Dance Visions 2021, produced by students and faculty at UC Irvine, will feature student performers and be presented online. Credit: Photo courtesy of Rose Eichenbaum

A recorded live play or a performance without an audience are only a few of the many anomalies that have breached the strict culture surrounding live art since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. And that was only the beginning for these college arts programs.

The transition from in-person to virtual learning challenged students in a way that no college experience ever had before — they have to endure the shortcomings of a strictly online education with little to no room for face-to-face interaction while training themselves for a predominantly in-person and interactive world upon graduation.

Among the hardest hit majors, arts departments all over Orange County have had to reimagine the way they were going to bring the arts to their students, faculty and surrounding community. From posting recorded performances online to producing art in alternative mediums, their resilience and creativity compensate for the shortcomings of learning, teaching and creating remotely. 

Orange Coast College

Tom Bruno, chair of the Theatre Arts department at Orange Coast College, said that despite the challenges arts departments are facing in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, he is impressed by the students’ unwavering dedication to continue learning and performing.

“The biggest lesson is that our students are still coming to class. They still want to be expressive. They still want to express themselves dramatically or artistically and it’s just very inspiring for me to be able to teach to full classes everyday in my department,” Bruno said. 

Where majors in music, dance and theater typically gather in one place to collaborate, remote learning has also forced these students into remote creating, which is especially ambitious for performing and visual artists.

UCI arts major Alexis Miranda paints in a makeshift art studio inside her San Francisco apartment. Credit: Photo courtesy of Alexis Miranda

The OCC Repertory Theatre Company (The Rep), a student run theater production company operated by student members and supervised by faculty, rose up to that challenge by deviating from their normal fully booked seasons of plays and opting for other creative mediums like radio plays (Check them out here).

OCC theater professor Cynthia Corley supervises The Rep students alongside Bruno and shares the struggle of losing the live theater experience alongside her students. 

“This is communal, that’s the nature of theater and not just for the audience, although that is the heart of it, but for the makers as well. It’s a collaborative effort to create a work in a production,” Corley said. “And then to present it to an audience, the play isn’t a play and it doesn’t come alive until there’s an audience watching.”

Despite losing this essential part of the theater experience, Corley explains that the lessons they’ve learned while navigating the pandemic restrictions have taught them new ways to share their stories to a greater audience. Even though these independently recorded Zoom performances can’t compare to standing on a stage in a room full of eyes, Corley said it’s good to be learning new things and to remain flexible during a time when everything is constantly changing.

While the junior college typically saw about 70 performing opportunities in a semester, this spring’s theater department at OCC will only showcase two productions, with the latter being a combination of short plays for an immersive, online festival in May. 

Opening a new show every two to three weeks meant that there was always something in rehearsal. After the onset of the novel coronavirus, students at OCC now have to make the most of the few opportunities they get to create content or gain hands-on experience, even if it is for a virtual audience. 

Santa Ana College

Kellori Dower, dean of the Fine and Performing Arts Division at Santa Ana College, shares a similar experience to her OCC counterparts in that she and her department have also risen to the challenge of finding alternative methods to make their art accessible to people who can’t be in the same room.

All onsite performances at Santa Ana College were canceled last Spring, which prompted Dower and the department faculty to start looking for other ways to share their art.

“We had online core performances. They were via Zoom,” Dower said. “The music department put together a number of different programming options. The instructors are amazing. They edited their own work and posted it on Facebook Live and other online platforms.” 

Folks at the visual art department at Santa Ana College said they would bring the live experience of an art show to the people, and that’s exactly what they did. According to Dower, a gallery technician would film each exhibit and allow the respective artists to also explain their creations, which is not something that was always accessible even when these gallery shows were in-person.

The division has also taken to virtualizing its recruitment/service program, the Fine Arts Experiment, where it normally brings students from the Santa Ana and Garden Grove Unified school districts to campus for fine and performing arts workshops. This year, the Fine Arts Experience will be brought to them in the comfort of their homes this April. 

California State University, Fullerton

The Department of Theatre and Danc at Cal State Fullerton has shown nothing but resilience as it puts its best efforts into ensuring that all students have the opportunity to learn, create or produce content for a virtual audience.

Similar to the art students at OCC, these performing arts students have also had to grapple with the absence of the live element of theater. However, department chair Dave Mickey said that even though their performances are now being filmed, it is not a film. Rather, it is the department’s way, and the community’s way, of helping theater survive during COVID. 

“We’re actually really proud of how everyone is working together, how we’re working remotely to solve problems, how we’re coming together as a community to make this happen,” Mickey said. “Even though it’s filmed, we are filming theater. We’re not making films. We’re taping this art form live.”

Hailey Byerly, master of fine arts theater student at UCI, performs at the beach while being directed by acting professor Andrew Borba. Credit: Photo by Philip Thompson

According to Mickey, each of their productions are brought to life through the collaborative effort of six to eight faculty members and 10 to 20 students. Despite the remote challenges of working with a big group of people to create something that is normally planned and conquered in person, Mickey said he’s proud that his department can continue to provide opportunities for students to participate.

As much as CSUF and other colleges try to compensate for the live element of theater, they can’t make up for the lack of instant feedback that comes from the live interaction between the performer and the audience. 

“It’s a living, breathing art form and that’s the number one thing we’re missing,” Mickey said. “If you have a comedy and the audience laughs, the cast and crew, they can instantly react to it. And on film, or filming a production, you lose that whole breath, that whole live timing.”

While platforms like YouTube and Zoom provide options for live feedback, namely through chat rooms and reactionary emoticons, Mickey said that part of the accreditation for theater majors is performing in front of that live audience. To adjust to this virtual setting, these students’ feedback will mainly be based on the reactions they receive from their filmed work.

“It’s that whole breath, that whole life of an audience that makes theater unique compared to film. Because in film, you have a screen and the audience, but no interaction. So the students are missing that element and we’re hoping to bring it back as soon as it’s safe to do so,” Mickey said. 

University of California, Irvine

One of the obvious shortcomings of creating remotely is a lack of tools to create with. But the UC Irvine’s Department of Dance has found ways to give its students the resources they need. 

“We’ve actually sent pieces of ballet flooring to ballet dancers’ homes, 4 by 4 (foot) floor pieces so that they can work on point, not in garages, etc., because we don’t want any injuries,” said Stephen Barker, dean of the UCI Claire Trevor School of the Arts. “We actually had small ballet barres made so that the ballet students could actually work at the barre.” 

UCI dance major Katherine Lingle gets ready for dance class in the living room she shares with two other students. Credit: Photo courtesy of Katherine Lingle

Barker went on to talk about the music department and how it was one of the hardest hit sections in terms of continuing its work online. He points out that while Zoom is great for conversing or teaching a traditional class, it is terrible for capturing and transmitting music.

Consequently, all performances in the music department have been suspended with the exception of a highly-anticipated jazz concert coming the first week of March. The exception comes from a collaborative effort from faculty members who are drawing up new ways to reduce the latency of musical notes over video calls. 

“We are trying to develop and devise strategies for doing and studying the arts and we’re going to continue to use, when the shutdown is finished, things like lots of new opportunities for visiting speakers who don’t have to fly anywhere,” Barker said. “We’re trying to figure out ways that we can come out of this better than when we came in so that our new normal is actually an improvement over the old normal.”

The Claire Trevor School of the Arts’ theme for this year is arts and well-being. In pursuit of spreading that message, the department is taking advantage of this time to develop projects that will broaden the scope and reach of the arts, one which consists of an international initiative to better cater to people and events outside of the country. 

Even though these resources have always been accessible, they were not utilized to their fullest potential because there was not a demand for it until now. As the international and interdisciplinary focus continues to expand beyond the “old normal,” Barker said the department will strive to use what it learns and create during this time to help it succeed after the pandemic passes.

“There just isn’t such a thing as culture without the arts, and so we play an extremely important role. We’re not developing vaccines or curing cancer but we’re making people get in touch with each other in ways that, in a sense, are just as much about public health as anything going on at the hospitals at the moment,” Baker said. 

Kim Pham is a writing fellow for Voice of OC Arts & Culture. She can be reached at kimhphm@gmail.com.

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