The arts help define our human experience. They can be a source of individual comfort and strength, and they can depict and help us internally process shared events; we begin to understand ourselves, and each other, on a deeper level.
During the pandemic, the performing arts were faced with unique challenges to continue safely teaching and creating group performance experiences.
The departments of music and theatre & film turned to outside venues and also used technology to bring people together. In both cases, technical and creative challenges led to important learning opportunities for faculty and students alike.
From jazz concerts in a parking lot to quintets in the Lyceum Circle, the Department of Music organized outdoor performances and taught studio lessons under tents. Their Midday Music series on the department’s YouTube channel provided music enrichment in the early months of the pandemic. A monthly podcast—yoU Me Music Hour—connected with audiences in a new way and celebrated ways we all connect with and through music. The podcast is available on Spotify and other platforms and on the music department’s webpage.
“Performance is essential to the process of being a musician, and the amount that we’ve been able to achieve this year is something we’re really proud of,” said Nancy Maria Balach, chair and professor of music. “UM music was able to find safe and progressive ways to make music in person. From Band Night in Vaught Hemingway Stadium to an orchestral concert with area high school students in the Ford Center to outdoor chamber ensembles around campus to solo recitals in Nutt Auditorium, beautiful music was constantly being made.”
In addition to producing 20 major ensemble concerts, 36 degree recitals, and six other concerts, the Department of Music used the pandemic as an opportunity to incorporate technology into the work of making music, but that process came with challenges.
While online meeting platforms work for class and meetings, they are not designed for synchronous music performance or even rehearsal. Often there is a latency or lag, which is detrimental to music-making. To overcome this, the Department of Music turned to additional technology, such as Soundtrap, which allows musicians to record and layer tracks and mix them on their own computers or phones, and SoundJack, which allows collaborators in different parts of the building who need to stay separate for COVID-related reasons to make music together with no lag.
Even as COVID-related protocols ease in the coming semesters, the department will continue to benefit from the technology that has become second nature during the pandemic. Equipment for streaming performances, critical when COVID precluded audiences in Nutt Auditorium, will still be invaluable to family and friends who are too far away to attend their student’s recital. New technology-based collaborations among music departments across the SEC that shared teaching ideas and methods and offered masterclasses and clinics to students will continue to expand opportunities for faculty and their students in years to come.
“I am inspired by the creativity and problem-solving of the music faculty,” said Balach. “So many of our discoveries, whether platforms or software programs, moved us forward in exciting ways, and will remain part of our future work. Incorporating technology also enabled us to connect with a larger audience through new approaches to live streaming, the launch of a new podcast, and a virtual concert series.
“We didn’t allow the pandemic to slow us down, we used it as an opportunity to propel us forward.”
For the Department of Theatre & Film, the challenge was also met with creativity and innovation. They used high tech and old tech to connect with audiences.
Journeying back to the Golden Age of Radio, students wrote and performed five original radio plays in a series titled Listening in the Shadows using the Foley studio in the department’s new film production facility for sound effects.
Matthew Shifflett, instructional assistant professor of theatre arts, believes radio meets a creative need for student playwrights.
“I’ve noticed that a lot of students create scripts that I don’t know how you’d stage,” Shifflett said. “I made it a policy to never push back, but to say, ‘Go for the weird thing that’s creative’ because you can figure out the practicality later. You can accomplish a lot of things over radio that you can’t on stage.”
The Zoom theatre production of Near/Far, a remotely performed and recorded work conceived by Lauren Bone Noble, assistant professor of movement for the actor, centered on the theme of isolation—with full face masks, no dialogue, and actors performing remotely. She gave actors a “recipe” to work with and they improvised movements.
The piece is a response to the physical requirements and emotional consequences of the pandemic, Bone Noble said.
“That’s what’s going on now for us; even if we do see people, we’re not really supposed to touch, so we are living in a sterile environment,” Bone Noble said. “Well, what’s the impact on us?”
The musical Urinetown blended stage and film, where actors were filmed separately in front of a green screen so they could perform without masks. These recorded scenes were edited together then digitally inserted into large group scenes, allowing students to interact only in the final product.
The production team learned of this kind of filmed performance, but “we don’t think a lot of colleges went to the same extent,” said Cody Stockstill, assistant professor of scenic design.
“We threw all kinds of different filming tricks at this production, mixing many techniques so the audience never catches on to how we’re doing this.”
The students gained tremendous benefits and satisfaction during the challenges of the season.
“We put in long hours to act and crew this season,” said Morgan Yhap (BFA theatre arts). “That being said, there was definitely a sense of fun and community within each production. This season brought us all closer together because we wanted to keep theatre alive.”