intimacy, etc) but nothing we can’t write around. As I have said before, constraints are what makes us creative.
Words of advice for writers (or aspiring ones) who might be struggling in the gig economy?
Write what you know – the things that are happening and have happened to you are unique personal stories and should not be ignored. As Albert Camus said, “all great ideas and great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning”. Embrace the personal and it will be compelling.
Also, persevere. Writing, like all endeavours worth undertaking, is hard work but if you stick with it, the reward is you can only get better the more you write. And you don’t need much to do it – just a thought and some pen and paper to get started.
Since its founding in 2000, Screenwriters Association (Singapore) has pushed for the best industry practices for writing, and has organised numerous screening talks and networking sessions over the years. Follow the association’s Facebook page for the latest updates on events and invaluable resources relevant for screenwriters.
– From the Perspective of an Educator – Teaching Film Amidst a Global Pandemic
– Presenting the 2020 Film School Graduate Productions: Nanyang Technological University’s School of Art, Design and Media
– Presenting the 2020 Film School Graduate Productions: LASALLE College of the Arts
– Sinema.SG LIVE! Episode #09: Jasmine Ng from SAMPP, Leslie Tan from SAS