Claire Darcy, Contributing Writer
Despite health and safety restrictions this semester, performing arts departments are finding creative ways to bring their talents to life. From choir and theatre to dance and band, performing arts programs require the exact aspect they call for: performance. But with campuswide precautions limiting in-person contact, that can be difficult to achieve.
It is no longer possible to have a full symphony orchestra playing together, nor can a group of actors perform a scene in close proximity. With an increased risk of releasing potentially virulent respiratory particles, activities such as singing and playing instruments have become dangerous.
“Singers are what we call ‘super spreaders,’” said Erin Freeman, director of choral activities. “That means that we emit more droplets and aerosols into the air. We also breathe them in more deeply.”
To reduce these risks, the performing arts departments have replaced typical events with virtual communication. Auditions to be part of the university’s various choral ensembles or the fall play, for example, were conducted virtually and required students to submit videos and recordings.
In-person classes and rehearsals still occur, but in a different capacity than what might be typically expected. Students are required to wear masks while singing, playing their instruments and reciting lines.
“I thought it was going to be really weird playing with a mask on and surprisingly it’s not,” said sophomore music education major Anna Mitchell.
Mitchell plays violin as her principal instrument and participates in the university’s orchestra and a quartet chamber group. Of the 11 classes she is taking this semester, all but two are fully online. For the student musicians, this means singing and learning how to play new instruments in her dorm.
Distancing measures are in place for in-person rehearsal, providing each student with at least 36 square feet of room. This means that not all members of an ensemble can meet at once, causing classes to split and meet separately. Rooms can only be used by music ensembles in 30 minute intervals with at least a 20-minute break for air to circulate throughout the rehearsal
“The chorus will be in the seats of the recital hall, properly spaced out, singing through masks,” Freeman said.
Terry Austin, director of bands and interim chair of the music department, said students that play woodwind instruments are required to create masks with slits to put their mouthpieces through.
Covers will also be placed on instruments to prevent airborne droplets from being spread, with flute and trombone players being distanced at 10 feet apart rather than six.
There are no performances planned for the Symphonic Wind Ensemble or the University Band this semester. Other performing arts departments are planning virtual productions so students can still perform, despite an inability to do so in-person.
“Theater is the most collaborative of the art forms, so in a lot of ways one would think it would suffer the most in this environment,” said Sharon Ott, department chair and associate professor in the theatre department, “but we’ve actually found there are many, many pluses.”
The department will be putting together a virtual production of “She Kills Monsters,” a play by Qui Nguyen. Rehearsals will occur virtually and actors will receive supplies in the mail, including costumes, props, microphones and lighting kits. The performance will take place on Zoom, recorded for audiences to stream beginning on Oct. 28.
“This is a brand-new art form, trying to do theatre on Zoom, so we feel like we’re pioneers and it’s a lot of fun,” Ott said.
The theatre department is also planning a virtual improv festival in collaboration with other universities throughout the country, and play readings with the Shafer Alliance Laboratory Theatre (SALT,) a student production organization.
“This semester with COVID-19 we have decided all of our events, shows and rehearsals will be conducted over Zoom to ensure safety,” said Katie Elliot, president of SALT, in an email.
The music department’s four vocal ensembles will be creating a film project called “Adaptation,” which allows each group to focus on a specific music topic related to social issues and the history of music evolution.
While it can be easy to become discouraged in their situation, choral and theatre directors are finding optimism and new opportunities in online formats.
“Art and what music does to uplift our spirits is too important to take a break,” Freeman said.
Updates regarding theater, music and other performing arts departments are available at arts.vcu.edu.