With UCSB lessons going completely online as a precaution against further spreading of COVID-19, students whose major is all about performing with and in front of people have found the shift to digital a strange transition.
While the continuation of classes online means that UCSB theater students aren’t in danger of falling short of credits or their intended graduation date, performing scenes on camera in a room by oneself isn’t quite the same as being onstage with castmates and feeding on the energy of an audience. This is a source of some disappointment for theater students, as acting projects they worked hard on didn’t quite materialize the way they were initially conceived.
When UCSB transitioned the home stretch of its winter quarter to online learning on March 10, Betty Galindo, a senior in UCSB’s BFA acting program, was just a few days away from performing in a production of back-to-back one-person shows with her classmates. Little did she know it, but two weeks ago, as she and her fellow senior acting students practiced transitions between their respective one-person shows, they would likely never again work together in their usual rehearsal space as UCSB students.
“That was probably the last time we would be working in that place,” she said.
Though this brought a premature end to collaborating with the classmates she had worked with for a few years, Ms. Galindo’s one-person show still went forth, albeit in a much different way. Because the venues UCSB acting students normally use are closed, Ms. Galindo told the News-Press that her professor had them perform their one-person shows in their rooms and record videos of them for grading. She called performing her show in her room “interesting” and a “different experience.” Looking on the bright side of the current situation, she added that the transition online has forced her and everyone else in her program to adapt by exercising their creative minds, which is what their major is all about.
“That’s the great thing about theater, you find ways to get creative,” she said.
She expects that finding ways of adapting through creativity will continue into the spring quarter, during which classes will continue to be online, group rehearsals held through video app Zoom, and performances recorded rather than performed live. Next quarter, senior UCSB theater students will perform two major would-have-been live projects on video, their senior ensemble performance that they write and helm, and assigned scenes that normally get performed at a showcase in Los Angeles. During the latter, under normal circumstances casting directors and agents from the entertainment industry observe the seniors as they act out their scenes. Because their scenes are now going to be filmed, Ms. Galindo likened this change to creating a self-tape, which actors make for auditions. This will be common practice as she pursues acting as a profession, but she does wish she could have had the opportunity to personally act in front of industry professionals
“Not much has changed with that, but when you’re a young artist being introduced into the industry, you want those in-person connections if you can,” she said.
While Ms. Galindo feels shifting from live acting to recorded performance is a chance for her and her classmates to exercise imagination, third year theater major Christian Duarte is less sanguine about the prospect. To him, doing a performance meant for live theater before a recording device is “not real” and “a lot less legitimate” than doing it in front of an audience. In fact, he doesn’t think replicating a stage performance in one’s room can even be done.
“I myself don’t believe it’s possible to recreate something if you don’t have an audience. I believe when you have an audience it changes everything,” he said.
For one of his classes last quarter, Mr. Duarte and one of his fellow students worked on a scene from Neil LaBute’s 2001 play “The Shape of Things,” which they performed twice for their professor. After each performance, their professor gave them notes on how to improve their acting. Its third performance would have been their final project for the quarter, but the transition to online classes meant they couldn’t do their scene again as originally planned.
Instead, he and his fellow students were assigned to act out their scenes with their partner on Zoom and send the recording to their professor. They were also given a second option: Write a monologue based on their assigned scenes, act it out, record it, and send it to the professor. Because his acting partner was in the process of moving home due to stress amid the coronavirus chaos, Mr. Duarte had little choice but to do the second option.
“It was interesting to mold a monologue from a scene for two people. I did it, but it wasn’t fun,” he said.
The coronavirus crisis has thrown a wrench in Mr. Duarte’s theater endeavors beyond just his classes. Just recently, he became president of the student theater organization Shrunken Heads Production Company. His first order of business in his new leadership role: Cancelling shows the company had planned for the quarter. As he recalled, he received a flurry of disappointed text messages from the actors and crew members involved in Shrunkheads’ next production.
“It was really hard to do,” Mr. Duarte said. “But it was really the only option we were left with.”
Having already received emails regarding his next quarter’s classes, Mr. Duarte told the News-Press his upcoming instruction will be similar to that which wrapped up winter quarter. Rather than collaboration, it will be focused on individual work. This arrangement may be necessary, but Mr. Duarte feels it’s difficult for theater students to not have it the other way around.
“It’s really hard because theater is not about being alone or being solo,” he said. “It’s about community and doing things with other people… You need to collaborate, so taking that away is really hard.”