The COVID-19 pandemic has wrought havoc on Academia (capital A) and in particular, the theatre department in my college. We just completed three test days using virtual teaching in response to the Coronavirus. After Saturday, the University heads into our Spring Break recess, followed by an additional two weeks of Virtual instruction prior to a return to campus April 14th. There are a lot of courses across the university which are taught online already, and even many which are taught in a hybrid setting, part in the physical classroom, and part online. But this nouveau social experiment we embarked on this week requires us to utilize tools that are antithetical to the work we normally do which is human interaction with live spectators. We teach theatre.
And yet, as I flitted around cyberspace the other night, visiting two different rehearsals, both in their third day of rehearsal, I found the tool of Zoom to not be so terrifying. One group, the BFA Sophomore Actors, embarking on their first class show, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, leaned forward avidly into their cameras, all in their separate housing spaces. They shared research on fairy tale archetypes, then Shakespearean archetypes. I watched as the other cast members listened, their posture and interest peaking when they heard archetypes that resonated for their characters. I stayed in their rehearsal through the first break, then flitted off to another rehearsal, one of the New Works written by a second year dramatic writing MFA student. This was a smaller cast, their windows open, filling my zoom screen a little less completely. I watched as they read several scenes, looking down at their scripts, away from their screens for the most part; one of the actors delivered his lines directly to the screen, and my imagination projected forward to the inevitable question of “What would blocking look like in a zoom production?”
Sewing together the pieces of our Zoom Corona-Quilt of online instruction, theatre practitioners and researchers must all be asking about this national case study in virtual acting. How do we make this work? It isn’t obvious. Especially when circumstances mandate that we not complete the production arc the way we commonly do it, with a performance. This week, on Thursday, our school made the heartbreaking decision to cancel all the remaining plays in our spring semester.
Honestly, I thought to myself as I stepped off the bus tonight after back to back zoom meetings from 8:15AM-6:00PM, thank goodness Friday has arrived so that I can unplug. It’s exhausting. Two days of zooming around from meeting to meeting. Focussed on multiple things – the content of the discussion, the physical settings that all the participants are in – we’re suddenly witness to peoples’ home settings which can yank you right out of the content part of the discussion. What a pretty lamp, or why is there a baker’s rack behind that person? Do they moonlight as a baker? Isn’t that a lovely shade of paint on their wall? Ooh, I love that pillow. Oh crap, what were we talking about?
There’s the chat window which beckons – everyone can see it – sometimes peoples’ questions are on point, but sometimes they are late to the discussion, or completely off topic. Then there are the individual chats – do you acknowledge the question to the group in the spirit of transparency and universality of experience? The focus required is heroic. God forbid it’s your meeting to run. It can be stressy. If you are in academia you know what I’m talking about because we’re all figuring it out together. It’s exhausting, zooming hither and yon.
As far as shutting down our productions, we’re in good company. Yesterday, Center Theatre Group announced the close of all of its shows, including the hit The Book of Mormon, playing at the Ahmanson, and Block Party at the Kirk Douglas, and The Antipodes at the Mark Taper Forum. I had tickets to see The Book of Mormon for my third time tonight, so I was disappointed, but also secretly thankful because I’d been questioning the intelligence of putting myself in a crowded theatre next to people whose spittle would fly (the show is that funny). Broadway closed its theatres until April 12th on March 12th as well. These are historic times, unprecedented, which will be devastating to the arts in this country. I have four tickets to go on a whale watch this Sunday, that I’d bought for my visiting grandbabies. I don’t think I’l go. It’s not a cruise ship, but I get queasy thinking about leaning onto the rail of the boat.
I have genuine sadness for the students, actors and designers who’ve rehearsed their hearts out until today, and now contemplate not being able to finish the show. It is devastating. The students and faculty (not just the theatre students by the way) feel as though the center stage rug has been pulled out from under them.
And yet. Let’s put it into perspective. The great stage rug has been pulled out from under all of us. All students and faculty across the country are being impacted as their learning/teaching is interrupted. I’m perennially Polly Annish. I’m not sure why I’m built that way. I am generally very optimistic, but I can just as easily go to the darkest end of the spectrum. Earlier this week I had the epiphany that of course during the coronavirus, and the incessant rains we’ve had in LA this week, of course this will be when we have the long-awaited catastrophic earthquake. I can go there. But on the other end of the spectrum, I guess I’m just an adrenalin junkie, and I also am incredibly energized by the prospect of discovering a new form of artistic expression in all this mess of virtual artistry. I asked in a meeting if it was possible to rearrange the windows in our corona quilt of zoom. If we black out our video when not speaking, and leave the two actors speaking on camera, does that help to focus “the audiences’s attention”? We should have panels hosting no more than 9 guests because that will nicely fill up the window, a la Hollywood Squares. And how do I get the Paul Lynde square top left? Or how do I put my cut up colleague Phil up there? How do I make breakout rooms according to colors that people are wearing? There are so many refinements needed.
Anyway, it’s been quite a week. As I waited for my Dash bus to go home tonight, I pulled up a recent email from President Folt, with a Coronavirus Video send off to Spring Break. A sincere and warm thanks to all the community for dealing with these strange circumstances with good spirits and optimism. Then I bade our beautiful physical campus goodbye for three weeks. See you all in zoom!