From economic slowdowns to campus shutdowns, the international COVID-19 crisis has fundamentally changed the way we live and learn. In the fields of theatre and dance – art forms that thrive on community closeness rather than social isolation – the impact has been especially distressing, with the work (and livelihoods) of artists and organizations largely brought to a total standstill.
While the public events scheduled in the Department of Theatre and Dance in March and April 2020 were canceled, the important work being done in our classrooms never ceased. Our faculty, students and staff all quickly rose to the challenges of transitioning to a virtual classroom environment, meeting their creative and academic objectives in spite of their new limitations. Chairbacks became ballet barres… bedrooms and garages transformed into rehearsal studios… and pure passion (plus the blessing of the internet) helped us all to stay, and complete, the course.
We asked the faculty for some personal insights into how the radical adjustments of the last few weeks have affected their lives, their teaching and the connection they have with their students. The responses reveal that while the circumstances of life in the midst of a pandemic can be daunting, the creative fire that fuels our mission is alive and well…and helping us navigate our new normal.
What have been the most notable challenges of teaching your course(s) in a virtual environment?
“My home office is not as well equipped as my school office. I’ve had to retrieve a few things from the office (models, tools, etc.) and the students have been using what they have on hand for such course tasks as model making and other design. I don’t want them to go out and buy anything, so they use what they can find that works, and that’s OK.”
Eric Morris, Senior Instructor (Production Design for Dance)
“Other than not being in studio with appropriate floor/barre, etc.… just not having
my students physically there for me to correct [their] technique. We also have to
modify class (i.e., no jumps or turning).”
Erin Jaffe, Instructor (Ballet Technique I)
“Just how much I rely on reading the room and feeding off the energy from the students.
Once online, the feedback loop stops, and it is difficult to tell how the students
are really responding and how I can help them.”
Jennifer Deckert, Associate Professor (Ballet Technique III/IV and Dancer’s Body)
“I am constantly reminding my students that when it comes to acting and directing,
you can’t really study it or read about it -- you have to get up on your feet and
do it, or watch others rehearse in class, in order to learn about it. While we can
adjust and use Zoom as a way of sharing work, the electricity of having everyone in
the room together is lost. Honestly, I am relieved that nothing that can match what
we would typically be doing. These circumstances reveal the power of our previous
trajectory. My fear in this transition is that we might discover that teaching theatre
classes virtually is an option. It isn’t."
Lindsay Rae Taylor, Instructor (Fundamentals of Acting and Play Direction I)
"I already knew our students are pretty spectacular. But they’ve demonstrated it week after week in this remote learning period."
What has surprised you most about teaching in the virtual environment?
“The true resilience of our students. I mean, of course, I already knew our students
are pretty spectacular. But they’ve demonstrated it week after week in this remote
learning period. They’ve been adaptable, honest, hilarious, and supportive. They really
make me proud.”
Olivia Waldrop, Instructor (Ballet II/III, Pointe II, Dance History II and Dance Company)
“That many students have NOT checked out and seem to welcome seeing their classmates.”
Lisa Gavaletz, Instructor (Introduction to Stage Management, Stage Management Lab, Run Crew Lab)
“My students have responded very well to the changes and are for the most part very
positive about the alternate assignments.”
Dustin Whitehead, Assistant Professor (Fundamentals of Acting, Acting from a Physical Point of View)
What positive experiences have you encountered -- from students, yourself or the teaching process itself — in converting to online instruction?
“The community that the students have created amongst themselves. My heart nearly
BURST when I saw they were taking online ballet classes ‘together’ on Zoom, unprompted
and just happy and excited to experience the same thing in the same virtual space."
“There is a willingness and openness to making this work that is remarkable, considering
what we are all missing during this. The students are grieving cancelled performances,
graduations, and other celebratory events, but they have been resilient and positive
throughout this transition. I am in awe of their maturity and understanding as we
find our way through.”
Lindsay Rae Taylor
“The students have been amazing! They are adapting, learning, staying open, and inspire
me to keep going.”
“One thing that I have noticed is that we are sending more personal greetings to each
other. It isn’t just, ‘Hello Dustin, here is my assignment.’ It is more, ‘Hello Dustin,
I hope you and your family are healthy and well. I have been taking walks and daydreaming
on my hammock in my yard. And last night I skyped with my grandma and aunt. Oh, and
by the way, here is my assignment.”
I think we have now seen each other in a very vulnerable place and understand that this is difficult on all fronts... I believe this is the time to lead with compassion, honesty, and understanding."
How has your relationship with your students changed since the pandemic started?
“I am doing more one-on-one coaching sessions than I typically would. I find that
a combination of connecting with them collectively and individually works well. I
think they are comforted knowing that we are here for them. I am trying to check in
with them as much as I can.”
Lindsay Rae Taylor
“Everybody is paying a tab for this virus shutdown in so many unimaginable ways, every
day. I let them know from the start of campus lockdown that my deal will still be
the same with them. Show up, (virtually) participate and everything will be OK. And,
if you have troubles with the long-distance format, please let me know. I have one
student who traveled back [home overseas] when the shutdown happened. She’s been attending
and turning in projects right along. And she will be just fine.”
“I think we have now seen each other in a very vulnerable place and understand that
this is difficult on all fronts. I strive to be honest and open with them about the
challenges that I am facing and work to support them through their similar challenges.
I believe this is the time to lead with compassion, honesty, and understanding.”
"Before this experience, I was worried about technology taking over the world. Now I know that won’t ever happen. We need each other.
And hugs. We need hugs."
Lindsay Rae Taylor
What are you most looking forward to when this is all over?
“Like everyone, just returning to ‘normal’ life and routines. I miss seeing my parents
and family. I miss going down to the studio to teach. I miss going to the grocery
store myself. It will be a happy day for us all when we can return to our normal lives,
though I know there will be some changes for health and safety.”
“Taking the newer tools for virtual collaboration and expanding the use of them. I’m
looking forward to inviting more colleagues from all parts and places to join our
course room and tell us how their professional work goes. Also, through Blackboard
Collaborate, it may be possible to increase student attendance on unexpected sick
days by having them listen and look in virtually."
“I cannot wait to stand in a circle again with students, interact with them in class,
and watch them work. I am really looking forward to directing again. I miss collaborating
with actors and designers, so when I get that chance again, I will be so grateful.
I am certain that when I am finally able sit in a theatre again with a group of strangers
watching a play, I will weep from the joy and beauty of it. Before this experience,
I was worried about technology taking over the world. Now I know that won’t ever happen.
We need each other. And hugs. We need hugs.”
Lindsay Rae Taylor