Last Saturday morning, as the 2020 Presidential election was finally announced, thanks to the voters of Pennsylvania, my home state, I took a deep breath, and reveled in the fact that we will once again have a leader in the White House who weighs decisions significantly more carefully than the current denizen fires his destructive tweet device on a daily basis. Even without four years behind us, a comparison of election week’s behaviors from Tuesday through Saturday demonstrated the clear victor. Someone who appreciates the value of science and data, gets that we are in the middle of the most challenging health pandemic the world has ever faced and notices the fact that the graphs showing strong upward trends in infections, hospitalizations and deaths are not indicative of the fact that we are “turning this around.” And I could go on, but many of you can see the wreckage in your rear view mirrors.
Of course, a week has passed, during which time, the wisdom of our selective process has become even more focused. Week 13 began in a state of uncertainty, as the image of the leader of the free world needing to be dragged kicking and screaming from the White House like a petulant toddler from a play date solidified. Frankly, it was hard to concentrate that week but all of the events demanded our focus. Every day brought a new tech rehearsals and events each with house management needs. Fortunately, I was able to delegate many of those duties to my colleague Hannah and student worker, Sofia. My only event this week was the Sketch Comedy culmination, which was a delight. I watched as many of the others as I could, as well.
I ate my stress during election week, but the ice cream and chips were gone by Wednesday, so I hauled the way-too-dormant exercise bike from my bedroom into the living room so that I could spend tech rehearsals doing something constructive rather than destructive. The following photo collage illustrates my week…
Aside from the ledge we were all on last week, my week went well. In addition to being Election day, Nov. 3rd was my peer teaching evaluation day, and I hit the ground running. 🏃♀️ It was fun having colleagues in the classroom as I delivered my props and production management lecture in my 8:00AM class, and at 3:00PM, another colleague popped into my more intimate GESM class where we were exploring creativity and how to use creative problem solving to solve the world’s problems.
This year I’m on the promotion path in my university. If all goes well, I will come out the other side with a new title, Full Professor of Theatre Practice.
“Does that mean you will get tenure?”
I can’t tell you how many family members have asked me that. I guess they’re concerned that I can lose my job at any moment, or are thinking there’s a huge windfall at the end of the process. I tell them, “No, I’m not on that path.” We used to call the path I’m on the Non-Tenure Track path until faculty members spoke up about their objections to being defined as a negative.
I am on the path to Full Professor of Practice and I plan to keep practicing until I get it right. And that may be never, as far as I’m concerned, because the journey is fulfilling and unexpected. Why? Because those who practice theatre are in a crucible of change right now. I’ve always loved the variable quality of my work in the theatre. When I start on a new project, there are a dozen or more new creative people to meet and to get to know through an intimate process of rehearsal, tech and performance. The job is different every day, the players and practice always new and fresh and stimulating. But this year, with COVID, everything about the theatre has changed.
As a production manager, I no longer go into a theatre to watch the installation of scenery and lighting and sound. Our current theatrical space is 2D, but it still involves supporting actors and directors. Instead of sitting in a dark theatre for days on end, I spend the tech rehearsals ensconced on what I affectionately refer to as my “ugly brown couch.” It’s supporting me now as I hunch over my coffee table, eating a huge healthy salad, and clatter away on my keyboard. I don’t really think it’s ugly, but it has lost its appeal for the moment, as anything in the background of your zoom screen does after eight months of intense scrutiny. Do I miss the theatre? Yes, of course. Are we still making theatre? Yes, most defiantly. Will theatre look the same at the end of COVID when we’re all vaccinated and ready to go back into the theatre buildings and shops? No. It, too, will have changed during its journey through the pandemic. Here are some of the things I’m fairly certain will change:
- All design and production meetings will take place virtually.
- Table work, the period at the beginning of the rehearsal period, from first read through until actors begin blocking, will be done in a virtual space.
- Actors’ rehearsal calls will be briefer and much more efficiently scheduled.
- For the foreseeable future, we will wear masks except when interacting on stage. Much the way we block the orchestra pit with a safety chain to prevent people falling in until we remove the chain for dress rehearsals.
- Elements of camera work will undoubtedly appear more on stage as actors grow adept at making videos on their own.
- Costume fittings will likely happen in a hybrid environment. There will be fewer of them.
- We will need to have multiple versions of once singular props – many “heroes” to keep individuals from sharing touched objects.
- Rehearsals may be shorter due to fears of long exposures in tight quarters.
- Performances may happen outside that used to happen indoors.
- Ticketing and ushering will be forever changed as our staff become temperature takers and families are seated in physically distanced pods together in the space.
- Theaters should be built with reconfigurable seating – perhaps seats on sliding tracks that can separate into family groupings. Have the extra seats slide off the end of the row and be stored somewhere.
There will undoubtedly be many more alterations to our usual schedules.
The semester of teaching theatre has changed as well. Because we have no theatre to build and visit, the nature of the GESM class, built on the model of reading the play then going to see it in one of our theaters on campus, became instead about reading plays, watching online representations and exposing the students to as many different types of theatre as I could find. This included having them participate in our production students’ performance experiences which were not plays, but digital theatrical spaces created to mimic interactive experiences.
My Week 12 class exercise involved using the kind of creative problem solving theatre designers and directors do all the time, applied to societal issues of interest to the students. They chose homelessness and food insecurity as it relates to college students. They took the problem, broke it down and began riffing together on possible solutions. Their final list of suggestions was specific and extensive, including ideas such as student run Community Gardens for students who were food-insecure, sharing extra swipes from their meal plans with others, making resources for students with need more accessible, etc.
In Week 13, I directed them to answer three prompts in a twenty-minute solo writing session in class.
- What is the major dramatic question you want to see addressed when you go to the theatre now?
- What type (s) of protagonist do you want to see representing the journey of answering that major dramatic question?
- How will you budget your entertainment dollars going forward?
- Has what you thought you liked about theatre changed over the course of examining the options of theatre this semester?
The trope about students teaching the teacher is one because it’s true. When they returned from writing, they were eager to share, far from the first weeks of class where it was difficult to get them to speak. As each student answered the questions, I realized how much our communal study of the intentional civics of theatre throughout the semester had steeped into our brains, transformed our appreciation of what makes a theatrical event, and how theatre matters to them personally. I was moved and grateful for the privilege of being their guide. The following poem was written by one of the freshman in my class:
And the others were equally as personal and evocative.
I’ve been walking as usual at the reservoir, and Saturday I found the following note as I trudged up the “hill of death” with my brother, huffing and puffing as we pick up trash on our respective sides of the street. Every day we decide who will take the left side, which we’ve ascribed as having more trash than the right. That day, my brother was chivalrous, and on my side, I saw a crumpled paper, that lay in the gutter. I read it, thinking truth was stranger than any fiction I could create.
Who puts their dog in the trunk of their car in the first place? And here was yet another example of how we’ve lost our civility. Our patience. Let’s all just take a moment to breathe and try to be a tad generous. As we crossed the dam, the view of the sky was spotted like a Georgia O’Keeffe painting above my head and I was glad.
In just a few weeks we will be giving thanks and barring a complete COVID shutdown of our city, I plan to be with my son and his family. I can’t believe that by that time, all our exams will be finished and grades nearly ready to submit. This semester has flown by. I have learned so much. I completed the six-week PQ positive mental fitness boot camp and can effectively steer myself away from self-sabotaging mind-f*ckery to calm and balanced creative problem solving. Not bad for six weeks. Bring on the spring semester!