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Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024
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Sense of Play: Department of Performing Arts embraces virtual learning

Professors and students have struggled to connect to their collaborative craft online, but there’s still a sense of community

 Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on theeaglecoronavirusproject.com, a separate website created by Eagle staff at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in spring 2020. Articles from that website have been migrated to The Eagle’s main site and backdated with the dates they were originally published in order to allow readers to access them more easily. 

In their separated Zoom boxes, students in professor Carl Menninger’s Fundamentals of Acting course performed their exercises of waiting. While the rest of the students muted themselves and turned off their cameras, it was just the performer in their own home, miles away from their professor, classmates and classroom, waiting.

American University’s performing arts classes have shifted from their interactive spaces in the Katzen Arts Center to virtual classrooms. The effect that this has had on creativity and learning is constantly being considered by AU Department of Performing Arts’ professors who adapt their classes week-by-week. Performing arts students, too, wonder how they can bond with their peers and their craft.

“With acting, it is so much about perceiving, not just where the actor, the person who is performing, where they’re at, but also the people, perceiving the energy,” Menninger said. “I’d never been in a situation where I was removed from the person that was doing the acting … and you have to recalibrate that when you’re in a virtual situation.”

The first time Menninger taught acting online was last semester. He said that he’s more optimistic about this semester since he has had more time to plan content.

“As an instructor, nobody wants to be in this situation,” Menninger said. “You’re trying to compensate for that connection.”

Edmée Marie Faal, a DPA senior and one of Menninger’s teaching assistants, said that while everyone is facing challenges adapting to an online format, artistic fields in particular rely on in-person collaboration.

Faal said that she was worried about creating an environment where students felt safe and comfortable enough to be in a “wacky” acting class, while constricted to small Zoom bubbles. She said that students often describe feeling overwhelmed when they visit her office hours. 

“It’s difficult when every week, or every time you go to class, something is going on in the class or internally with AU. How do you adjust to that or make a schedule to that when everything is changing?” Faal said.

Still, Faal said that Menninger’s office hours help students adapt to the environment.

“It’s just a way for them to get to know me and for me to get to know them,” Menninger said of his office hours. “You also get to know their sense of humor, which doesn’t necessarily come out enough in class with it being quieter with everybody muted. But when you’re one-on-one with them, you can really get that sense of play.”

Karl Kippola, the head of the Theatre and Music Theatre Program and professor of Introduction to Acting this semester, has also been grappling with creating an environment that encourages students to feel creative. If students are on their own, unable to connect with people in the same space, they can become more self-conscious, Kippola said.

“I have been working on trying to get them to share of themselves, getting them to tell stories about themselves,” Kippola said. 

To try to make students feel less isolated, Kippola asked students in one class to describe the summer they thought they would have had if the coronavirus pandemic hadn’t happened, he said.

Menninger and Kippola said that Zoom’s “mute” button creates challenges.

“That really stifles participation,” Kippola said. “In the arts, we want people leaning forward and engaged. … It’s like middle school again.”

Menninger said that students are used to being muted in their other classes, so when they come to the acting class, they’ve lost the feeling that they can be spontaneous.

DPA professors are also struggling with tactical issues. Jason Arnold, a professor teaching Stagecraft, a hands-on skills class, has had to adapt assignments for students to build a set, paint it, build a functional lamp and sew costumes.

“I can’t bring them into the scene shop and have everyone use a table saw, like I would in the past,” Arnold said. 

He also said that he can’t ship everyone sewing machines, so that skill has been adapted to a hand-sewing project where students will make their own face masks.

Arnold teaches Stagecraft from AU’s Greenberg Theater, which has been equipped with two cameras that provide different angles.

Arnold said that he anticipated making these changes to Stagecraft; however, he only had two weeks to plan for his other two performing arts courses that he’s teaching this semester.

“I was told at the beginning of May that my contract was not renewed. I was told at the end of May that my contract was renewed on a contingency basis. I was told on Aug. 12, about two weeks prior to the semester beginning, that I was coming back,” Arnold said. He said other professors throughout the University, including one other in his program, also had their contracts changed.

AU did not respond for comment about contract changes over the summer.

“What I’m just trying to do is, despite being in a box, I’m trying to pull us out of the box; that’s why I’m pushing so much work in Greenberg,” Arnold said.

The Zoom boxes have been impediments. However, the platform is also being used as a new tool for theater as one of the DPA’s latest shows, “The Women,” went completely virtual.

Kippola directed the women-only comedy, and he described it as a “radically different experience.” Throughout the show’s development, he said that he missed “just being in the hallways and talking to people, having my office door open and just having people walk in and talk to me.”

But the show kept the community engaged and connected, Kippola said.

Faal, an actor in “The Women,” said the show felt “foreign” because acting isn’t normally confined to one’s shoulders and up while they’re in their bedrooms. 

“It is a little disheartening that we don’t get to do the production we originally envisioned, but in another way, … it’s still worthwhile because we’re not giving up on art,” Faal said.

Sultana Qureshi, a senior theater performance and communication studies double major, said they were going to be in “The Women,” but decided to drop the show due to time constraints.

“In retrospect, I am relieved I did that because I don’t know how I would’ve felt about doing a whole play over Zoom,” Qureshi said. “I am hesitant to do productions online, just because what I get out of theater is being in a room with people I care about. When that is removed from the equation, I don’t know if the time commitment is then worth it.”

Qureshi’s taking their senior capstone class this semester, and they said they’ve struggled to feel creative in an isolated space. 

“I was really looking forward to coming together [as a class] and working during capstone because I think we really are going through similar things,” they said. “I think we are really disappointed that we can’t be doing all the things we were promised.”

Qureshi expressed sympathy for the freshmen adapting to college in this virtual format. 

“I know how important my first introduction to the DPA was,” they said. “It continues to be my whole social circle, and I don’t know how true that would be if I hadn’t found the DPA so fast, or I couldn’t see these people every day.” Qureshi fondly remembers bonding with classmates to buy Subway or walk to the Anderson dorms after rehearsals or classes. Freshmen in the DPA won’t experience this.

Despite isolation and struggles to build community, Faal said that the students in Menninger’s class have been ready and willing to perform.

Menninger said that, at the start of the semester, students expressed a “kind of sadness.” Now, he said, he and his students are laughing a lot more.

kmcdonnell@theeagleonline.com


 Hosts Sara Winick and Sydney Hsu introduce themselves and talk about their favorite TV shows. This episode includes fun facts, recommendations and personal connections. 


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