Teaching in the time of a pandemic

Illustration depicting virtual instruction

In a scene many are now familiar with, a grid of faces stares out from a computer screen.

Theatre professor Elizabeth Byland tells the assembled group—all students in the Running AMok improv troupe—about their next assignment.

“We are throwing a quarantine party,” Byland says. “Somebody start.”

One after another, they build on each other’s ideas to create a scene. One student describes a tower of sandwich bread. Another adds a floor made of toilet paper, and a hot tub full of hand sanitizer. They imagine VR headsets and a wall of screens showing FaceTime calls connect the partiers to the outside world while, inside the room, they all stand six feet apart.

This is a party in the era of social distancing. And this is VCUarts faculty and students, continuing to teach and learn in the wake of shutdowns following COVID-19.

“Adapting quickly to the spontaneity around them”

The timing of VCU’s move to remote instruction was somewhat fortuitous to students in Kikau Alvaro’s Musical Theater class. They were just beginning to shift focus to preparing video submissions, so Alvaro began coaching using the same technology that students use for self-taping.

“Musical theatre has, across the world, gone virtual,” says student Amari Cummings. “It is amazing to see the shift and actually be living through this time where everyone has to figure out how to use the internet and social media to produce and promote art.”

Student Kat McMahan says that “it is weird to sing into what I call ‘the abyss.’ However, in our industry this is something we are expected to do a lot. There will be a lot of self-tapes that we have to send in for auditions, and this feels like I’m being prepped for that.”

Alvaro continues to hold scheduled live classes on Zoom, sometimes bringing in guest speakers—like Broadway performers Jacob Brent, known for his role as the Magical Mr. Mistoffelees in the 1998 video production of CATS, and Aaron Albano, who appeared in Newsies and is currently touring with Hamilton—to give advice on auditions and offer their perspectives on the current state of Broadway. Incoming students interested in musical theater are also invited to sit in.

Guest speakers have been a common theme in performance-based classes as they shift from performance preparation to broader skill development. In the music department, student Julissa Martinez, a fan of YouTube stars Melodica Men, noticed the duo was offering free performances and presentations to universities. Department chair Terry Austin arranged a session for all VCUarts music students and faculty on March 31. Joe Buono and Tristan Clarke spent an hour talking about their trajectory as classical musicians, interspersed with short performances of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the Super Mario Bros. theme song.

Joe Buono and Tristan Clarke of the Melodica Men stand holding melodicas
Melodica Men Joe Buono and Tristan Clarke

When bringing a guest artist to his Jazz Orchestra class, Director of Jazz Studies Tony Garcia looked closer to home. He invited Filipe Leitão, professor of composition and sound design for cinema, games, and motion media, to present a workshop on the basics of audio editing, recording and music production.

“Nowadays, every music student needs to have a notion of music production and recording techniques, so they might at least record and mix their own performances, or the performances of their ensembles,” Leitão says. “Using a DAW [digital audio workstation] gives opportunities for experimenting, improvisation and creation.”

Beyond the technical skills, Garcia says the transition to remote instruction is a lesson in flexibility—one of jazz musicians’ greatest assets.

“Jazz musicians know that it’s not enough to be able to perform and compose using the standard chord progressions of a tune: they have to be fluent in the ‘alternate’ chord changes,” he wrote in a recent Jazz Studies newsletter. “For this and so many other reasons, jazz musicians are known for adapting quickly to the spontaneity around them.”

“A two-dimensional interpretation of information”

Three days a week, students in dance professor Scott Putman’s Freshman Repertory class have gathered in Grace Street Theater to learn choreography through a variety of creative processes—in small groups and large ensembles, with collaborative and self-generated material, and through direct movement sharing from a choreographer.

That all changed when the university switched to remote instruction. Hands-on physical instruction from Putman, in a large, collaborative studio space was replaced by online video instruction over Zoom, with students rehearsing individually in smaller home environments.

“The three-dimensional experiential exchange,” Putman says, “is vastly challenged by a two-dimensional interpretation of information.”

Putman is now focused on individual performative explorations. He is teaching broader performance skills, such as the relationship to music and cuing, and how to modulate energy in different spaces—all skills dancers need on tour when moving between different theaters and stages.

He is also developing a new work exploring themes of isolationism, ostracism, and othering. As he was considering movement patterns, his work was shaped by children’s games, such as Musical Chairs, Red Rover, Simon Says and, in particular, Ring Around the Rosie, which is historically based on the plague. When rehearsals return to campus, Putman plans to finalize the work and prepare for a performance.

“I first set out thinking of a concept that would be felt and understood by all and decided to use our current situation as the very thing to base the work off of,” Putman says. “I felt the rehearsal process might also act as a space for individual reflection and connection as a community to help navigate their personal challenges they are facing in addition to assist their engagement in the work.”

“An opportunity to reflect on the role of solitude”

In several Communication Arts classes, drawing skills remain at the forefront, while assignments take on new directions.

In Charlotte Rodenberg‘s Sketchbook Field Observation class, students spent the first half of the semester exploring the VCU campus and surrounding areas. They often drew scenes from the Fine Arts Building, Cabell Library, the City Hall Observation Deck, the rooftop of the Pollak Building. Rodenberg planned for the class to participate in an outdoor program through VCU’s gym after spring break, but now their weekly drawing prompts explore areas closer to home, such as signs of spring or family artifacts and heirlooms.

“The main goal of the class is to have an active and ambitious student practice, learn to explore the world around you and not be confined by the classroom,” Rodenberg says.

Stephen Alcorn—who teaches Mastering the Masters: Copying as a Tool for Self-Discovery; The Face; and Transfiguration: Translating the Human Figure, from Classical Ideal to Futuristic Icon—also requires students to build their sketchbooks on a daily basis, creating a visual journal of ideas in development. But he has transposed his exercises in portraiture, observational drawing and figurative representation, and recreating master drawings into video instruction over Zoom.

“[Alcorn] continues to assign prompts, but he is aware that many of us now have limited materials and resources,” says Phillip Jordan, a student in Mastering the Masters. “Medium, while still vital, is not emphasized as much as discovery and care for the fine tradition of drawing.”

Alcorn is also encouraging students to see the current environment as an opportunity to immerse in their work in ways that modern-day life can make difficult.

In Mastering the Masters, this sometimes means looking beyond lines and textures, and studying the environment in which the work was created. For instance, Alcorn asked students to recreate self-portraits by Kathe Kollwitz, whose work, he says, is “a testament to the role that quiet contemplation and thoughtful introspection can play in the process of self-discovery (and by extension self-realization).”

Alcorn’s demonstration recreating a self-portrait by Kathe Kollwitz

“My goal is to continue to foster a learning environment that ensures that my students remain eager to produce their best work,” he says. “More specifically, that they remain engaged in the process of making. Toward said end, I have encouraged my students to see the social distancing and isolation they are currently experiencing as an opportunity to reflect upon the role that solitude has historically played throughout the history of art in the creative process.”

“This is the time to upcycle”

In Cate Latham’s apparel design classes, students are typically tasked with designing and producing original garments, from patternmaking and mockups to fitting and finishes. It’s a nuanced and hands-on process, says Latham, who also owns Van Herten Outerwear, and her guidance is specific to their projects.

That goal hasn’t changed, although access to sewing machines, dress forms and fabric have shifted some expectations. Some students are constructing garments by hand, or modifying patterns to fit themselves or the person they are quarantined with.

Latham also says the department is doing everything they can to acquire proper fabric, but she’s encouraging students to be resourceful and creative.

“I tell them, ‘this is the time to upcycle any of your own garments you don’t wear anymore, and potentially cannibalize similar fabric to use for your project,’” she says. “‘Any old sheets in your closet can be used for your samples, as most sheets are similar to muslin.’”

In addition, Latham is sharing lectures and demonstrations—including new topics in hand stitching and customizing patterns to personal measurements—through recorded videos. Critiques and feedback occur during live video sessions, and through social media.

“We now have a weekly assignment and the students use Instagram to log their progress reports,” Latham says. “They include pictures, descriptions and specific hashtags, and in the end, we hope to have documented a collection of stories to illustrate how these students worked through COVID-19.”

“Lean into this moment and discover the joy”

In many ways, Byland’s improv exercises are a metaphor for education during the COVID-19 pandemic. Both faculty and students have to be a little bit scrappy, to prepare for the unexpected, to roll with the punches.

Whether she’s teaching her introductory improv class, or leading rehearsals for the performance troupe Running AMok, Byland typically uses interactive exercises to practice acceptance, active listening, following impulses, and collaborating as an ensemble. It’s a “total mind and body workout,” she says.

While she was initially nervous about translating these exercises to a virtual platform, she quickly saw it as a chance to lead by example and embrace the uncertainty. Her students were equally anxious about the new format.

“When VCU announced that we were going to have online classes for the rest of the semester many of my peers and I all had the same question. How is that going to work for art students?” says Kaden Pfister, a theater performance major and student in Byland’s improv class. “VCUarts is incredibly hands-on and requires in person instruction and tools that can only be found in the classroom. The [online] platform at first glance seems inaccessible; yet, faculty like Elizabeth Byland make every class feel as if you are getting one-on-one teaching.”

Byland has since found new exercises that work better online, and that encourage students to connect, create and explore. In addition, performing on camera can be even more nerve-wracking than in-person, so students are learning to let go of their inhibitions and support one another.

“The basis of improv is saying, ‘yes, and …,’ which means you agree with and accept what you are presented with, no matter how you feel about it,” says Caroline Woodson, a member of Running AMok. “Then you give all you can to that situation or circumstance and build upon it. I do not love this situation—I doubt anyone does—but I am learning to accept it and add to it what I can.”

Now, Byland says, she sees virtual teaching and learning a gift.

“Improv teaches us to accept all things with gratitude,” she says. “We take the given circumstance, no matter how wild and unexpected it might be, and we make it work. So, while it’s a time of uncertainty and frustration for many, we’re learning to lean into this moment and discover the joy of virtual learning and virtual performance.”