VPA Overcomes COVID-19 Challenges

Author: Krista Ruehmer

Published Date: 12/16/2020

Categories: Art F1RST Magazine Faculty and Staff Music Pioneers Persevere Students Theatre Arts Visual and Performing Arts

Dancing the Line Between COVID-19 and the Creative Arts

No one has been untouched by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. But for the visual and performing arts, the very foundation of artistic expression has been transformed this year. At Carroll, students, staff and faculty have danced—literally, in some cases—on a fine line between adhering to necessary safety protocols while expressing creativity through music, art and theatre. 

Who is the audience, if the theater won’t be filled? How does an actor express emotion behind a face mask? How are art pieces showcased when a gallery night can’t be hosted? When left to their creative devices, Carroll’s arts department navigated the complex logistics without missing a beat. 

cast of romeo and juliet

drawing a portrait

paper patron

O Romeo, Romeo, Wherefore Art Thou...

Telling a story of tragedy and romance on stage is no easy task in the era of COVID-19. But Jennifer Dobby, who chairs the department of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) and adapted the production, didn’t let it stop her.

It was, however, not simple.

ROMEO + JULIET (A Cover), initially meant to be staged by the theatre arts department in spring 2020, but postponed to fall in light of the pandemic, tells the classic Shakespearean tale with hit pop-rock songs in place of some of the original text. Because of the pandemic, even some of Dobby’s original script, staging and choreography got a twist, as well.

Throughout preparation, cast and crew followed guidelines from the CDC, Carroll and the University of Colorado’s Performing Arts Aerosol Study to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. The cast size was reduced from 35 to 20, and throughout the duration of rehearsals, everyone had a temperature check before the day’s work. Carroll also installed HEPA filters that ran continuously in the house and backstage. Masks and gloves were always worn, and the cast and crew implemented and respected appropriate social distancing. 

Safety measures didn’t end there. Singing and dancing rehearsals took place outside as much as possible, while Stage Management sanitized every prop before and after use. Sanitizing stations were housed backstage and mics were never shared by multiple actors. 

The production’s largest musical numbers were filmed in advance to mitigate aerosol emission, which allowed for a true multi-media performance that included both live and pre-recorded footage.

Much of the staging and choreography underwent tweaks in order to maintain social distancing. For one scene, where Romeo and Juliet share a kiss, the scene was staged in a way that, though the actors were on different planes and socially distanced, their silhouettes in the shadows appeared to kiss. 

“Theatrical magic,” Dobby calls it.

Magic, indeed. And a success.

The multimedia production was live streamed to the public on Oct. 24 and included live singing and music videos that were created by film and television minors. 

“It was a true interdisciplinary project directed by Professor Jennifer Dobby,” said Sara (Thorne)  Meyer ’09, ’16 promotions and events manager of VPA.

In the end, more than 1,000 guests attended the performance, both virtually and in person, with viewers tuning in from five different countries. 

Box Office Insider Podcast: Join host Sara Meyer, promotion and events manager at Carroll University, as she interviews the ROMEO + JULIET (A Cover) director, professor Jennifer Dobby, including listener questions. Episode 41 is available on iTunes and Spotify.

Marching to the Beat of a Pandemic

The marching band, wind ensemble and choirs rehearsed in interesting ways this semester in order to keep everyone safe. While playing and singing from a distance, members of the marching band also wore specially developed masks that allowed for wind instruments to be accessed through a small slit, which then closes around the instrument.

And although there were no sporting events for The Marching Pioneers, they found new ways to exercise  and showcase their talents. Everyone loves a Friday, but the Marching Pioneers marching band kicked it up a notch this semester. Band members, and occasional collaborators like the Blaze Dance Team, have filled Main Lawn at 4:30 on Friday afternoons throughout the fall semester to perform as part of the Fridays After Class marching band concert series.

Pandemic Portraits

Self-portraits are a staple in art professor Amy Cropper’s Drawing and Composition class each year. This year, however, posed a bit of a challenge. 

“I was oddly surprised at how the masks altered how I could teach this assignment,” said Cropper. “As I was beginning to explain how to approach the features of the face—the eyes, nose and mouth—and I looked out at my masked students and laughed, ‘oh right, this year we don’t have noses and mouths!’”

The self-portrait assignment is meant to help students learn the proportions of the human head. Students are also are asked to consider an aspect of their identity that isn’t physical, and to include that in the portrait, as well. Typically, students work from mirrors, allowing Cropper to provide feedback during the process. But, like much of this year, nothing is typical. 

“One key to drawing correct facial proportions has to do with observing things like how the bottom of the ears line up with the bottom of the nose,” she said. “Or, how the line of the mouth, if taken out to the sides of the face, indicates where the jaw joint is located. The masks covered all of this up.”

Instead, Cropper decided to let her students choose whether they wanted to attend class in person for the assignment, and therefore draw their portrait with masks on, or if they wanted to draw from home, unmasked. Turns out, it was a fairly even split. And a unique and successful assignment. 

Final portraits are hung in the hallway of the Humphrey Arts Center.


Paper Patrons

Until this year, a Carroll production has never opened to an empty house. The Carroll Players, however, weren’t going to let Carroll’s talented casts and crews experience it. 

Cue: Paper Patrons!

At the beginning of the semester, the theater department put a call out for Paper Patron submissions. Interested patrons could have a printed photo to sit front and center at every arts semester during the fall semester. The result? A packed house of friends, family and furry loved ones in Shattuck Auditorium for the all arts events, including the unique experience of ROMEO + JULIET (A COVER), which opened in late October to a full house of 60 Paper Patrons and 500 virtual patrons watching from home.

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Panoramic View of campus