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Still Performing

Even with limited audiences, performance arts students find ways to hone craft

Taylor Molt posing

From The Ichabod - Spring 2021
By Angela Lutz

At Washburn University’s theatre department, the show must go on – even in the midst of a global pandemic.

Despite social distancing guidelines, mask mandates and rows of empty seats at Neese Gray Theatre intended to curb the spread of COVID-19, the University’s resilient performing arts students and faculty have found a way to make performances happen. That’s not to say the experience has been easy or ideal.

“There were so many problems to solve,” said Sharon Sullivan, professor and chair, theatre. “How do you create intimacy from six feet away while wearing a mask? How do you choreograph seven fight scenes and maintain social distancing? How do we seat a limited live audience so everyone is safe? But we solve problems every day, so I knew we would figure it out.”

When stay-at-home orders went into effect last March, one of the first hurdles for the department was learning to use technology that would enable faculty to teach online, as well as allow students to record and stream virtual performances. For vocal performance major Elena Hageman, early experiences with poor camera and sound quality were frustrating, though she has gradually adjusted as technology has improved.

“It has definitely been a learning experience, and singing through a mask has been exceedingly difficult,” Hageman said. “One good thing is virtual performances can be recorded as many times as needed, but it never sounds as good as it does live. I’ve definitely had to advance my knowledge with technology.”

Students have also adjusted to performing without an audience, an essential component that has been sorely missed. Musical theatre major Taylor Molt had to move her senior capstone performance of “The Last Five Years” entirely online, especially since singing is considered a COVID-19 super-spreader activity.

“As a performer, your energy drops without an audience,” Molt said. “Knowing we’re impacting the audience in some way is why we do what we do.”

While most pandemic performances have happened online, students and faculty have also found creative ways to safely hold some live performances. Neese Gray Theatre has a capacity of 330, but only a limited number of seats can be filled, and for much of last year the room was aired out every 15 minutes even during rehearsals. Performers must also wear masks, and they have re-orchestrated certain scenes so they will have less interaction with each other.

“The students want to make a show, so they’re willing to do what they need to do,” said Julie Noonan, assistant professor, theatre. “We’ve done smaller cast shows in general. We had a student doing a senior project, and there were only two people in her show, and she cast her roommate so they could rehearse together. Students are used to wearing masks and they’re so concerned with everyone’s safety that it’s become a habit for them. It’s been encouraging to see that kind of responsibility for others.”

Daniel Alberson posing with drumFor some performers, the pandemic’s various challenges have not been without a silver lining. Working with lecturer and assistant director of bands Von Hansen, b music ’08, music education major Daniel Albertson has been able to hone his expertise with recording and editing software to ensure his percussion productions were top notch for his virtual graduate school applications.

“Von Hansen has been really good about keeping us involved and playing at a high level,” Albertson said. “Last semester we did recording projects, and the same standards applied as to live performances. Music is interactive, and taking away the audience removes that aspect, but we’ve made it work.”

This spring, students worked on “The Moors,” a play directed by Theodore Shonka, lecturer, theatre, and “A Year with Frog and Toad,” a musical for young audiences directed by Noonan.

“One of the things I’m most proud of is the way the students have handled this,” said Shonka. “They’ve been for the most part really positive.”

While “The Moors” was presented with a limited live audience, Noonan presented “A Year With Frog and Toad” primarily outdoors on campus, at local elementary schools and at Boys and Girls Clubs. While full-capacity live performances may not happen again for some time, students and faculty are eager to get back to doing what they love most.

“Because of the pandemic I’ve definitely done some things I’ve never planned on doing,” said Molt, who will continue her studies in graduate school. “I am most looking forward to singing on stage for an audience and having my voice heard in its full capacity again. I miss it so much.”

Spring 2022 The Ichabod cover. Sculpture on the lawn north of Memorial Union

The Ichabod tells our story with features on alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, along with the latest campus news. View the current and past editions


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