Performance and art students adapt to online learning

Students in arts- and performance-based majors learn new ways of pursuing their creative passions with the move to online learning this fall. (Vincent Leo | Daily Trojan)

Before the coronavirus pandemic, a typical day for Casey Gardner, a senior majoring in theatre, would begin at 7 a.m. As a School of Dramatic Arts student, she used this early morning time to prep costumes, print scripts and warm up before her 8 a.m. acting classes. The rest of her days were occupied with classwork, meeting with scene partners, memorizing lines, a four-hour rehearsal block from 6 to 10 p.m. and often another rehearsal after that. She usually doesn’t make it back home before midnight. 

“It’s a pretty intense day of work,” Gardner said. “Obviously, you’d have to love it.”

However, along with all other students in USC’s many arts- and performance-based majors, Gardner’s day is going to look different this semester due to the current challenges that remote learning presents. The to and fro that filled her days will now mostly take place within her apartment in Los Angeles and although she said that may be disappointing, she’s found ways to adjust. 

While the initial announcement of Project Restart presented a hopeful advance, plans have since changed. Coronavirus cases continue to spike in L.A. County and the University is now recommending that all undergraduate students take their courses from home. 

Dance students are now unable to touch their dance partners, theatre students no longer have elaborate set designs to enhance their narratives, music students must continue to work together in bands — no longer playing their instruments in the same practice rooms — and film students have traded in niche camera equipment for their iPhones. 

Before these changes, Gardner spent Spring 2020 studying abroad at the British American Drama Academy. For eight weeks, she worked one-on-one with her professors and directors to fully immerse herself into her craft. 

“Theatre is such a necessary art to be with and connect with other people,” Gardner said. “[We] bounce ideas off of each other and just try things out.” 

After being abruptly sent home in March, she finished the rest of her semester online. The time difference between London and her home in Kansas was difficult to navigate, but she also noticed the isolation impacting her work. 

“It was pretty disheartening,” Gardner said. “I didn’t necessarily feel as confident in it as I would have if I was able to be in the room and working with other people.” 

The initial uneasiness of shifting a very physical art form to an online platform didn’t stop the creative process entirely, though. Gardner’s class was working on an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play “Cymbeline” and rather than canceling the production, students pulled scenes from the play and performed them over Zoom at the end of the semester. While it was a different experience than how she imagined spending her semester abroad, it pushed the envelope for her creative thinking process, she said. 

“It forced us to be creative in a whole new sense and work toward this kind of modern film or TV realm of acting rather than just theatrical, so that was cool,” Gardner said.

Students in the Thornton School of Music also had to find ways to recreate a collaborative hands-on art form remotely. Maria McMillian, a sophomore majoring in popular music performance, emphasized the importance of collaboration within her cohort.

“The hard thing about music is that it depends so heavily on us being in the same space and playing together in real time,” McMillian said. “You just can’t recreate that online or on Zoom.”

In the week following spring break, McMillian’s professors chose the Acapella app to perform music in groups remotely. Although the app spurred many trivial internet videos back in its 2015 peak, applied to a musical education, it proved relatively effective. 

“It wasn’t terrible,” McMillian said. “It was just different because we had to change our workflow. We had meetings with each other to decide the order of who would record instead of just rehearsing with each other in person.”  

Additionally, Thornton will be launching online programs to support its students for the semester. 

“The School is readying a new online platform for music lessons and a new virtual stage to showcase performances of students, alumni, faculty and Thornton ensembles,” Thorton Director of Communications Evan Calbi said in a statement to the Daily Trojan. “Thornton is creating digital audio workstation workshops that will be offered to performance students who don’t already have knowledge of the technology.”

However, for some art students, innovative thinking and virtual programs won’t be enough to overcome the accessibility issues that online classes present. 

Alex Policaro, a senior majoring in dance, explained that one of the hardest parts of remote classes was the lack of studio space. While on campus, she had access to the facilities in the Glorya Kaufman International Dance Center, including specialized studios with sprung wood flooring. At home, she used her garage and placed shower pan liners on the floors to mimic the marley flooring, but the changes still took a toll on her body.

“[Last semester] I was dancing out of a garage because it was the largest space that I had,” Policaro said. “I did it, but my body was not having it. My back hurt, and my knees [were hurting].” 

While many artists rely on the physical spaces available on campus, some also count on their respective schools to provide specialized hardware. Daniel Proa, a junior majoring in cinema and media studies, noted the financial burden that online courses have presented for film students. 

Last semester he took the “Cinematic Communication” class that is designed to teach principles of cinematography, directing, editing, producing and sound. At the beginning of the semester Proa paid a $300 insurance cost to cover the equipment he would use through the School of Cinematic Arts. After being sent home in March, he no longer had such access to the equipment he paid for. 

“[SCA is] kind of trusting you to already have equipment,” Proa said. “They’re not saying we’re going to give you at least this much [of the $300] for equipment [as a reimbursement] and they’re not letting us borrow or take home anything.”

While Proa had to spend some of his own money, he had to unconventionally repurpose what he had at home. 

“For example, I didn’t have a tripod,” Proa said. “I had to just stack like every single thing that I had in my house to hold my phone up.”

In previous semesters, Proa used to spend considerable time on campus, taking advantage of SCA’s resources. After class, he would go to the school’s labs and use the computers and editing software available to him. Here, he would also have someone to ask questions if he needed help.

“There’s not people helping you step by step in the editing [at home] … I had to figure things out on my own and while that’s kind of our job [to figure things out], we still should get some help,” Proa said.

But for some students, remote instruction and the increased independence that it brings have encouraged the creation of more original work. 

According to Associate Dean of Admissions and Student Services for SDA Sergio Ramirez, SDA has been supportive in its students’ endeavors, supplying a range of remote initiatives to supplement its independent creativity through involvement fairs and panel discussions this semester. 

“[Our] students are very ambitious and entrepreneurial,” Ramirez said. “But the faculty are definitely there to support them in how they reimagine their creative energy … I’m really excited to see what students make out of this experience. Just because we’re not in class or not on campus doesn’t mean we can’t provide and that the students can’t create.” 

For example, after Gardner’s experience performing a play on Zoom, she said she recommends students produce their own shows through Zoom with their peers. 

“Part of the School of Dramatic Arts and a reason why so many students love it is the ability to be creative outside of the classroom,” Gardner said.

For Policaro, adapting to remote learning entails taking advantage of newfound time. When she returned to  Texas in March, she used the two hour time difference between L.A. and Austin by taking extra classes in the morning, allowing her to keep a routine and expand her technique beyond the styles covered in her Kaufman School of Dance courses. 

McMillian has been using the extra time, afforded to her by the lack of extracurriculars, to create music in a more relaxed fashion. Before the pandemic, McMillian only had time to practice for class projects or scheduled live shows. 

“In terms of just having time to sit down at the piano or with my guitar and just mess around without a clear goal, I definitely didn’t have time for that before and now it’s been really nice,” McMillian said.

Although more open-ended, this independent form may take some getting used to, especially with how fundamental sharing one’s art is to the creative process. Proa explained that presenting his films in “Cinematic Communication” over Zoom affected how his work was received.

“I would have liked to be there in person because I could take in everybody’s reactions,” Proa said. “I think that that really helps me as a creator.” 

Ultimately while in-person theatre productions, film screenings, shows and art exhibitions can feel like the focal point of art majors, they’re not always the main motivator for the creation of their work. 

Gardner emphasized the innate passion for storytelling that comes with her acting and explained that she will continue to adapt her craft for a virtual medium. 

“The fact that you can connect with people that you’ve never met and now even more than ever being on Zoom connecting with people across the world just through telling a story I think is really powerful,” Gardner said.