Theatre education adapts to new digital world

Students Bridget Clyma and Jason Nguyen during the Read Aloud in October

When daily interaction and face-to-face events ground to a halt thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, creativity – even in a creative world – was stretched and put to the test. Students and faculty had to shift the way they learned and taught, a change that is particularly felt by theatre education students. Once part of a world where live experience was essential, performances now take place with screens and technology.

But as Gus Weltsek, Assistant Professor of Arts Education, puts it, “In this synthetic, technologized universe, a shift is occurring though to where the students and faculty are beginning to own the virtual as an aesthetic, pedagogical and intellectual experience of growth, exploration and true artistic inquiry.”

Cordelia Driussi is an alumna of the Theatre Education program and currently a graduate student at New York University’s Steinhart School in the Drama Education program. She has been helping School of Education students with the creative and production work and says since most of the training as arts and education students, especially in theatre, involves building social skills and improvisation techniques, the isolation of quarantine has separated students from their creative teams, systems of support and avenues to connect with new people.

“The joy of arts classes has always been the brave space we create with our students: the right to ask questions, to make a mistake, to be their honest selves. Normally, we are all in the room together, and students can buy into activities because they are all together in a room without judgement. It’s not so easy to lower our inhibitions and pretend to be goofy animals, cartoon characters, etc., when our family members are nearby trying to focus on virtual work or school,” she said.

The creation of art says I am here and no matter what the world throws at me, or how impossible I think this world may be, I am yet able to create and that creation is real, that creation is here, that creation is in some way me.

Gus Weltsek

But theatre students are adapting and making the best of challenging situations. After they spent a year working on a play about suicide prevention, they quickly changed it to a Zoom film. And they’ve been able to have a few in-person events, such as a read aloud and puppet show, albeit with masks and social distancing in place. On November 13, they’ll put on an interactive youth theatre event, “Maxwell’s Marvelous Journey.” Whether online or in person, the process of a production remains the same, according to Weltsek: the groups held read throughs, community building through improvisation, staging, costuming and full rehearsals online.

“What shifted was the sense of the aesthetic,” he explained. “The environment of the Zoom platform is life, is truth and is real. In our case when the group meets in person, there is a seamless, although joyful continuation of the community aesthetic that has already been forged virtually.”

For Weltsek, coping with this challenging time is in the joy of the community – to come together and problem solve through the creation of art.

Theatre students in costume from the interactive puppet show
“The creative process has the potential for loads of great fun and playfulness especially when a collaborative process is situated in love and respect,” he said. “The School of Education students do engage in very tense and highly political conversations around their creative process. They are able to wade through problematic moments and are drawn together through empathy and a common goal of giving joy, entertainment and insight to their audiences. These students are doing this all voluntarily with no reward but to serve and to gather to create.”

In the midst of a divisive election and a global pandemic, the arts seem an obvious and healthy escape. For that and many more reasons, they remain vital in all forms – whether through producing a play online or a puppet show in a spaced-out audience.

“Creating spaces for youth to come together and think critically and create collaboratively around important social issues is a must,” Weltsek said. “The working of ideas through the playful manipulation of objects, colors, tones, lines, etc., to create a multiplicity of texts opens up moments of release and yet a sense of meaning and certainty realized in the thing created. Even if that arts piece reflects uncertainty, the materiality of the thing created, the agency felt in the doing provide the human spirit with a connection to life, and to the world around us, that is comfort within the chaos. The creation of art says I am here and no matter what the world throws at me, or how impossible I think this world may be, I am yet able to create and that creation is real, that creation is here, that creation is in some way me.”

Driussi was lucky to practice leadership skills, collaborative spirit, and creative problem-solving in theatrical spaces as a teenager and says those experiences made her who she is today: “Ultimately, a theatre production could be considered a massive unit in a Project-Based Learning curriculum, but it is usually not classified that way. Theatre classes give students the ability to discover themselves and each other to work towards a common goal: to put on something they are proud of. Theatrical curriculum allows students to see beyond their perceptions of their peers and to connect in real life.”

See photos from the read aloud and puppet show on the School of Education’s Facebook page. “Maxwell’s Marvelous Journey” takes place November 13 from 4:30-6 in the Wilkie Auditorium.