How Top University Theatre Programs are Handling the Current Health Crisis

Back to School   How Top University Theatre Programs are Handling the Current Health Crisis
 
We asked 10 schools nationwide how they are navigating this unprecedented moment.
College Theatre Pandemic Lead

Though schools nationwide are preparing to start their fall 2020 semesters—and, in some cases, already have—the effects of COVID-19 are still being felt. We asked some of the leading college theatre programs around the country what life will look like for their students this semester, whether they will be learning remotely or in person, what performance opportunities will look like in a landscape where live performances are still banned for much of the country.

Find out how these institutions are handling this unprecedented health crisis below.

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Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU)
CMU has adopted a hybrid online and in-person instruction model for the fall 2020 semester, giving each student the option to choose fully remote learning. In order to provide an equitable experience to all students regardless of whether they choose to participate in remote or in-person instruction, all 2021-21 season production projects will be planned, created, and shared through remote and digital means only. The school of drama is also providing all students with technology kits to ensure that students have uniform support and access. Kits differ by major, but include items like a camera, ring light, cables, microphones, music stands, reflector kids, tripods, dance barres, yoga mats, drafting tables, and upholstery kits. For students on campus, mandatory safety measures include face masks, daily health self-reporting, reductions in seating and maximum occupancy to promote social distancing, and new half hour breaks between classes to allow for proper cleaning. All courses involving singing will be held remotely, since face masks are required on campus.

Separately from COVID-19-related changes, all CMU students, staff, and faculty will participate in a new anti-racist theatre course developed by Nicole M. Brewer, a foundation for CMU’s nine-point racial justice action plan.

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Howard University (HU)
Howard University is conducting all undergraduate classes online for the fall 2020 semester. Students will engage in all voice, dance, and acting courses virtually. Within the BFA Musical Theatre area, all students were surveyed earlier in the summer to ensure that school staff were aware of and could address any technological challenges or lack of resources for distance learning. Laptops and other necessary materials have been made available to students as needed. With the academic year being marked by the historical events of the Black Lives Matter movement, the COVID-19 pandemic, and all-online instruction for an in-person discipline, Howard challenges its students to remain positive and continue to do the work of becoming triple threat artists. The University understands that work could potentially be impacted by COVID-19 for an extended period of time. In that understanding, HU has adjusted curriculum, course offerings and instructional methods to ensure student success and departmental standards.

As HU continues to navigate the pandemics on race and health, it remains committed to supporting student spiritual and emotional health. HU continues to curate spaces and opportunities for affirmation, conversation, and advocacy.

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DePaul University
Virtual curriculum, designed by its faculty and drawing from the creative energy of its classes, will provides students with a variety of unique, collaborative experiences. Students can also expect to engage virtually with a host of impressive industry professionals. While classes will not be on campus, students with an appointment can still access the building and its creative spaces. In addition, there are a number of virtual productions planned, such as radio and Zoom plays, virtual playwriting festivals, a young audience theatre experience, and more. DePaul plans to return to a hybrid learning experience this winter and begin holding live performances again. In the meantime, it remains dedicated to providing students with a dynamic learning experience.

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New York University (NYU) Tisch School of the Arts
The majority of studio training and Theatre Studies classes in the Department of Drama at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts will be remote for the fall semester; a small handful of Theatre Studies classes will be conducted in-person.

Building on existing experience and lessons from remote learning and performance in the spring semester—there were upwards of 60 remote projects performed virtually across the 10 professional training studios that comprise the department—Tisch Drama will present a full production lineup this fall. All performances, including musical theater, will be presented in digital formats. In addition, faculty and creative teams will maximize professional development opportunities presented by remote productions, including larger audience capacities and an expanded ability to invite and network with casting directors, guest artists, and other key collaborators in the field.

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University of Michigan (U-M)
The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance (SMTD) is reimagining courses and implementing creative approaches to studio and classroom work. Students will receive one-on-one and small group instruction through in-person and virtual formats, and they will sharpen their skills through activities such as performance-based video assignments.

Throughout the year, SMTD will share performances from students and faculty via livestream and premiere innovative video projects like socially distant group performances where students record their individual parts at home and edit them together into one collaborative piece. SMTD will also continue its commitment to anti-racism—alongside the ideals of equity, diversity, and inclusion—through projects, programs, and performances that elevate BIPOC voices in the performing arts.

The University at large is asking all students, faculty, and staff to practice social distancing, wear a face covering, wash hands frequently, and limit gatherings as much as possible on campus and while on U-M transportation.

READ: Students can currently get 6 months of Amazon Prime for free

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The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM)
CCM’s fall semester includes a combination of online, hybrid, HyFlex, and face-to-face course offerings, along with an adjusted academic calendar. All face-to-face activities are optional, with virtual equivalents provided to students who request accommodations. Enhanced health and safety measures will be implemented for all in-person activities, including facial coverings, social distancing requirements, and daily self-administered wellness checks.

Classrooms and performance spaces have been reconfigured with reduced maximum occupancy and socially-distanced seating plans. All CCM facilities—including classrooms, practice rooms, and performance spaces—are also being deep cleaned daily using ion units. Certain spaces, like bathrooms, are cleaned hourly. Cleaning supplies are provided in every room so that incoming occupants can clean shared spaces such as chairs and desks at the beginning of each in-person activity. Hand sanitizer dispensers and HEPA air filters have been deployed throughout CCM’s facilities. Sneeze guards are also being installed in high-traffic public areas and are being used in certain performance situations.

All productions will be performed without live audiences, with the exception of a series of socially-distanced outdoor performances that will not exceed 20 minutes in length. Indoor productions will not exceed 90 minutes and will mostly be presented with actors and singers directly facing the imaginary audience and not each other. Performers may unmask, but only with extreme social distancing. All other production personnel will keep masks on. All productions will be video recorded for potential broadcast at a later date. CCM’s acting program is also developing a variety of different film and radio play projects in addition to the productions previously mentioned. As part of the college’s ongoing efforts to create and maintain an equal, just and inclusive society, CCM has pledged to use its performing and media arts platforms to further champion diverse talents, voices and perspectives.

Additional information on UC’s Return to Campus plan, including testing, tracing, and case management plans, is available online.

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AMDA College of the Performing Arts
The New York campus will have a hybrid online and in-person class model for the fall 2020 semester, both beginning November 2. In-person class sizes will be drastically reduced. Students will be able to start moving back in to single-occupancy AMDA residence halls beginning October 1 in a phased program that allows for appropriate quarantine procedures according to New York state guidance.

The Los Angeles campus will be completely remote for a fall semester running November 2 through December 18. AMDA LA is hoping to implement a similar online and in-person hybrid instruction model for second half of the fall semester in early 2021, which will depend on Los Angeles and California state guidance.

AMDA’s Return to Campus Playbook details their full in-person safety protocols, which includes daily self-screening for COVID symptoms via a mobile link prior to entering any AMDA facility for all students, faculty, and staff; mandated use of face masks when inside campus buildings unless specifically instructed (for voice lessons, singing in musical theatre classes, etc.); and social distancing whenever possible. Facilities have been modified, where possible, to promote social distancing.

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Boston Conservatory at Berklee
All classes for the fall 2020 semester will be held remotely, but faculty has chosen to meet the moment with innovative new class structures rather than just putting existing curriculum online. Students will have almost the full slate of courses available for online learning in an immersive, intensive lab format that responds to where theatre and the world are at this moment.

Compared to remote learning from last spring, students can expect reduced workload and time spent online, with 5-6 hours a day of classes and no classes on Fridays; restructured dance and movement classes for breadth of skills; smaller cohort sizes for a more personalized experience; new courses in student wellness and fitness to address Zoom fatigue; courses that address theatre’s response and contributions to social change; and auditioning courses that make use of self-taping to teach how to seek work virtually.

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University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA)
Classes are being offered under a hybrid model, meaning that courses are delivered through a mix of face-to-face learning in the classroom and remotely over the Internet, with an assurance that at least one third of all instruction is face-to-face for each student. For face to face instruction, faculty are making great use of outdoor space on the UNCSA campus, while employing all community health standards, including required face masks and social distancing. All classrooms have been measured and given occupancy ratings based on the activity they will be used for: one for classes where students are seated, one for classes where students will be moving, and special classrooms outfitted for singing. Voice faculty and accompanists have all been provided with KN95 masks as well as face shields, and every classroom in the School of Drama has had plexiglass dividers installed in order to create an additional layer of protection between students working with eachother, or between students and faculty, especially for classes involving voice and singing. The school has significantly increased its janitorial staff, and there are highly developed schedules of cleaning rotations for classrooms and studios that begin at five in the morning and extend into the evening, with special attention paid to high traffic areas and high touch surfaces.

The School of Drama has extended its production season from four projects that were originally planned for the fall semester to a total of six. Our first production will be a socially distant, fully streamed presentation of Jaclyn Backhaus’s Men on Boats, and we appreciate how Bard College, the Fischer Center, and Theater for a New Audience led the way on this form of production with their production of Mad Forest, and how generous they have been with sharing their process for creating the show with the entire educational theater community. Three of our productions, including our musical, will be fully produced in our theater spaces with no audience and then video captured for streaming. We are doing a radio production of Henry V, inspired by the work of New York’s Public Theater this summer. Finally, we are developing a devised theatre production addressing contemporary social issues that will be presented with the performers inside a building and observed through the windows by a live audience that is outdoors, moving through the site at staggered times, and socially distanced with masks. Rehearsal protocols for all productions include doing most table work via Zoom; only calling minimal numbers of actors for staging rehearsals; using conceptual approaches to staging, including intimacy and combat, that allow actors to remain socially distanced; having duplicate props so actors don’t pass a prop from one to another; and employment of professional protocols that have been developed by Actors' Equity, Society of Directors and Choreographers, American Guild of Musical Artists, and various unions and guilds involved in film production.

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Oklahoma City University (OKCU)
OKCU is offering in-person classes for the fall 2020 semester, with students expected to attend classes in person unless the course was established as an online offering, the instructor has asked students to attend on alternate days to allow for social distancing, the student is self-isolating, the student qualifies for remote learning accommodations, or the student has requested an exception. Class size and venue will be adjusted to allow for social distancing, with in-person/virtual hybrid instruction offered when this isn’t possible. Strict sanitation policies are also in place. Students who are sick or experiencing any symptoms related to COVID-19 should remain at home.

The opera and musical theatre departments are attacking this challenging time head on, using it as a call to explore beyond the traditional. Productions of Spamalot and Cosi fan Tutte are planned, and will be staged to allow for social distancing and performed without an audience.

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