While the transition to remote learning has been challenging for everyone—who knew muting and unmuting yourself could make such a statement—classes focused on creative expression have arguably suffered the most. Online classes have opened up some new facets of teaching; in the past two weeks, I’ve met a lot of my professor’s pets, children, and pets that are treated like children. But for music, art, dance, and theater classes, this transition has been especially difficult to navigate.
Artist-in-Residence Patricia Beaman, who teaches Ballet, has tried to maintain the essential goals of her classes.
“My inclination is to really get you [the “Ballet II” class] moving and dancing because that was always the nature of my class,” Beaman said.“I think everybody’s finding their way, but it’s not a cookie cutter, uniform approach of the dance department, but no class ever was…I want to bring my students, during this incredibly difficult time, as much joy and sweat and heat and release of endorphins as I can. So that’s my main point and that’s what I’m trying to achieve every Zoom class.”
Some studio arts classes have shifted to focus more on theory rather than trying to implement the same class style virtually.
“I’ve tried to keep the same general conceptual direction of the course,” Professor Jeffrey Schiff, Program Director of the Art and Art History Departments, said. “But they can still work with the ideas…and then they, each in their own way, with what they have available to them and as well as their own interests, are learning to apply those ideas in their own work. While I don’t think this is in any way the ideal way to teach sculpture…the students are rising to the challenge.”
Leevon Matthews ’23, a student in “Painting I”, noted that many of their discussions have put greater emphasis on conceptual depth, as opposed to technique.
“I feel like things have become more conceptual, and we’ve been able to have deeper conversations about what we want our art to mean…. The teacher is still being very proactive,” Matthews wrote to The Argus. “She’s always available to talk to us and she’s been positive about our situation. A lot of us are finding ways to create paintings at home, and she’s even helped us set up studios at home. I think the most challenging part is not being able to do crucial assignments like a master’s copy.”
Similarly, professor support has been crucial within the Dance Department, where instructors have been helping students to mourn the loss of creative projects, and also helping them to adapt new projects and ideas to an online format.
“She’s [Katja Kolcio] made it very clear that the first priority is your wellbeing and then really going the extra mile, working with students one-on-one outside of class time to not only make sure we’re doing our work but to make sure we’re really confident with what we’re doing,” Halle Newman ’23, a student in the “Dance Teaching Workshop” class, said.
These sentiments were echoed by dance major Beatrix Roberts ’22, who is taking three dance classes to fulfill the major requirements.
“My professors have all been so wonderful and understanding and have really worked with us to make sure we can all still do final projects that we’re happy with,” wrote Roberts.
However, students noted that despite best efforts from professors, their classes simply aren’t the same, leading to difficulty with engagement.
“Staying motivated is really hard. Especially when you’re teaching a [dance] class, a lot of it is results in real time, seeing improvement, and getting feedback,” Newman said.
As with many students, there is a lack of incentive, especially when your class or mode of creative expression is a mere shadow of what it was supposed to be.
“I’m in piping performance which is the organ class and it doesn’t really translate to the distance learning model,” Keizo Fish ’21 wrote in a message to The Argus.“So now the class is just about organ history rather than playing, which is what I signed up for. It’s all really frustrating and I’ve had WiFi issues during our online “performances” and it feels kind of pointless now.”
While there has been some great collaboration in the artistic and performance departments between students and teachers, there is, of course, disappointment from both sides with the loss of performances, art pieces, and interactive classes.
“I feel like there has been a lot of support from dance department faculty and understanding that this isn’t what any of us signed up for and that we’re going to have to make do,” Roberts wrote. “Even so, it is still really frustrating. Most of us have had to completely change our trajectories, which is a difficult thing to do halfway through the semester. And it’s so disappointing to know that the performances we were working towards will never take place.”
Both students and teachers alike are participating in a collective mourning of their shared creative space. Being in the same room as your cast or company is so vital to choreography, theater, and other performances, and has long been taken for granted, as we have never needed to go without it until now.
“One thing we’ve been talking about in my directing class is that when you’re a director walking into a room, you’re leading a room full of people through a shared investigation and a big part of that is creating community and trust in a room…Well, how do you build community when you’re…not actually connecting?” Director and Associate Professor of Theater Katie Pearl wondered. “The biggest sorrow is that…theater is community, that’s what makes it possible. But I think we’re all really actively coming together via Zoom.”
Professor Pearl, for example, remains committed to publicly showcasing the theater department’s production of The Method Gun. Perhaps the event will allow us to regain some of our clout as college students by providing something to go to on a Saturday night (or morning, depending on your time zone), even if it is virtual. Pearl shared her vision for the production which will occur at a to be determined date, via Zoom.
“So our plan right now is that we’ll have people register for the event…it will be free but you’ll sign up to come,” Professor Pearl said. “When you arrive you’ll enter the Zoom room, eventually the actors will join, and then the actors will ask you to turn off your video so you’re no longer seen but still present. Throughout the show we’re going to activate the chat function so you can still participate in the performance and maybe the polling function…in real life, this play doesn’t have a fourth wall, it’s very interactive with the audience, so that’s been a big question for us. I hesitate to call it theater. But definitely we’re finding different modes of expression that are not possible in a live space.”
It’s like the theater version of “I Can’t Believe it’s not Butter!”; enjoyable, though not exactly the real thing. Professor Pearl went on to describe the different creative strategies she’s employing to recreate her class, Advanced Directing.
“We’re trying to create performance spaces in individual rooms but that still create pleasing compositions to the eye and allow the viewer to believe that we’re in the same space even though we’re not,” Pearl said. “We’re doing some experiments with lighting…we’re starting to play with the green screen option…and really looking at the nuance of if an actor is gazing directly at the camera does that look like you’re talking to the audience or your scene partner?…It’s sort of like movement in different spaces with a shared intention.”
Indeed, many professors are trying to focus on the silver lining; nascent forms of creative expression can be fruitful, and even crucial, in times like these.
“People who live in this moment and can also critique it are going to come up with some really interesting work,” Pearl said.
In a time when creative expression is most difficult, it becomes even more essential to our society and community. In the midst of a pandemic, artists from every discipline are reminded of how vital it is to tap into the creative spirit to maintain our community—even if it’s virtual—during this trying time.
“I feel like I’m able to offer something that people really need right now…you know, who want to be in class. So that’s why I’ve opened this up to a lot of my students from former semesters and, even some Wesleyan alums…who’ve graduated,” Beaman said. “Because I think it makes me feel better to be able to give something of myself and if that’s something people need, well just fill up your hearts and just take it, you know… I just think right now, we need to really know what it’s like to be human, and for me, it has to do with generosity.”
*Halle Newman ’23 is a staff writer for The Argus.
Katarina Grealish can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.