Coming back to campus after spending my senior year online never ceases to feel incredibly weird for me. Yet I still come back to work front of house for the Washington, D.C.’s American University musical theatre program’s first in-person musical since the pandemic, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. As people enter through the stage door, it’s a parade of returns as I hug a friend, then a professor I have not seen in person for what seems like forever. I take tickets, a process that hasn’t changed as much as the one at the box office, where proof of vaccination is required. Then I settle in for the show, and it’s like time hasn’t passed at all.
But things have changed. Vaccinations are more widespread, and a sense of normalcy is coming back, but programs aren’t fully out of the woods. At issue is not just COVID-19 safety. Programs are also figuring out how to better support their students’ mental well-being and address concerns about inequity that have risen to the fore in the past year-and-a-half.
I talked to students and faculty across the country about their experiences returning to school this fall. My hope is to explore the scope of changes to college theatre training after a 20 months of pandemic and protest, as well to gauge what hasn’t changed. Some had hybrid experiences, and some were more or less in person the whole time. Others had zero in-person classes, and didn’t begin performing for live audiences until this semester. This is not the comprehensive last word on all in-person college theatre throughout the U.S. But the stories and strategies detailed below tell a story of return, revival, and in some cases, revamping at many colleges.
Coming Back to the Classroom
“We take so much less for granted after the year we’ve had,” said Sara Becker (she/her), a professor at University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, noting that students are returning with a deepened passion and commitment. After holding hybrid classes over the 2020-21 school year, UNCSA still requires masks in class. For Becker, that means teaching voice and speech online and outside. She said she still doesn’t know if she’ll be able to go back to some of the ways she’s taught this class in the past.
“Students are understandably nervous about touch and in some cases still uncomfortable with very close proximity to others,” she said. “The modifications I made when teaching online are still in place in the classroom.” But there are some upsides, she noted: “The gains they got working solo online have now transitioned for many of them into developing a personal at-home voice practice. It led many of them to more fearless personal exploration. I’m looking to keep that now that we are back all together.”
Webster Conservatory in St. Louis, Mo., pivoted to online learning and canceled remaining productions in March 2020 due to licensing issues, and began hybrid learning in fall 2020, for a school year in which students were allowed to participate in department activities in whatever way they felt most comfortable. Now, with a full return to in-person activities, Webster’s faculty and staff are still navigating comfort and health levels, department chair and theatre studies/dramaturgy professor Gad Guterman said.
“Inevitably, there is some awkwardness and friction as we relearn to work in space together,” he said. “I believe we have been successful in empowering students, faculty, and staff to share openly any concerns or hesitations. Part of this pivot to in-person only includes for us the desire to stage particular shows whose licensing does not easily permit streaming options.”
Robert Shimko (he/him) is director of the School of Theatre and Dance and head of BFA Playwriting and Dramaturgy at the University of Houston, where the school moved to hybrid learning in fall 2020.
In his lecture-based theatre history and dramaturgy classes this semester, he at first was “waiting for people to start asking questions. Now that we’re halfway through the semester, or more than halfway through the semester, it does feel back to normal; we have interesting conversations and interesting exchanges,” he said. “But there was a relearning period, where it was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I can raise my hand and it’s not an interruption, it’s not a problem, it actually keeps the discussion going.’”
At Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, classes first went online in spring 2020, and some classes, including stagecraft and scenic construction, were suspended due to access issues. Interim department chair and head of costume technology Ellen Bredehoft (she/her) was asked to step into the position at the end of August 2020, right before that semester started.
“It was a bit of a fast learning curve,” she said. “Because of the nature of last year, we did not do a search, because we were on a hiring freeze, so I’m serving for an additional year.”
The program went to hybrid learning in fall 2020, and started having all students in at least one class fully in person in spring 2021. This was possible because Rutgers was among the first schools to adopt a vaccine mandate. Masks are still required in all classes, except for certain voice classes and productions.
All juniors and seniors are currently at the program’s required abroad program in partnership with London’s Globe Theatre, making up for the break of more than a year; new COVID rules place each student in individual dorms abroad. The school’s “froshmores” all experienced fully in-person learning at Rutgers for the first time without those upperclassmen around—which, according to Bredehoft, has made it feel a bit like a “halfway semester.”
For their part, students are making the necessary adjustments after a year or more of online learning. Anna Lei Negrin (she/her), a junior BFA Acting student at UNCSA, said that the school did a good job of making the transitions as manageable as possible. Initially they broke up the 28-person cohort into four groups of eight for Zoom classes. During spring 2021, classes were in two groups, with half in the room with the professor and half in another room on Zoom.
Now, she said with some relief, “You see everyone around campus, and it feels a lot more like the first year for me, which is really nice. Getting to be with our whole group again was so wonderful. I really don’t feel like I’m being robbed of anything in my training, which I’m super thankful for.”
For comfort ifeoma katchy (she/her), a senior BFA playwriting student at the University of Houston, the renewed energy around her college and its surrounding city is palpable. Katchy reported that the transition back felt like a natural progression of where she was in her academic career.
“Being back, you see a lot of people’s hopes and spirits really rejuvenated and revived from the crazy year,” katchy said. “You see a rebirth of passion and understanding, at least for myself and the people around me.”
Coming back also means the return of students who took gap years off due to the pandemic. Ryo Kamibayashi, a sophomore BFA musical theatre major at the University of Michigan, stayed in his home country of Japan and did not return to school until this semester, even as Michigan transitioned to hybrid learning last year, with dance classes in the studio but most other classes online. Coming back, he reflected on differences in performing between the U.S. and Japan.
“Personally experiencing America, and then going back to Japan to work again, and coming back here, I started understanding—it’s the same musical theatre art form and yet it’s so different according to culture, language, country, and everything,” Kamibayashi said.
At Michigan, masks are required in all classes, except for singing classes, where students are allowed to take off their mask when they go up individually to perform (though unmasking is not required). For Kamibayashi and junior B.F.A. Musical Theatre major Alyssa Carol (she/her)—who both performed in Michigan’s last show that closed a week before pandemic shutdowns—it’s rejuvenating to be back, but there was a period of reacclimation, what Carol called “a bit of a shock.”
“I literally got back from Japan jetlagged and not expecting to get in [to this semester’s mainstage musical, The Wild Party,] but I somehow did,” Kamibayashi said. “I didn’t have time to think about it, I just got to work. It was a pretty smooth transition, but I also experienced the ‘go go go’ sudden adjustment. In my performance classes, there’s a lack of energy. I still feel my gears are a little rusty, I can feel my eyes not being engaged, some part of me is still sleeping.”
Lasting Online Lessons
For many, new ways of doing recruitment, productions, and classes forced by the lockdown of the past 20 months are likely to last beyond the pandemic. Guterman said Webster learned that they can recruit students without asking them to travel to meet and interview. While they are not doing away with in-person auditions/interviews entirely, they plan to continue doing one day of virtual auditions on equal footing with on-campus and Unified auditions, not least because, as Guterman said, “It allows us much greater access to students we might not otherwise have met.”
Becker had students record their final showings of solo material for class and send them to her digitally, which means she can cover more ground over the course of the semester. “Their facility in recording themselves will serve them auditioning professionally, and for many of them, they turned these recordings into small performance pieces,” she said. “I plan on keeping this model from now on.”
Students are also bringing the emotional impact of acting classes online to their work in person. For Carol, online acting classes compelled her to perform in spaces that were vulnerable and personal; she has distinct memories of working on “She Used to Be Mine” from Waitress in her hometown bedroom.
“Doing that one felt so raw and real, singing in spaces where so much of me had lived, and I was getting to use that as inspiration for performing,” said Carol. “As I come back in person, I’m trying as much as possible to bring that authenticity and vulnerability that was held in that space to a performance space. There’s nothing like living in the space that creates art.”
Shimko said that the University of Houston had long seen its theatre students taking coursework within the Communication School, but the program has now added courses on digital media to core curriculum. They’ve doubled Acting for the Camera classes and now have a film professor teaching a film and video production class exclusively for theatre students.
“It did cause us to take a different look at technology, not just as a substitute, but as one of the places that the field is headed, and to put our money where our mouth is by changing curriculum and putting resources into that,” Shimko said. Future students “will have more interaction with the Communication School, and they won’t necessarily even know or care that it was the pandemic era that caused us to make those partnerships or to restructure the curriculum.”
Playwriting students began more self-created projects as well. Katchy said that student-driven work continues to invigorate the community, as she participated in a short festival of new works this semester called Rounds.
Rutgers’s technical theatre programs have also recognized the central importance of computer-based programs. Technical direction and stage management students are now taking projection design classes for lighting and set design, and are learning to use programs accessible to them on iPads for digital rendering courses.
“We’re slowly adding more computer classes, due to the nature of the industry,” Bredehoft said. “A lot of them had already been in place or were becoming part of the regular curriculum prior to the pandemic. But it definitely reinforced the reasons why we’re using all these things.”
In her advanced costume construction class, Bredehoft created video demonstrations of sample work and homework with YouTube and Canvas, a learning platform Rutgers moved to during the pandemic. Using a combination of these videos and in-person directions makes it easier for students to access information, she said.
Guest artists and new partnerships have also emerged, as being online made it easier to connect. Many schools had guest artists speak to students virtually. UNCSA took note of professional theatres’ question-and-answer sessions, workshops, and recordings.
“We learned that students can still feel a connection with a guest artist, even if they just meet them online,” Becker said. “It is wonderful bringing people down to share space, but if they are too busy to travel to us, it’s better to make that connection than not.”
The University of Houston’s dramaturgy program began a new partnership with the Alley Theatre that places students with productions there as a practicum class. When the pandemic hit, they provided dramaturgy for the Alley’s online season with graduate and undergraduate students and faculty. Even with school otherwise back in person, that class is usually held online on a Tuesday night as a once-weekly Zoom check-in.
In terms of teaching dramaturgy, Shimko has moved into a “more experience-based approach. It leads me to say, ‘Here’s what I’ve been doing for years in a professional setting, and it never occurred to me to mention it in the classroom. Here’s what I do that I think works.’”
One new idea he brought to that practicum class is a method of documenting the experience of seeing a play that he started with his work at Houston’s Catastrophic Theatre years ago. “The idea is, you watch the run of the play, you go home, you sit down at your computer, and you write almost like a journal entry,” Shimko said. These essay-like writing assignments capture responses in the moment and thoughts that lead to other thoughts while watching the show.
At Rutgers, more professional development courses are being offered as a transition from school into the profession, Bredehoft said. These cover contracting, unions, agents, student loans, and other practicable topic areas that don’t fit into design or acting class. Prior to the pandemic, one career-focused class was usually just in the spring, but they now have to offer it every semester for students to graduate on time.
Building and Retaining Community, Safety, and Equity
Students and faculty have also continued to engage in conversations about social justice that emerged with a new urgency during the pandemic, and since the murder of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. At the University of Michigan, there’s a new DEI requirement for students to fulfill through an approved race and ethnicity course from the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts or the School of Music and Dance.
Carol said that the program’s new musical theatre chair, Michael McElroy, is “the main change” as students return in person. Students of color have begun having more individual meetings with him, and there’s more focus on racial inequities in the industry, as well as on mutual understanding and communication. This has a lot to do with McElroy being there, according to Kamibayashi.
“We can share what kind of changes we want to see in the program and how we can make it happen,” said Kamibayashi. “He’s made it very clear that as important as it is to have a space where we can share thoughts and worries, there needs to be actual change done. Because the school is such a great musical theatre school, how do we change and shape the form of this art form? Him being the leader and initiating that is very important.”
Guterman said that faculty at Webster underwent antiracism training with Nicole Brewer last summer, and they are currently working on training material to support the needs of trans and gender nonconforming (TGNC) students.
“These are only stepping stones and we recognize our collective ability to support students requires constant nurturing and learning,” Guterman said. The first step to conversation is typically the connections made in their small classes focused on collaborative teaching and collective grading that “serve as a first layer of response and support for students who might be struggling, for whatever the reason.”
At UNCSA, Negrin said, “Our students are very vocal. One thing that’s wonderful about the drama program is this faculty listens to the students…and they just want to make us as comfortable as possible, and the students really hold the other students accountable. I’ve learned so much about myself and my identity, simply from just being here.”
A spokesperson for UNCSA said that a feedback form to report microaggressions, suggested by faculty and students in the School of Drama, is under consideration from a “university-wide standpoint as part of the school’s overall equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging efforts.” The school’s leadership, this spokesperson said, is “building on the ideas initiated by the Drama School to create a sustainable and strategic way to implement a reporting and response system like this for the entire campus.”
Katchy says that she’s observed conversations surrounding social justice at college, but doesn’t believe that it’s exclusive to any specific department. “I see a lot of important conversations happening, a lot of fight, a lot of exhaustion,” she said. “But for me, I just trust that there’s hope in all of this, and all of us continue to show up every day, for the sake of our art, and that is going to make a better world.”
According to Bredehoft, Rutgers has developed a newly formed student adviser and advocate role in the theatre department to better meet their students’ mental health needs, branched off from the Office for Advising and Student Success. Each department has someone embedded in that role who is not a regular theatre professor but is associated with the department. “It’s important to provide someone to go to to get support who is not their teacher, it’s critical for students to have an advocate,” she said.
The return of some department traditions this semester have brought more celebration than concern. Several programs have held welcome-back gatherings for students and faculty to reconnect at the start of the school year.
“The energy and joy in the room was certainly apparent,” Guterman said of Webster’s gathering. “Hearing live applause was exciting. The joy, for me, was rooted less in the return to a tradition than in the return to a shared experience.”
Shimko said that Houston’s gathering usually ends with a stack of pizzas in their lobby, and they didn’t do that this year—a reminder that they’re still taking precautions. But one tradition that has returned is the opening night toast. “You can see on everybody’s faces that they’re proud of the work they’re doing,” Shimko said.” They’re happy to have real opening nights that feel like opening nights with everybody present.”
Michigan traditionally has the senior entrance to kick off each school year, produced and performed by the senior class for the department. Carol and Kamibayashi both had visceral reactions to watching this year’s presentation in person.
“Especially after last year, having it live—that was the first maskless performance I’d seen since before COVID,” Carol said. “That’s really special, having an entirely 20-minute performance dedicated to the department, dedicated to the faculty and to the freshmen who are about to embark on the greatest journey of their lives. Sitting in those seats, I cherished it a lot.”
How Is the Show Going On?
Meanwhile, college productions in a tentatively post-pandemic world are bringing dreams to reality for students again, even as many schools strongly encourage masks and the usual protocols and precautions. At Webster, fully vaccinated students who opt to perform without a mask are allowed to do so. At Rutgers, masks are required up until dress rehearsals. Students are allowed to take them off as they walk onstage and put them back on as they walk offstage, and all technicians wear them throughout the entire process.
Shimko said that the University of Houston is fortunate that their main theatre allows a degree of distancing, where they can have 200 people in a 560-seat house and it still feels full. He noticed that on opening night of their first performance, instead of clustering more in the center, people spaced out all the way through the house.
“I think it was an interesting carry-over of people’s instinct during this period not to sit directly next to somebody that they don’t have to,” he said. “The way that folks are fanning out in the house has been interesting to watch.”
At UNCSA, Negrin experienced her first mainstage this semester, recently closing a production of Indecent by Paula Vogel, in which she played the Chana track. Negrin previously played several Asian American roles in the sophomore demos class, including Panny in BFE by Julia Cho and Kendra in Gloria by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins.
“As an artist at UNCSA, I have really started exploring all sides of my identity, and that’s been really wonderful to play roles where identity is such a part of the process,” she said. “We’re making a point about doing Asian work, or in this case for Indecent, Jewish lesbians, and Jewish queerness in general. Being able to do work for the Jewish side of myself has also been really wonderful.”
At Michigan, Carol and Kamibayashi recently closed Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party (both in the ensemble, the latter as Max). They rehearsed with masks on for several months and got weekly tests, and moved to performing maskless for run throughs and performances. During their first maskless run-through, “the entire story just came to life,” Carol said. “It illuminated how much I use this part of my face to connect with other people. It almost felt risque, naughty to have our masks off. I haven’t felt that energy since COVID.”
When they worked on “Raise The Roof” maskless for the first time, even though they’d been working on that song for a while, the experience of hearing the volume of the singers led to a greater sense of physicality and immediacy. “Oh, we’re back in person and we’re having a party,” Kamibayashi remembered thinking. Said Carol of another ensemble moment, “I felt like I was flying—just inexplicable serotonin.”
Katchy’s play How I Learned To Play Tennis was the first senior BFA playwright-commissioned play to go up in person at the University of Houston since the pandemic. The process began in “Zoom-land” in fall 2020, when playwriting juniors worked on original work to submit for consideration to be produced and developed as a full mainstage in senior year. Katchy received that opportunity with her play about an inappropriate relationship between a tennis player and her coach.
“I love that challenge of like, ‘Why is it inappropriate, why is it uncomfortable?’ And there are obvious reasons,” she said of the play. “But I’m interested in stories that reveal the truth about us that we can see in ourselves—to ask deeper questions about why that truth exists? And if we’re okay with that truth, why or why not?” Being in the room “with people who are willing to walk into that heaviness but still find the joy” has been a highlight of the process. “I feel like it’s bringing a lot of artists closer together because it’s helping us to remember what’s important, and that’s people,” she said.
Not every student gets to have the senior mainstage moment they worked toward for four years. At Rutgers, Bredehoft said, normally playwriting pieces written by graduating seniors would be part of their mainstage programming. But with seniors away in London, they’re unable to cast those specific projects. Instead they’re doing professional readings in New York City for two of the plays, and plan to bring those projects and playwrights as guest artists back next year with the next graduating class. Rutgers also created a graduating students website for actors and designers last year, which will continue going forward even as they do in-person live showcases.
What’s It All About?
A renewed focus on individual student needs seems to be a common thread among many of the schools explored here. Carol and Kamibayashi said that McElroy, the department chair at Michigan, takes the time to understand each student on an individual level—a feat for a program with 80-90 majors at a time.
“He looks at each of us one on one, really communicates, and makes us all feel so safe and understood,” Kamibayashi said. “As an educator and mentor, that’s so important when you look at who is cultivating this craft; it makes a world of difference who that person is for you. Michael has a rich background as a teacher and actor and understands each student’s perspective, with many ways of looking at and approaching things. He was once in our shoes.”
Carol said that the most important thing she now knows about what she wants to learn is how to authentically give back—to make theatre that betters her community. Yet she knows the pandemic is still not over, nor are its effects.
“That weighs on us still, that this last year was tough,” she said. “In some ways we’re moving on as if it’s gone, but it’s not. We have stamina in the sense of maintaining a rigorous curriculum, but still juggling with a really heavy thing that’s affecting the rest of the world.”
Becker said that COVID has reminded UNCSA faculty about the impact of student wellness on learning, and how “absolutely necessary it is to take that into account in the structuring of classes. We check in regularly with each student about how they are doing holistically, encourage them to stay in communication about their needs, and link them up to the resources that are out there to make the most of their time in training,” she said. “We’ve articulated as a faculty that we need to work to find a balance of rigor and wellness—and that it’s going to look a little different for each student that walks into our classroom.”
Negrin noted a big curriculum change for the third-year students, who now have fewer classes than the cohort that came before them. Though it’s still rigorous training, the pullback on the workload is a welcome reprieve at a time when they are also doing mainstage work for the first time in college.
“Once you’re in a mainstage, you’re rehearsing from 6 to 10 p.m. every night,” she said. “It’s nice to have a break during the day where you can rest, get your work done, cook, live, whatever you want to do. I think there’s a lot more respect with literal physical boundaries.”
Ultimately it may be too early to put into words the larger meaning or the lessons of this extraordinary 20 months of pandemic and protest. But my sources have no doubt of the impact.
“I don’t know if we’re far enough away, but in many ways it has strengthened us as a community,” said Bredehoft. “We are looking out for not only our success as theatre artisans but being safe in the classroom and on the stage. We are ever-evolving. This is one of those questions we may not be able to answer for a couple more years until we can look back on what the pandemic actually shifted.”
For my part, I’m still figuring out the ways I’m shifting and changing from everything I learned both in-person and online over the past year-and-a-half. Those answers will keep coming, as will my learning and developing as an artist. No matter the time or place, no matter the craft or skill, no matter the mode of learning, the lessons don’t stop.
Daniella Ignacio (she/her) is a writer, theatre artist, and musician based in Washington, D.C. She is a former editorial intern and current editorial assistant for American Theatre. www.daniellaignacio.wixsite.com/site
Creative credits for production photos: The Wild Party at University of Michigan, direction/choreography by MiMi Scardulla, music direction by Jason DeBord, scenic design by Tim Brown, lighting design by Matthew Taylor, costume design by Suzanne Young, sound design by Al Hurschman; Sondheim on Sondheim at Webster Conservatory, direction by Tali Allen and Michael Baxter, costume design by Dorathy Lee Johnston, scenic design/art by Fallon Podrazik, lighting design by Jonathan Scully, wig/makeup design by Charlotte Seidensticker, and sound design by Thomas White; Indecent at UNCSA, direction by Acadia Barrengos, scenic design by Leo Murphy, costume design by Tsung Ju Clark Yang, lighting design by Schuyler Bento, wig and makeup design by Elisa Stroud, props direction by Kendall Myers, sound design by Ryan Cooper.
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