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‘Adapting: A Continuing Performance’

Performing arts face challenges without being face-to-face

“Adapt” is defined as “to make fit, often by modification,” according to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. This word perfectly describes 2020, going into 2021, as the world has had to adapt in every way possible.

Lamar University is no exception. On March 12, 2020, the university shut down, except for on-campus necessities such as the dining hall and residence halls, and moved all classes online.

This included performance-based programs, such as theater, music, band and dance, which rely on meeting in large groups, using enclosed spaces, having live audiences and, sometimes, not being able to socially distance. These departments have had to adapt their art forms to fit the changing world — whether it be at the start of the pandemic when the world entered lockdown, or when the world is slowly starting to ease restrictions.

Shutting down

James Han, LU associate professor and director of choral activities in the Mary Morgan Moore department of music, said the scale of the pandemic took everyone by surprise.

“We didn’t know how it’s going to impact our class setting,” he said. “As vocalists, we produce a lot of droplets while we’re singing. We are one of the groups affected very seriously, because we had to stop in-person singing. So, we needed to convert everything into a virtual way to accommodate what we needed to provide to students.”

jesus lopez band
LU marching band performs during the halftime show at the March 6 football game in Provost Umphrey Stadium. Photo courtesy of Jesus Lopez.

Han said there was a moment at the beginning of the pandemic where he thought he could continue some in-person instruction, but in a hybrid format, with some students meeting in person individually and some students meeting online. However, due to regulations set by the university, city, state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Han had to move all his classes and programming online. While this was challenging at first, Han said he adapted using the tools available.

“It was challenging, because we’d never done the full scale of a virtual online setting for choir,” he said. “But, we worked hard, myself and the students, so we were able to adopt a few online tools, like Zoom, Teams meetings and sometimes Facebook — the well-known online settings.”

It was also challenging for students to quickly adjust to the new norm, Lorenzo Johnson, Katy sophomore and vocal performance major, said.

“As a music major it is pretty difficult doing school online since you literally have to perform in front of people,” he said. “At the beginning of the pandemic, it was pretty tough to adjust and adapt to doing everything online. Piano class, voice lessons and rehearsals all online can be tough, especially when you are trying to stay together as a choral ensemble. But overall, after a few weeks, I finally had gotten used to everything.”

Some departments had more of a challenge than others. Programs with smaller classes could meet in person in a large space and be socially distanced.

Joel Grothe, associate professor of theatre, said the first thing the department did was cancel everything.

“Starting last spring, we moved our classes online, which was a disaster and we didn’t have any live performances,” he said. “Teaching and directing online is kind of pointless — not very effective, in my opinion.”

The campus lockdown also fragmented students, with collaborative spaces closing. This made the usual bonding experience essential to building an ensemble difficult, Rachael Ogburn, Fort Worth sophomore theatre major, said.

“First thing they did, they closed down all of our meeting areas,” she said. “We have a green room which is where most of the times we go, because we usually have classes back to back, so we go in there and sleep and socialize — that’s where we live to be honest. They closed that down — it really made it hard to interact with some of the younger students that were coming in, and there’s a big disconnect.”

Adapting

Han said online tools did not support the variety of vocal ranges in his class, at least without some adjustment.

“We had to go into specific settings, because singing requires different ranges and sequences, compared to our normal speaking,” he said.  “We had to research more how to change and how to use the equalizer to really fulfill human voice range, because sopranos — high female voices — they sing low notes, too, way above the speaking voice. For example, when they sing through the Zoom, some of the music we cannot hear, because it’s out of Zoom range. So, we had to change the settings, and modify the online tools to fulfill that need. We made it, I think — so far, we have been very productive.”

To account for the loss of cohesion, Han had his students pre-record their performances which he edits all together into a cohesive group performance. This method allows students to work at their own pace and practice as much as they wish, Johnson said.

“Rehearsals have changed by going totally virtual, and so now we either send in pre-recorded performances or we schedule times to record livestream performances,” he said. “It is stressful, but I honestly think that it is only easy (because) we, as students, can practice and record at our own pace, but still submit videos within a certain time limit.”

While video performances work for some, it does not work for everyone.

“A lot of theaters tried going online, my feeling is that video theater in general is just bad theater,” Grothe said. “It’s not the way it’s meant to be experienced. We don’t have the production values of a ‘Hamilton’ or something like that. It’s really not the same and it’s not the experience you’re going for.

“I’ve done a number of these Zoom auditions lately and I just think they’re pointless, because you don’t see if there’s any connection, you don’t see if you’re actually affecting the other person. We did our best, we did some stuff online, and we did some performances and had some discussions, but it’s just not the same experience as being in the room with the people.”

Finding a way

Because online theater is, as Grothe said, “bad theater,” and COVID cases were still high in the fall, Grothe postponed in-person performances until the spring.

“Professional theater is still not doing live performances, and, actually, a lot of colleges are not either,” he said. “We made that decision for the fall that we were not going to schedule any performances. We tried to make a plan for the spring that would allow for a limited audience, and ways to minimize the risks for performers and things like that.”

Theater was able to offer in-person classes in the fall, as they worked with small class sizes and had the ability to utilize large spaces within the department, Grothe said.

“We’re pretty good creative problem solvers, so we were the only department that was completely on campus in the fall,” he said. “There’s certain classes that are very difficult to teach online. I was able to move my acting class into one of the theaters and we were able to have class in there.

“The same is true with dance. (Students) were able to map out their space and they couldn’t move across the space — everybody was sort of in a box, they had boxes taped out on the floor. Whenever we could, we took our classes outside.”

Grothe said the department quickly realized they had to try to find a way to do performances in the spring.

“After a fall semester of no shows, I think we realized, ultimately, theater and dance is for the audience,” he said. “Doing it without an audience is not really what it should be, but at the same time, our students need a chance to practice their craft.”

LU bands faced a problem of fragmented practices, as they comprise large groups and it is difficult to find spaces that allow for adequate social distancing. Practices had to be broken up into smaller groups because of the amount of air droplets produced by instruments.

“The (COVID-19) protocols have had significant impacts upon the concert band rehearsals,” Andrew McMahan, associate professor of the Mary Morgan Moore department of music and director of bands, said in an email interview. “We ensure that all students are placed with at least six feet of distance on all sides, but with an additional three feet in front of the trombones. Due to the size of our rehearsal room, we are unable to fit more than approximately 40 students at a time in this configuration; therefore, we typically rehearse in large sections. In other words, most rehearsals are either brass only, woodwinds only, brass and percussion only, woodwinds and percussion only, etc.

“The only opportunity we have to hear the full ensemble together is on the day of the performance.”

Han said in-person choir rehearsals only started to be eased in early in the spring semester.

“While we planned it from the fall, I was personally planning to resume in-person rehearsals after spring break — that was our plan,” he said. “We also made the agreement with the students that everyone should feel safe.

“Our first priority is each student’s safety, including faculty members as well. It looks like a majority of students feel in person is needed because we have been missing so many wonderful moments in person. But we’re going to start as an individual setting. I meet individually with students and then we are opening little by little — like a soprano section, a small group.  We are paying attention to university guidelines, city guidelines and state guidelines to ensure that our safety is guaranteed.”

han music
James Han’s choir class perform a virtual choir concert for which students submitted individual videos which Han edited together.

Han said he has been meeting virtually with students who are not comfortable with in-person classes yet.

“I have probably less than 30-percent of students (who) still want to stay virtual with many different reasons, and I have close to 60 percent of students that are OK with in-person setting right now,” he said. “I already finished one meeting individually and they are all OK expanding our meeting into small groups now. That’s where we are heading. Probably, at the end of semester, maybe there is a chance I can have everyone in person.”

Han said masks are required at in-person rehearsals, but instead of regular masks the students wear specially designed singers masks. Also, extra social distancing is implemented, above the CDC requirement. Han said he uses larger classrooms which allows the student  to sing 12 feet away from him or more. He said the students are very courteous with regard to protecting him and themselves.

The band members’ fragmented practice originally contributed to a lack of cohesion when playing as a group, McMahan said.

“With regard to section cohesion and the ‘sound’ of the ensemble, it was a dramatic adjustment in the beginning,” he said. “However, we have gotten much better at rehearsing with everyone spread out over the past six months. Of course, some types of music works better being ‘spread out’ than others, so the directors were very careful with regard to repertoire selection, choosing works that we felt would be more successful with the challenges we faced, (for example,) players spread further apart than usual, never getting to rehearse with all players at once, etc.”

dance covid
Lamar dance students practice in the Studio Theatre. The taped out boxes on the floor promote social distancing. Courtesy photo.

Taking the stage

Grothe said the decision to present in-person performances for the public affected the selection of performance choices.

“Essentially, this semester, we’ve done two shows so far,” he said. “They’re both in our smaller space. I directed a play called ‘The Good Doctor,’ which is mostly two-person scenes. The students were able to be self-contained and rehearse a couple of people at a time. The show also has a lot of jokes about spreading germs and sneezing, and things like that, so it just seemed appropriate — and also as a comedy. You know, comedy was an important choice right now, because people don’t necessarily want to see something really dramatic or tragic. Everything went fine. Everything went without an issue.

“We did a similar thing with dance, in the smaller space, smaller ensembles. They wore masks all the time. We kept our audience at about 30 people. They all have to wear masks. If you come with a group, you can sit them all together. But we just sort of adapted to it.”

Because of the aerosols instruments can produce, McMahan said he has adapted his rehearsals to be shorter, and also make adaptations to the instruments to make them safer to use indoors.

“Scientific studies last summer suggested that with good air circulation/ventilation, bands can safely rehearse as long as they are socially distanced and, when inside, that the rehearsals are not too long so that the ventilation system can ‘catch-up’ every hour or so,” he said. “There are some instruments that produce more aerosols than others, and we did buy bell covers for those instruments when used indoors. We also asked students to wear masks when not playing the instrument, both inside and outside.”

Han, McMahan and Grothe all said they hope things will return to normal in the fall.

“We plan to have a live audience in the fall as of right now — presuming it doesn’t get worse,” Grothe said. “But it’s hard for me to say. I don’t know at this point exactly what that’s going to entail. I’m optimistic we can do (live shows), and we could have close to a full audience or 75 percent or something.

“That’s a decision we’ll make probably closer to the start of next school year.”

eboni singing

Eboni Bolton, Dallas freshman, rehearses a song

in a practice room

in the music building, April 6.

UP photo by Tim Cohrs

Upside

The pandemic gave the university a chance to do maintenance on performance spaces, such as the University Theatre.

“Because we didn’t have shows last spring, we thought it was a good time to do some assessment on our spaces,” Grothe said. “One of the things that we discovered when our spaces were assessed, was that the University Theatre needed some work so that it would be set up for shows later in the semester.”

 

 

Category: UPbeat