Since March, theatre educators and students have been riding the steep learning curve of remote learning. With the abrupt closure of campuses and the pausing of productions, students’ living rooms became makeshift dance studios, bedrooms transformed into rehearsal halls, and Zoom became the shared stage for virtual performances. In many cases, the online pivot posed opportunities for theatre students to try on content-creator hats and expand their definition of theatremaking.
And theatre educators—many forgoing summer vacations—spent the past few months analyzing the topsy-turvy spring semester and planning online theatre courses for the fall semester. But just how are theatre design students supposed to learn to weld or build costumes without machinery or industrial sergers in their homes? How do they learn to construct flats or craft maquettes without hands-on instruction?
In short, what’s in store in design classes this fall?
“One thing we’ve learned is there’s a lot of technology that we haven’t utilized because we’ve had the luxury of being together in a room,” says Ellen McCartney, the director of Experience Design and Production at CalArts School of Theater. “My brain is sort of buzzing at the moment with a lot of learning that has happened over the summer, so that’s that’s kind of exciting. It doesn’t replace what most of us feel—the frustrating disappointment of not being able to be together.”
Many stage management students learned to run Zoom productions last semester, and costume design students virtually toured actors’ closets to select pieces for virtual productions. Scenic designers learned how to build a budget for plotter machines and printers, a practical lesson that will serve them as freelance designers someday. While some strides in this direction were made last semester, design programs are now turning to new software programs that offer visualization and rendering capabilities to boost the remote learning experience for design students.
“We lost the ability to look at lighting and lighting colors and intensity in person with the naked eye, which is what we do,” explains lighting designer Lap Chi Chu, who finished his last semester at CalArts in the spring. After 19 years there, Chu is now preparing for a new role as head of the lighting program at UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. “We decided to take advantage of what we can learn while being remote, so we were doing a lot of free visualization rendering and using virtual tools—basically using computer mockups to visualize lighting,” he says.
At the University of Arizona School of Theatre, Film & Television, where classes will also be held remotely this fall, associate professor Jenny Lang plans to introduce her stage management students to a new software program that simulates calling stage cues. “The program is kind of like a flight simulator in a way, so the students can practice and learn on their own how to call the show from their own home,” she says excitedly.
Joseph Klug, who teaches scenic design at U of A, has also been expanding his syllabi with new programs including SketchUp, Podium, and V-Ray. “Instead of sitting in a shop teaching students how to use a circular saw, I’m going to sit in my office and learn how to use programs I can teach to my students,” says Klug. “It’s given us the headspace to shift our daily routine, which in turn I think is going to really benefit and shift the student experience quite a bit.”
Many computer software programs, including the Adobe Creative Cloud suite, were made available to students at reduced or no cost because of the pandemic, which helped teachers to make this transition. “The industry as a whole has rallied around education and keeping the students engaged,” says Klug, noting that the Association for Theatre in Higher Education and Facebook groups for educators have also been helpful resources.
There are some aspects of hands-on learning, though, that are missing from computer programs. To help fill those gaps, U of A partnered with a local arts store to create boxes of art supplies and materials to mail to far-flung students.
“What’s difficult is not being able to watch them put something together and catch them, you know, in the moment,” says CalArts’ McCartney. “That’s something we really cannot replicate…It’s very important that they learn how to make polished models, and we really have to see them in 3-D. The industry, however, uses digital rendering, so that’s a skill that we’re pivoting toward.”
This shift to adapt to remote learning supports a larger shift of technology in theatrical design, one that has been pointing to digital rendering and virtual portfolios for some time. “We’re really putting this snow globe down after shaking for so many years,” says Michael Kelley, dean of University of North Carolina School of the Art’s Design & Production program. “It’s really given us a chance to take our breath and reimagine what the industry’s going to look like in the next 15 to 20 years. If we’re not actively pursuing what the delivery system is, how it can be better, and what it’s going to be, then we’re committing malpractice with these students.”
In addition to examining how theatrical design lends itself to more experiential design, including theme parks and museums, design programs are taking this pause to reexamine the process and hierarchy of design. Travis Preston, artistic director of CalArts Center for New Performance and Dean of the School of Theater, notes that the traditional structure of design practice is currently being “supplanted by something much more collaborative and lateral,” he says. CalArts’ McCartney adds: “Students are entering a world where the some of the traditional hierarchies that have gone into theatremaking are no longer viable and are not interesting to them—they want to look work laterally.”
The school’s Experience Design and Production Program, which was launched four years ago, is expanding its offerings to provide students with more opportunities to collaborate across disciplines and create and present work virtually. This year the XPD program will allow students to work on projects that can be fully realized as virtual exhibits, installations, and presentations. Design teams can focus on conceptual, large-scale “Impossible Projects” or fully realize a class paper project or maquette with engineering and budgeting through the “Dream Stages” project.
At UCLA, an augmented reality production, which was presciently already in the works, will happen this fall. In addition, the students will collaborate on developing and presenting a virtual new-works festival. “Our new-play festival is a huge opportunity to have the entire design team, performers, writers, and directors to be on the same page, and to really cross each other’s paths and know what the entire event or picture should be,” says Chu.
At the University of Arizona, these industry-wide conversations about process and practice are taking the form of weekly webinars and panels. While students are unable to develop and present productions this semester, they’ll be homing in on the theoretical aspect of design careers. One panel, for example, will cover the role of a stage manager in the creative process.
Jenny Lang is looking forward to this opportunity to engage with her students about the responsibilities of stage management beyond learning how the tape a floor and run a rehearsal. Other invited guests will lead discussions about crafting cover letters and resumes, presenting portfolios, negotiating contracts, and more. In turn, the college students will present workshops on Q-Lab and PhotoShop to local middle and high schools—an exciting opportunity for those students and teachers who are also missing an in-person education.
The back-to-school prep work at UNCSA was an involved process that might serve as a case study for many design programs looking ahead to in-person classes. After months of working with advisors from the Centers for Disease Control and updating the classrooms and shops according to safety protocols, the UNCSA welcomed students back to the campus in Winston-Salem, N.C., in late August. The workshop floors are gridded with tape marking six feet, and communal appliances, such as refrigerators and microwaves, have been removed from work spaces. Masks are required.
“The kids have been absolutely terrific coming back,” says dean Michael Kelley. “They’ve been living a nightmare since March. Having them back in the classroom…you can just see them all bubbly. And they’re totally respective of the protocols, which is refreshing, and it takes your heart away to realize these kids really need this.”
The department is planning to perform and capture performances that can be broadcast across campus using the school’s newly purchased V-remotes. The Design & Production program worked with CDC advisors to address safety concerns for designers backstage and in the wings. There were lots of questions: How does a hair and makeup designer apply prosthetics to an actor from a safe distance? How long does a costume or prop need to sit for before exchanging hands? How can food be handled safely onstage? How often does the air need to be scrubbed in dressing rooms? How might a room fogger affect lighting and sound equipment?
“We’ve worked through the protocols, so we feel very comfortable that we can protect our students,” says Kelley. If an outbreak occurs on campus, the department is ready with a contingency plan to continue the semester online. “We’re living day by day—we could be shut down tomorrow,” he concedes.
Whether classes resume in person, online, or in a hybrid of the two, students and educators are entering a new world this semester, rife with opportunity—and uncertainty. The convergence of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement is forcing a long-overdue change in pedagogy.
“It’s an invigorating time, and I love being part of change,” says McCartney, noting that it has also been exhausting. “I think it is our responsibility as educators to lead this is the next generation. I’m so curious to see what ultimately they take with them.” The U of A’s Joseph Klug says, “As stressful as it is on us as faculty to figure out how to deliver all this curriculum online, there’s also an added stress to the student in terms of making that transition. It’s about having empathy for everyone going through this process, because we are indeed all going through it together.”
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