CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The performing arts departments at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign are reinventing how they’ll teach in-person classes this fall.
The dance, music and theatre departments are providing live classes in safe ways, consulting consortiums of university arts educators, professional organizations and alumni as resources for best practices. Some of their ideas include incorporating masks into costume design, pop-up performances in outside spaces and more filmed or livestreamed performances.
Dance department head Jan Erkert said the limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic will inspire creativity.
“The drastic limitations from the pandemic provide an opportunity for creative problem-solving,” Erkert said. “We’re used to responding to limitations with creative solutions. It’s hard and it’s exhausting, but it’s at the root of the creative process. Of course, the pandemic provides many more limitations than we’d like. But it also enhances or stimulates creativity.”
Dance professors taught over Zoom during the last half of the spring semester. Dancing alone was isolating for students, Erkert said.
“Part of what makes dance is community. We feed on the energy of each other,” Erkert said. “It was really hard for students to find the motivation and energize themselves when they were all alone in a basement.”
The department has marked off 100-square-foot spaces for each student in its dance studios for social distancing. Classes involving stationary movement – for example, working at the barre during ballet classes – will be easier to maintain distance, Erkert said. She envisions stations for teachers that can be moved around a studio and have a barrier such as a plexiglass shield on three sides to protect both teachers and students.
Classes involving moving through space will be more challenging. The department is looking at using outdoor spaces at times, as it is the safest way to dance during COVID-19. They recently secured the basketball court at Illini Grove for their technique classes, and students also will be dancing on the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts amphitheater stage, the Main Quad and other open spaces across campus.
Erkert said she is particularly excited about the possibility of using some of the theater spaces at Krannert Center, which is making the stages available to classes after canceling its fall season performances. That will help with space needs for the performing arts departments, she said, and dance students will get to work onstage with lights and a set, something they usually aren’t able to do. Students will perform to limited audiences and stream the dance works to a larger audience. For the first time, families from all over the world will be able to see the performance.
The dance department also will focus on Screendance, short dance films that emphasize movement for the screen with a choreographic eye to editing. The department has a Screendance class, and it hosts the annual Flatlands Dance Film Festival. Students doing thesis work may make a film rather than a stage dance, Erkert said.
The School of Music is facing perhaps the most difficult challenges of any academic unit on campus, said the school’s director, Jeff Sposato. It offers more than 200 courses, and teaching each instrument has its own concerns.
“The sheer quantity of what we do makes for a tremendous amount of planning,” Sposato said.
Among the issues he said he has been thinking about are ventilation, the aerosols produced by instruments and voices, and the amount of space needed to keep professors and students safe when they are in the same room.
“We’re approaching everything from the idea of safety first. There is a fair amount that music schools just really need to do in person,” he said.
Professors often teach in their studios, which are big enough for two people but don’t allow enough space for social distancing, particularly not with wind instruments or voice. Classroom space is needed for lessons to provide more distance between teacher and students, so many of the more academic courses – such as music theory and music history – will be taught online.
Large ensembles such as orchestras, bands and choirs will transform into chamber groups with smaller numbers of musicians. Many nonmusic majors perform in ensembles, but there will be room for fewer of those students this year, Sposato said. The ensembles will use larger spaces in Smith Memorial Hall and Krannert Center.
Because performance is an important skill for students to develop, student recitals will happen with a limited number of attendees, and some performances will be streamed online. Another possibility is prerecording and combining performances to create an online concert put together from multiple smaller performances, Sposato said.
“Putting together a full concert is not necessarily the most important thing right now,” he said.
The theatre department usually stages six performances per year with audiences from 200 to 600 people, and the productions are closely related to the curriculum. The department is considering what it can do well online and “how can we reduce physical contact, so we’re saving that for things we really must do live,” department head Gabriel Solis said.
The work of designers, technicians, managers and directors is technology-intensive, and early design and management work can take place on Zoom and through file-sharing, he said.
Some aspects of theater education must be in-person, though. For example, much of the early costume design work can take place digitally, but “eventually you have to put that costume on a person, and that requires people to be in a room together,” Solis said. “You want actors to be able to wear costumes and talk to each other. You have to light physical objects that are hung up in a space.”
Staggered schedules for such work will minimize the number of people in a space and the amount of time they are together. Costume designers will work on building masks into their designs. Some people may be present through Skype, Zoom or closed-circuit TV to supervise costume fittings, rehearsals or filming of performances.
Acting in live theater and onscreen for TV, film and digital media are increasingly connected, and alumni work in both, Solis said. This year, the department will do more in the digital world, training actors to act for the camera and lighting designers to light for the camera versus a live audience in a theater.
“We’re not becoming a film program, but we are helping students to develop skills to allow them to be broadly employable and make the art they want to make, regardless of the medium. That’s the biggest shift for us,” he said.
“Live theater is a distinct and powerful thing. Seeing something happen together at one time has a value, and we want to be able to do it again, but until we can do it, there are other ways to tell stories and help people feel the experience of community,” Solis said. “We’re going to lean into that and do those things until we can be in a room together.”