I am well and truly home from my Tennessee adventure, with a new appreciation for the power of focus and solitude in the creative life. This week has assured me that neither focus nor solitude will be easily found in the coming weeks.

And I’m okay with that.

This week has been very special – it began Monday with the start of the return to campus of our student body. We’ve learned a little through the pandemic about how to repopulate the campus in a more humane way. Pre-Pandemic (PP), we used to do the Move-in all in one day. It was hideous experience for everyone. Those who were just coming to work found themselves in block long strands of traffic cramming through all of the gates. Spreading out the process has made it much more humane for all.

We have students who are coming to campus for the first time in two years. Put another way, we have two classes of students joining us for the first time. As a result, there has been a very robust welcome week all over campus. Two of each of the events. Twice as much fun. And it has been fun this week.

A few observations. We’re all feeling pretty amped up right now. The adrenaline is flowing for sure.

Here were a few thoughts I had looking back over the past two days.

Freshman Parent Welcome Event – Tuesday Evening

I’ve always loved this event – it’s a chance to meet the creators of the students. As I’ve been longer at the institution, I’ve watched the parents get younger and younger. Same with the students, but about ten years ago even, I was the same age as the freshmen’s parents. Then it was the sophomore’s. Now I’m practically old enough to be the parents’ parent. But that aside, it is always an event where I experience unbridled gratitude and celebration of the phenomenal job they have done of raising their kids to make them be the sassy, inquisitive, curious, creative souls we get to have in our classrooms. That reception is where we get to hear a little about the parents’ journeys. Is this their first child leaving home? Perhaps even their only child? How precious a gift they are entrusting us with. Is this their last child? I always ask them “What are you going to do with your child’s bedroom? Too soon?” As Mom tears up, I quickly subvert the question into something more innocuous like “When do you head home?” At any rate, it’s where we hear the beginning of our students’ journeys – what they’re good at, what they want to do beside what they’re coming to study. It is always a rewarding series of conversations that leave me feeling so fortunate to be in the role of professor. Plus we have a shiny new Dean in Emily Roxworthy to share with the incoming families. She really gets what we do, and the value of the study of dramatic arts. She conveys it in a way that I find inspiring. The faculty and staff greeted each other with a hunger and enthusiasm born of not seeing each other in the flesh for over 18 months.

Sophomore Parent Welcome Event – Wednesday night

This was a remarkably different event from the night before. These parents have been in the classroom with us. Just outside the frame of their students’ computers, some of these Moms and Dads have been listening to our lectures and discussions. Some of them have been the crews for our digital productions where set up was required by the actor to accomplish. Several of them did say, “I feel like I know you because I’ve seen you in the zoom.” I do remember at several points last year where I found myself thinking “I’ve got to spruce this up. Mom and Dad are listening, too.” Well, I was right. It was kind of charming for them to admit it. Like the first year students’ parents, they, too, are anxious for us to know who their young scholar is and what they aspire to. But with this cohort of parents we already know more about their student and in some cases know them quite well and can share conversations about their student’s potential. And they are so excited that their students will now get to have the full college experience (which they’ve been paying for a few reminded me, not with bitterness but a surprising joviality). Occasionally there are a few students who drop into these parent receptions. Several of them came up and introduced themselves to me, their eyes glittering with excitement about the prospect of the coming days of realizing the goal they had begun two years before in applying to USC.

Fresh Person Student Welcome Event – Thursday morning

Kudos are deserved by our amazing events staff and Academic Services office. By 11:30AM when the doors opened for this event, I was already exhausted just from attending the previous two days events, and I had had nothing to do with making these events happen. I know from producing events what’s involved in that lift. All that goes in to making the event be really fun and effortless for the guests requires a great deal of effort. Plus with the Delta Variant raging in Los Angeles, there were last minute changes to events protocols which necessitated a complete reorganization of the tables where the students were able to eat. Gathering for the meeting portion of this event, the Bing Theatre hummed with the pent up excitement of 150 theatre students emerging from the chrysalis of their pandemic bedrooms. They were bonding with each other even before the student performers came out on stage and got them up on their feet to perform Time Warp from Rocky Horror Picture Show. At the end of the meeting, the curtain went up and the elephant doors of the backstage were open, showing the Tommy’s burger truck outside.

Some of the faculty chose to dine a la cart.

These students are the full bodied Student Body, the corporeal celebratory reminder that we are together again in physical form, not with the Flat Stanley zoom theatre students we have been teaching over the past 18 months.

With appreciation for Jeff Brown and Scott Nash for the amazing Flat Stanley

Faculty/Staff Welcome Event – Thursday early afternoon

After the freshmen disbanded with their new SDA t-shirts off to go do some more bonding, the faculty and staff gathered for our welcome event. This was our first opportunity as a group to meet our new Dean. She was equally inspiring and uplifting in this speech to her direct report. She has a graceful, classy and easy intellect that materializes the value of what we all teach and support through our non-teaching functions. Seeing your organization through the eyes of someone with true and fresh affection can help us to fall in love with our mission again. That’s what I felt in the room over the past few day.

I got to address the elephant in the room – the dangers of the ever present COVID Delta Variant while we plan how to reunite in classrooms. COVID will be a presence in those rooms as we teach the intimate practice of acting and interpreting dramatic literature. I created a PowerPoint to describe our school’s COVID protocols. With the precautions USC has taken over the past year to plan for this return to on ground activity, I believe that we can take care of each other by following the well articulated protocols of Vaccination, masks, hand hygiene and daily symptom checking, contact tracing and notifications. As I looked out at all of my colleagues, many of whom I have known for fifteen to twenty years, I could see the different degrees of stress and worry we carry while we participate in this huge case study. I also know what we’ve been through over the past year and how we’ve adapted and succeeded in creating some really exciting work together. We are warriors. We have figured out how to make theatre without a physical space, how to continue to tell powerful and affecting stories together in spite of huge barriers. I feel complete confidence in US. We’ve got this.

Sophomore Student Welcome Event – Thursday afternoon

Thursday afternoon was the event of the week I’ve been both dreading and salivating for. We have been spending hours with these students over the past year. The Bing could barely contain the energy of these students who have attended class with each other all year. I watched as the now Sophomore BFA Stage Screen and New Media Actors lined up in the back of the house, then swarmed around Anita Dashiell-Sparks, all eager to hug her. While I knew I was nervous that I would recognize the students in the large class we taught (after all, there were five pages of their faces), what I wasn’t prepared for was the emotional wallop of having them come up shyly to say hello in person. All our production/design students were gathered in the front row of the theatre. My colleague Tak went down to speak with them and I followed, excited to meet the students with whom we had done our digital productions. I’d joked earlier in the week that I needed to fabricate a little 3D zoom window hat so that they would recognize me. But we clearly recognized each other. Spending a year with your professors in their living rooms is the upside of the pandemic. Seeing each other in our natural habitats has forged a humanizing understanding of each other. It’s been a very intimate experience. I think we must all find a way to stay in our living rooms metaphorically this year. By that I mean we need to bring some shared vulnerability borne of our awkward shared circumstances of the last year into the more formal classrooms we will inhabit this year. I might bring in one of my living room lamps. Or my ugly brown couch.

I was struck by how different physically many of the students were from the way I’d perceived them on zoom.

“Did you always have green hair, M?”

There were the students who always arrived five minutes early for class with whom we would check in about the snow they were getting there. I found myself taking greedy little peeks at students’ name tags to check that I was identifying them correctly. I found myself moved by their hopeful enthusiasm, their kind enthusiasm about the class we’d taught. It was profoundly reassuring because teaching to the Flat Stanleys had been difficult. I’m sure it was difficult to them as well to be taught by this Flat Stanley.

I am completely clear eyed about the challenges of this fall semester and thrilled to share it with my colleagues, and my students. I feel prepared to support our students through Re-entry into our Student and our Faculty Bodies.

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