At George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., design student Alex Weimeyer spent her spring break working in the costume shop. Because of the novel coronavirus outbreak, precautions have been taken to limit the amount of people in the costume shop at any given time, and there’s a new rule to wipe down the sewing machines with alcohol swabs. Soon the costume shop, along with the rest of the campus, will shutter for the semester and classes will resume online.
In the meantime, Weimeyer is trying to get ahead on building costumes for the music department’s opera, which has been pushed to the fall. “It’s very weird going on spring break, saying, ‘See you in a week,’ and then saying, ‘Oh, wait—no, I won’t see you anymore,’” says Weimeyer, who is a graduating senior. “A lot of us weren’t prepared for that.”
Weimeyer really wasn’t ready to say goodbye to her capstone project of designing costumes for Jaclyn Backhaus’s Men on Boats, which was set to open in a few weeks. “We smashed women’s styles of the time period and men’s fashion of the time period, so a couple of the women were in pants and a corset,” she says with excitement. “And the boats were structured to look like crinolines of the time.”
All across the country, theatre educators and students are mourning the loss of shows that won’t make it to the stage this semester because of COVID-19. They’re using spring break to brainstorm ways that live theatre performances and hands-on, experiential classes could be effectively conducted online.
At the beginning of March, Daphnie Sicre, a theatre professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, began putting together a Google doc with resources for online teaching to help educators who would be faced with the challenge of remote teaching. The document is currently 48 pages long and includes best practices for remote learning, links to videos, and assignment ideas for everything from stage combat to commedia dell’arté courses. Theatre instructors from as far away as Australia have looked to the document for inspiration in building their online curricula. The Musical Theatre Educators’ Alliance streamed a webinar on how to conduct dance and voice lessons online, and on Facebook, the newly formed group “Teaching Theatre thru Remote Learning” has swelled to 1,500 members.
“It is very inspiring to see how people are so willing to help and share resources,” says Ricardo Vila-Roger, interim head of performance at the University of Pittsburgh. “Not a lot of us have done online learning or taught online. Those of us who are a little older are intimidated.”
While figuring out how to teach scene study classes and the Meisner technique online offer educators a lot to think about, teachers are currently also preoccupied with ensuring the physical health and safety of their students as they vacate dormitories and deal with the loss of jobs in the service industry. Moreover, some students may be relocating to shared living spaces with family members who are unsupportive of their theatre studies or lifestyle choices.
“We’re all very concerned about the mental health and physical health of our students,” says Lisa Portes, head of the directing program at the Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago. For her part, she’s communicating with her students using the Marco Polo app, where they have been checking in and helping each other locate food pantries and other resources through short videos.
Cindy Gold, theatre professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., says teaching at this time will be similar to teaching after 9/11. “It reminds me of how shell-shocked everyone was, and how comfortable I was in relaxing my attendance and grading policy and letting students grieve the way they needed to,” she recalls. “I’m being easy with them without losing sight of the fact that we have a mandate to teach the next quarter online—it is a balancing act.”
Caitlyn Conlin, a movement instructor at USC School of Dramatic Arts in L.A., is mindful of her students’ possible limitations as they move classes online—some are adjusting to sharing a living space with family members, others might not have access to free WiFi, some are thousands of miles away in different time zones. She’s doing her best to put a positive spin on having to move classes online during this difficult time and is checking in with students one-on-one to assess their needs.
“Students need a bit of curiosity and enthusiasm to even enter the online space,” she says, noting that she starts each Zoom class session by lighting a candle to help create a sense of communal energy via the screen. “When I create limitations in the classroom, those open up pathways for creativity,” she says. “Now we have a limitation of being online, so what can we do with that?”
Conlin’s course includes a lot of group meditation, yoga, and breath work, which she’s easily able to lead on Zoom. This semester her students will be tasked with creating choreography for each other to learn, inspired by Spotify playlists and prompts shared on Google Drive.
At the University of Alabama, the musical theatre students will be keeping up with voice lessons with instructors through Zoom and FaceTime, with the help of apps such as Appcompanist. Stacy Alley, the head of the musical theatre program, will be sending her dance students recorded choreography to learn, and challenging them to create dances based on particular rhythms. “We also have been discussing the importance of meeting together and having that communal experience, rather than just me sending out a video,” says Alley, who is also the president of the Musical Theatre Education Alliance.
One area where online learning will prove beneficial will be courses focused on self-taping and on-camera acting. Vila-Roger of University of Pittsburgh will lead a class on how to slate for auditions, and students will be tasked with recording taped auditions to share with classmates for feedback. “Our students can use this time to focus on self-taping, because that is the way a lot of auditions happen these days,” adds Alley.
As for multi-character scenes, Cindy Gold of Northwestern is utilizing the breakout room function in Zoom, which allows for up to 50 separate sessions to take place simultaneously. “I’ll be teaching Chekhov’s scene study, and so much of that is based in Stanislavsky’s ideas of communion and being present with each other. So we’ve been playing around with breakout rooms on Zoom where I can assign a scene and two people can do the scene together. The negative is that they can’t really make eye contact, and that is so difficult,” she says.
Zoom will be a lifeline for many teachers this semester, though it isn’t a magic bullet for communal learning. “The Zoom format is more quickly exhausting because you don’t have live energy coming your way—the kinetic energy that comes from being in a room,” says Portes.
Indeed, much will be lost in the transfer of theatre classes to the web, but the theatre community across the globe is offering a plethora of opportunities to inspire artists to continue creating work during this scary time of social distancing and self-isolation. Playwright Lauren Gunderson is leading weekly playwriting classes on Facebook Live, Paula Vogel is spearheading a bake-off playwriting challenge, and Young Jean Lee will be conducting an online writing workshop, among many others. Industry leaders, as well as university alumni, have reached out to contribute lectures for classes via Zoom for programs across the country.
“Not to be a Pollyanna, but I think there’s a silver lining,” says University of Alabama’s Alley, noting that casting director Joy Dewing will be Zooming in to classes. “The theatre community has offered their time and their resources, and has been so generous.”
Teaching is one thing. What about performing? Sadly there are many university performances—like the ready-to-open 31-person cast of Legally Blonde at the University of Alabama—that will never see an audience. But other in-progress productions, many of which are requirements for final grades, might find an audience online with different uses of technology. Teachers are leaning on tech-savvy students to lead the charge in this new remote territory. “There’s a real creative opportunity in the midst of trying to figure out how to meet this challenge,” says Portes of DePaul. “I think that’s how we’re all approaching it with our students, and the students are in front of us on this.”
Madie Doppelt, a fourth-year playwriting major at DePaul, is exploring how her thesis project The Model Play, which is about five 16-year-old top models pursuing their careers in cities around the globe, might work as a podcast. “The structure of the play is 12 scenes, and it is meant to be chronological, but I am really excited about the idea of breaking up those scenes and presenting them as a digital series,” says Doppelt, noting that the costume sketches and renderings will be uploaded online with design notes. “The trick is maintaining the sense of the time and the era while going digital, which feels directly counterintuitive, but provides a fun challenge.” She’s looking forward to holding a reading of the play on Zoom in the coming days.
Rebecca Willingham, an MFA directing student at DePaul, is looking to Instagram to share her play Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons as a series of short scenes. The play is about a couple navigating a world in which a law is passed that people can only communicate using 140 words per day. “So we can’t have all of us in the same room, how do we transfer that feeling?” asks Willingham. “How do we still create community during this time? That’s part of why I looked toward Instagram—a lot of people in the millennial generation do feel a lot of community there, and that is where people connect with their friends and with people across the world. I’m excited that it can be a place for conversation to be created around a piece of theatre.” If students are not safely able to film scenes together, her plan is to cut together separately recorded scenes and release the scenes as an anthology on an Instagram account created specifically for the show.
Educators and students alike are being adaptable to maintain normalcy and keep classes on track while online, but this remote semester is also offering opportunities for course correction. At Loyola Marymount University, students in the script analysis class collectively decided to put their learnings to practice by writing plays as a final assignment instead of analyzing more scripts, and the students plan to submit their works to the university’s New Works Festival next year.
Cindy Gold will have her students explore Chekhov’s oeuvre through the lens of disease, which features prominently in his work. Students will film videos that correlate their personal experiences dealing with COVID-19 with those depicted in Chekhov’s plays.
Rachel DeSoto-Jackson, a professor of applied theatre at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, teaches an acting course in partnership with the school’s nursing department that creates live simulations with interdisciplinary students from across healthcare and diverse fields.
“As you might imagine, the shift to online learning has been challenging in trying to maintain the learning standards for this live performance interaction,” said DeSoto-Jackson in an email. “However, this has been an opportunity to shift the pedagogy toward the growing emergence of Telehealth. This is a trend right now in healthcare, and often nurses and doctors are unprepared for communicating empathy via a virtual screen.” Through Zoom, DeSoto-Jackson will be training her acting students how to perform virtual simulations that mimic Telehealth scenarios.
Moving courses online affirms some of the basic principles of theatre, and stretches others. Tanya Kane-Perry at California State University is excited by the challenge of teaching Viewpoints via Zoom. “The Viewpoints theory is born out of postmodernism and purposely rejects concepts of hierarchy and value judgements,” said Kane-Perry via email. “There is no ‘wrong’ way to adjust the exploration within the parameters and restrictions now imposed by the pandemic COVID-19.” The restrictions of social distancing, she posits, will give the class an opportunity to explore space, time, and shape by creating three-dimensional work, capturing it on a two-dimensional phone camera, sharing it on the online portal Canvas, then viewing it on a computer screen. “The ‘copy of a copy of a copy,’ like Warhol’s silkscreens of Campbell soup labels, raises fascinating questions that hark back the existential quandaries reflected in the allegory of Plato’s Cave, and resonate with the surreal and constantly shifting situation we find ourselves in as a result of this exponentially spreading deadly virus.”
In just one week of interdisciplinary and cross-university brainstorming, it’s clear that there will be no shortage of ideas of how to tackle remote learning throughout this semester. “We’re getting such an onslaught of teaching resources—it’s like a firehose that’s opening,” says Portes. “Like you’re dying of thirst, but all you have is a huge firehose and you can’t get a drink because there’s so much coming at us right now.”
Some students feel that before they dive into widening pool of innovative ideas for online classes and all the master classes now available to them, it’s important to take time to mourn the losses that are not so easily turned into Instagram stories or radio plays: the in-person senior showcases that were canceled, the final semesters cut short.
For Alex Weimeyer at George Mason University, ending her four-year college career without those marks of closure is heartbreaking. “There are about three of us that had the opportunity to graduate last fall, but decided to pick up a minor and do the full four years because we wanted to graduate together as a class,” says Weimeyer, noting that the graduation ceremony was pushed back to June. “It’s very lonely right now. We went from being in classes with all of our classmates to being isolated.”
DePaul student Madie Doppelt says, “Right now I’m riding the disappointment of what we’ve closed and what we’ve lost. I’m trying to give myself the space to not write and to not interact with art so much, and let that sit.” Her fellow classmate Rebecca Willingham concurs: “I think now is just a time where we have to redefine how we find community through theatre, and I hope it can be inspiring and invigorating—but I also feel that it is just as valid to not want to create right now. It is just as valid to want to hole up and take time for yourself.”
Teaching and learning in the time of a global pandemic will be terrifying and exciting and awful all rolled into one as everyone navigates emotional, mental, and economic challenges while attempting to make art. On the bright side, Weimeyer says this experience will prepare her for a future in theatre: “It’s a good exercise in taking punches as they come, and just figuring out how adaptive we can be.”
Stacy Alley of the University of Alabama looks forward to learning about the field’s adaptations and how this semester might shape theatre education moving forward. “It will be interesting to see on the other side of this what worked and what didn’t,” she says. Portes remains confident that the theatre community will pull through. “The good news is that we’re creative,” she says. “We’re a creative field that is built on people collaborating together to figure out how to make things—and that’s what we’re doing.”
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!