Empty studios and stages: Arts education in the covid-19 era requires an even greater leap of faith

  • Justin Phillips, an incoming freshman at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, at his parent's home in Somerset, New Jersey, where he will remain for remote learning this fall.

    Justin Phillips, an incoming freshman at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, at his parent's home in Somerset, New Jersey, where he will remain for remote learning this fall. The Washington Post

 
 
Posted8/23/2020 7:27 AM

Louis Sokolow, a 21-year-old rising senior at Yale, loves choral singing so much that he scrapped plans to major in chemistry and switched to music. But when he learned that classes this fall would be online, and that there would be no choirs, concerts or glee club, he decided he'd had enough.

As the coronavirus continues to trample the arts from the ground up, Sokolow is doing what America's performing-arts schools and departments fear most: He's questioning their relevance. Instead of going back to school, Sokolow is taking a gap year.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"There's just something lost not being with people in a room," Sokolow says from his parents' home in Brookline, Mass. He has taken a job with the U.S. Census Bureau, and hopes that a year from now, the pandemic will be controlled enough "that choral singing can be a possibility again."

Louis Sokolow, a rising senior at Yale, at his home in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Louis Sokolow, a rising senior at Yale, at his home in Brookline, Massachusetts. - The Washington Post

Across the country, Sokolow and students like him are looking beyond this fall -- and beyond the academic year -- to a changing and uncertain future for the performing arts, an industry unstrung by social distancing. The university arts programs and conservatories they attend are looking ahead, too. They're scrambling to come up with coronavirus-safe ways to prepare young artists for professions that aren't going to function as before, given the health risks of live performances in indoor spaces with live audiences. With the virus still on a rampage, many of the age-old, hands-on ways of training musicians, dancers and actors have had to be tossed out the window or, at the very least, drastically reshaped.

How much this will affect the industry down the line -- and what audiences may see and hear in years to come -- is difficult to gauge. But to varying degrees, depending on the art form, professional groups and future performances rely on a pipeline of well-trained graduates of higher education.

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Which means there's a lot of tension surrounding music, dance and theater programs.

University of North Carolina School of the Arts Chancellor Brian Cole stands in a dance studio that has been marked with 10-by-10-foot squares to allow dancers to remain socially distanced while in class.
University of North Carolina School of the Arts Chancellor Brian Cole stands in a dance studio that has been marked with 10-by-10-foot squares to allow dancers to remain socially distanced while in class. - The Washington Post

"I don't think we've seen a moment like this that carries a real existential crisis," says Brian Cole, chancellor of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C. The arts conservatory trains college, graduate and high school students in dance, design and production, drama, filmmaking and music.

Like other arts institutions, such as New York City's Juilliard School and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, UNCSA administrators have spent the summer devising new classes and techniques; setting up safety protocols for rehearsal studios and theaters; and anxiously keeping an eye on predictions about Broadway, symphony and dance season schedules.

And with a new survey showing that as many as 40 percent of incoming freshmen will probably pass on attending a four-year college this fall -- and that 28 percent of returning students aren't going back or haven't decided yet -- these schools face a dramatic test.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Training students to perform requires acute attention to such intimate details as body positions, fine motor control, breathing, moving in rhythm and taking visual cues from others. Each art has technical demands, such as safe flooring, adequate unobstructed space, and the precise timing of music and sound -- impossible over laptops with different bandwidths. There's also often a need for technology and tools that aren't available outside of specialized classrooms. All of these factors make distance learning especially challenging for performing-arts schools and their students.

The Berklee College of Music in Boston will be completely remote this fall. Along with an emphasis on career-building and promotion, the school is including virtual master classes with prominent artists, which is only possible because some stars who would normally be touring the world will be stuck at home like most everyone else.

Berklee officials also see this semester as an opportunity to build on the successful online classes they have offered since 2002.

"How do we make sure the experience is the best we can do, the most cost-effective, the most efficient?" says Richard Boulanger, who teaches electronic production and design.

"Maybe that's a question colleges should have been asking all along. It's forcing all of these schools to think of all that," he adds, "and that's a good thing."

Juilliard, which offers dance, drama and music degrees, will offer its classes online for the first several weeks of the fall term, followed by a gradual progression of on-campus classes. President Damian Woetzel says he also hopes to tap big-name artists for guest lectures via video. This summer, for instance, Juilliard hosted a virtual discussion with Memphis Jookin dancer Charles "Lil Buck" Riley, director Patricia McGregor, actor/playwright Colman Domingo and "Late Show" bandleader Jon Batiste.

"It's the making-lemonade idea," Woetzel says. "What might we do in this area that we can't do in the normal world? Is there something special we can do? There are extreme limitations. But we keep turning over the question."

In online dance classes, for example, students can't fly around their living rooms or leap into a partner's arms, but they can focus on nuances, Woetzel says -- aspects such as balance and breath control.

Alicia Graf Mack, the dean and director of Juilliard's dance division, says that in her Zoom technique classes, she'll be diving into overlooked details.

"How we use our faces, or the port de bras" -- the French term for carriage of the arms -- "or we'll do a whole bunch of heel lifts, releves, to make sure our calves are strong so when we are back in the studio we're ready to jump," she says.

Are students inclined to see positives in online training? In dance, especially, that's a tough call. Sydney Goldston, an 18-year-old contemporary dancer from Silver Spring, Md., recently moved into her dorm at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. She's excited about the planned mix of in-person and online dance classes, and eager to put months of Zoom training at home behind her.

In online classes, "your teachers can't see everything at one time," she says. "They rotate who they watch. And not having a mirror in front of you, that was a new skill to work on."

Sydney Goldston, a dance student, left her Silver Spring, Maryland, home recently for her first year of college at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Sydney Goldston, a dance student, left her Silver Spring, Maryland, home recently for her first year of college at Virginia Commonwealth University. - The Washington Post

Still, Goldston can't imagine her life without dance. And given the brevity of a dancer's career, she has no time to lose. Making it as a dancer has always been a risky proposition, she says, given injuries, competition and one's inevitable aging, so the new threats courtesy of covid-19 haven't diminished her dream.

"I have four years of college. By the time I'm out, maybe there will be a job and live performance will be back," she says. "I'm going to push forward and do it."

Dancers worried about what they're losing without live instruction and performance might take comfort in what American Ballet Theatre Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie says he has been telling his disappointed dancers:

"You have to think of this as an ill-timed injury, and if it hasn't happened to you yet, it's going to happen sometime. And it's not going to happen at the time that is convenient for you and your trajectory. But this is not going to take your talent away. You've got to stay true to that."

On the other hand, if you're a college senior facing an even more crowded pool of applicants for theater work that may be scarce to nonexistent, hope is a little harder to come by.

Lilian Rebelo in a production of "Antigonick" by Anne Carson.
Lilian Rebelo in a production of "Antigonick" by Anne Carson. - The Washington Post

Lilian Rebelo of Cranford, N.J., is a rising senior at Fordham University, majoring in theater and Latin American studies.

"I'm going to get thrown into a world that has actors and performers who graduated in 2020 and are just starting out, and now also the class of 2021," says Rebelo, 21, speaking from the New York apartment she shares with two other students. "I'll be competing with more, for less work."

The uncertainties are exhausting. Still undecided: Will her classes be in person or remote? Is an advanced acting class worth taking online? One thing's for sure -- "I made it this far," Rebelo says. "I still think this is for me."

Her mother, Mirian Rebelo, worries that Lilian will be graduating without her full training, but she supports her daughter's ambition.

"People ask me, 'Why did you let her go into theater and not something else?' " Rebelo says. "Just because you're smart doesn't mean you can't follow your dreams."

The arts programs hope all parents are like Rebelo. Yet managing students flocking onto campuses has its own headaches. For the schools that are open, planning the year ahead is like playing chess against the coronavirus. First, enrollment numbers are askew for a number of reasons, including reducing the amount of beds to "de-densify" dorms.

Most schools contacted for this story declined to provide a head count of incoming freshmen. UNCSA, which has opened its campus, says it has seen a small drop, partly attributed to the bed reductions, but the school is on track to meet or exceed its total enrollment goal of 1,330 students. Some 30 students are not returning, which is about average, according to spokeswoman Katherine E. Johnson.

Then there are myriad anxieties about actual teaching. Maybe you can put a few masked violinists into a music room together, but what about the wind instruments? With enough distance and plastic barriers between the tubas, trombones and other musicians who are necessarily pumping out a lot of air (and spit), can you schedule a really short band practice? How much time do you allow for sanitizing rooms between classes?

When it comes to performing, these schools face health hurdles in each discipline, genre and specialty as they wrestle with two key questions:

First, can students perform together safely?

Second, given the potential risks for live indoor audiences, how will they share their performances? Many schools are fast-tracking a digital strategy.

Producing polished, high-quality video productions of performances -- not just for the archives, but for an engaging audience experience -- has never been a priority for American arts groups. The old view was that live-streaming shows could kill ticket sales. Rights issues can be tough to navigate. But almost overnight, that reluctance has vanished.

At Oberlin, most academic classes will be held remotely to make space for the classes best held in person -- chamber music, jazz combos, improv sessions. Operas are being reinvisioned as digital productions, with students learning "to produce, film, package and deliver the film," says William Quillen, dean of the music conservatory.

"Whenever we emerge from this pandemic," he says, "it will be 'both and,' not 'either/or.' A return to live performance ... but with ever-greater emphasis on on-demand, mediated online, through screens."

As a result, these students may be able to solve what UNCSA's Cole calls "one of the biggest challenges for the performing arts, pre-covid: People being there, and access."

The long-standing "Nutcracker" tradition on UNCSA's campus is a case in point. It's typically a collaboration among all the departments -- dance, music, design and production -- except film. That's changing this year.

"The schools will all be creating a 'Nutcracker' specifically for film," Cole says. "They're turning one of our smaller theaters into a green-screen space. There'll be small groups that rehearse together, and they'll do it completely for the film media.

"We would have never done this before, because of the momentum of the usual production. It's hard to step back and do something different," he says. "But the situation has catalyzed a different normal."

How do students see the different normal?

"It's definitely scary, but I'm optimistic," says Vincent Marabuto, an 18-year-old actor. He's leaving his hometown of Hillsborough, N.J., to start his freshman year at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, where, as of now, classes will be a mix of remote and in person.

Surviving the chaos of the spring revealed personal strengths, Marabuto says, and he's eager to explore them through his art. As high school seniors, he says, "we were the ones who had to throw any plan for the future out the window. We had to be spontaneous and hopeful and work with the things we had. I want to use this to create beautiful work."

Justin Phillips sees some pluses in dealing with digital lessons -- and a big minus. The 19-year-old bassist and saxophonist is poised to start his freshman year at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, where all of his classes will be remote (he is staying at home in New Jersey). He says that with the sound equipment he bought for last spring's online classes at his New Jersey high school, he's becoming a decent sound engineer. "I'm learning how to mix and master all of my music," he says.

On the downside, Phillips fears his ability to mesh in an ensemble will suffer with more remote classes at Berklee.

"I think that not playing with other musicians for too long can have a really negative effect on who you are," he says. "I'll start being more of a solo player, and I'll want to do something that makes me stand out. And then when I start playing with people again, I could be standing out too much."

It's a valid concern.

"In training to play in an orchestra, you play in an orchestra all the time. That's not so easily replicated in digital work," says Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras. Conservatory and university-based music programs are the main sources of musicians for orchestras, so he's keeping a close eye on what's happening with training.

"The talent pool comes straight out of higher education," he says. "But the supply of talent is enormous."

The same goes for dance.

"If there's possibly no freshman class this year, that's not going to impact, down the line, the number of dancers available to audition," says Susan McGreevy-Nichols, executive director of the National Dance Education Organization.

What stands to matter a great deal is the digital proficiency that students will be gaining now, and from now on. Musicians that can create visual works for live-streaming or sharing online, Rosen says, could be a major boon for orchestras and music ensembles that desperately want to increase their reach and audiences.

"If anything, this experience will enhance the skill set of young musicians entering the field, and that will be a plus," he says.

It's a delicate balance. Arts programs have to figure out how to teach new crafts and retain cherished values. They have to nurture flaming passions, and they need to hear the heartache.

They need to figure it all out while many students -- and parents -- are questioning the investment. And while we're all living with a virus that is changing everything for everyone, and especially for every live performer.

Juilliard's Woetzel takes comfort in what his industry can do to serve what's lasting: the life-affirming timelessness of the arts.

"It's not merely about skill-building," he says. "This is a cataclysmic situation that we'll all look back on. It's deeply personal for everyone. You can't just bulldoze any of this.

"But arts education will be pivotal in that it's our humanity," he continues. "It's an engagement with our humanity and creativity that will serve us well as we move into the future."

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