The Department of Performing Arts Class of 2021 reflects on four years of performing

Triumphs, joys and losses from freshman year “Overture” to their final virtual show

The Department of Performing Arts Class of 2021 reflects on four years of performing
On Feb. 19 and 20, 12 American University students live-streamed a pre-recorded version of Meghan Brown's play, "Pliant Girls."

Senior Emily Brolin was not going to pursue theater, not originally, at least. 

When she wasn’t sure about whether to pursue a degree in theater, her family insisted that she go somewhere where she could at least minor or double major in theater. 

“I actually came [to AU] for political science, which I think a lot of people do,” said Brolin, currently a musical theater major and business and entertainment minor. “No offense to people who love political science, but I hate it.”

Brolin is one of 16 American University seniors within the University’s Department of Performing Arts. As graduation for the Class of 2021 approaches, the seniors reflected on their last four years: memories of performing live, the stress of navigating online theater and a look toward their futures that will begin to unfold come May.

Like Brolin, the DPA’s incentives for exploration and double majoring or minoring encouraged many students’ decisions to audition and enroll. 

“I came here because it was a BA program. I didn’t want a conservatory,” said musical theater and journalism double major Daniella Ignacio. “I think it’s really important to consider the world around you when you’re making art, and this program really taught me that.”

Because the theater program allows its students added flexibility outside of the DPA, some find that it affords them other opportunities outside of theater.

“I found that performing isn't my whole life,” said Molly Moore, a musical theater and public relations and strategic communication double major. “And not that this program has taught me not to do professional acting or anything like that, but I was just shown a breadth of things that I could do.”

COVID-19: The move to online performance 

When the coronavirus pandemic closed University operations in March 2020, the students struggled to navigate Zoom theater and the heartbreak of having to cancel their in-person performances of “The Birds” and “Significant Other.”

When the department’s performance of “Significant Other” was canceled in the spring, the cast did a Zoom read of the show, still unsure how to perform virtually.

For shows that needed it, the department mailed out necessary equipment so students could perform from their homes. Musical theater major Nikki Scamuffo, who lives in a small space, said that the department is trying everything they can. 

“We have tripods. We have green screens. We have animations that have been specifically made for us [and] umbrella lights,” Scamuffo said. “We're really trying to make it as good as we possibly can.”

DPA courses were also impacted by the pandemic and the virtual format left professors scrambling to teach performance online.

When theater and psychology double major Deanna Reimertz’s scene study class moved online last spring, her class transitioned to doing monologues because it was easier to record solo performances than work with a partner via Zoom. 

But in the University’s third semester of online classes, Reimertz said that the cast of “The Women” figured out how to do full scenes with their partners on Zoom in fall 2020.

“We [used] the little boxes as our own personal stages,” Reimertz said. She said that they were able to “make it come across like we were in the same room” with their backgrounds and movements. 

Haleigh Diaz, a psychology major with a minor in theater, said that she thought the department was creative with the transition from stage to film acting. Diaz, who played Courtney in “The Pliant Girls,” directed by actress and producer Ameenah Kaplan, said that Kaplan was innovative with technology. 

“It also taught me a lot of skills for film acting as well, which is not something that I think I would have gotten had we not been in a pandemic,” Diaz said.  

Some of the theater seniors are putting their film skills to the test for the spring musical, “Too Much Unhappy.” The musical will be partially filmed in person following D.C. and AU COVID-19 guidelines. 

Even as the performers have improved technical skills like film acting, the severed connection between one another has not completely been solved.

“It’s harder now to perform on Zoom, ironically enough, than it was live,” said Valarie McFatter, a business entertainment and theater major. “You just don’t have that same excitement anymore, or that same idea of connection. Nowadays, once rehearsal is over, you just kind of close your laptop, and then, boom, you’re out of the space.”

Upward and onward

Despite the challenges of performing online during their senior year, many of the seniors acknowledged the impact that the program as a whole has had on them as performers. 

Edmée Marie Faal, a theater performance major, said that being a theater student taught her the work of the job — that those who pursue it have to really love it. Faal admitted that it’s a difficult field to go into, but that she “can’t imagine doing anything else.”

“I think sometimes that’s difficult for people to appreciate the amount of work that goes into [performing] if you’re really trying to do it and be good at it and make this a field for you,” Faal said. “I think they sometimes think it’s quite a vain or narcissistic field to go into, but it just made me appreciate my ... deep investment and interest in the human experience.”

Many of the graduating seniors are thinking about continuing their passion for theater as a career. 

McFatter, whose experience in the department includes many stage management roles and behind-the-scenes technical work, will be using her skills in technical theater in post-grad life. 

Some students, on the other hand, plan to pursue careers completely outside of the realm of theater. 

Reimertz plans to go into art therapy, a career that intersects with her psychology and theater majors by allowing kids to create monologues and scenes to act their feelings.

Despite the career path they take, entering the workforce amid a pandemic is rather uncharted territory. Many seniors acknowledged the uncertainty that accompanies graduating in 2021.

For musical theater major Caleigh Davis, post-grad life means applying to graduate programs that she hopes will return to normal once the pandemic is over. In the meantime, she said that she is going to try to find a retail job and, if possible, perform in some capacity.

“I'm really open to anything at this point because the industry is going to be so different once we get out of this I think,” Davis said. “So I'm not trying not to get too attached to anything cause, you know, what's going to happen?” 

A lasting impact

The Class of 2021, according to program director Karl Kippola, leaves with a legacy of advocacy. Sultana Qureshi, a communication studies and theater double major, is just one among many who voiced concerns about diversity in the DPA. Qureshi said that they want to see the department do better, but noted that recently “it's been very conscious about what stories it's telling and who their stories are for by the casting.”

“In my four years at AU, I've never had a professor who looks like me, especially not in the performing arts department,” Qureshi said. “That f***ing blows.” 

Kippola said that diversity and inclusion in theater “has been a slow, incremental journey.”

“I think this class, more than any other collective class that I can remember, was impatient for that to move more quickly, and was expecting greater change and greater accountability from individual faculty, from the program as a whole,” Kippola said. “I think they pushed and fought for what it is they felt was important and what was right.”

While it may seem like the final curtain call for the Class of 2021, the bows are hardly finished. As the graduating class from the department of performing arts emerges into the adult world, it’s more like the lights have dimmed and the curtain has just gone up.

Editor’s note: Daniella Ignacio, a news staff writer for The Eagle, was not involved in the reporting, writing or editing of this article. 

smirah@theeagleonline.com, cmulroy@theeagleonline.com, ewalsh@theeagleonline.com, rsturm@theeagleonline.com 

Never miss a story

Get our weekly newsletter delivered right to your inbox.

More from The Eagle