In light of recent circumstances, the USC School of Dramatic Arts has asked our faculty to share honestly with our community, about difficult discoveries, small victories, silver linings, and more. As we learn and grow as a community, staying connected is very important to us, and we hope you will find these dispatches comforting in uncertain times. Our first letter comes from Luis Alfaro, Associate Professor of Dramatic Writing.
Greetings, friends. I hope seclusion is treating you well, and that you and yours have discovered the routine that is making this dangerous difficult time bearable.
I vacillate between how busy and expansive teaching has become, and how going to bed at nine is the new midnight.
I am so proud of the multitudes that I call students right now. They have not only artistically risen to the occasion that is less than ideal for teaching theatre, but they come to the Zoom Room honest, authentic, complicated, emotional and putting it all into the work.
For some, the situation has become treacherous; parents testing positive in faraway places, international students trapped on campus feeling deeply isolated, and the mental health challenge of staying focused under hours of online teaching.
Honestly, at the end of a full day session, I am not even watching the Netflix anymore, I just want to take an isolated walk and be around nothing electronic.
I myself feel like I crossed over a necessary hump of anxiety and grief, now fully immersed in a busy, but healthy routine. The pain in my chest and stomach mostly gone and focused on giving and making. I miss my mom momentarily, but soon I will add her to my normalcy.
As we artists know, we are in the business of change, and kicking that into gear is something we know how to do. In truth, it’s the only thing that is asked of us; to always change. In our writing, in our acting, in our being.
I have become the Mary Poppins of online teaching.
I make sure everyone is present and on time. I don’t have a problem emailing you or calling you in this unique time to make sure you are present and alive. I keep telling the class; the circle is not complete unless everyone is present. I make them check in and I keep them honest.
‘We are going to get through this moment, together.’ My mantra with a smile before ending the meeting on Zoom.
I harangue the ones who are depressed with interesting exercises, ridiculous homework assignments that demand research, creativity and fun. In Mad Max’s Thunderdome, I would be the John Houseman of the cave children.
I have gone so far as to write personalized monologues for the MFA1 actors based on strengths, challenges and requests they have written to me. If they want the art experience, I am giving it.
We negotiate how we talk to each other about the work, and we dramaturge and edit together in collaboration, as if we were working on a new play.
Their Zoom monologue performances have become a thing of beauty. Today, one of my students read a piece I wrote about loneliness, and it felt like I was sitting in a small theatre in Hollywood watching a definitive moment in a play. I was near tears.
And yet, even if this is enough, and honestly, too much to handle, I have been thinking about the others.
Last year was a devastating time on our campus. Nine students died in one semester, more than half to suicide or addiction. It was my first time teaching a Latinx theatre course, really something I was inventing on the fly. The students were a handful and they were incredible.
We had many watershed moments, but two that spring to mind were the day we talked about biracial identity and so many students were able to express this part of themselves for the first time. Some in tearful powerful stories around culture and racism.
The other was a day when I started by asking the class to check in around their mental health. After having read a play about grief and loss, we sat in the theatre and talked about making art and stress. Many students opened up about depression and academic pressure. I knew that day that we would be bonded beyond the syllabus and all the gorgeous plays we were reading. We got even deeper into the work and became collaborators for the rest of term.
So, I decided to just send a little note checking in on them during the pandemic. I sent a group picture from our last day in class. It was more an impulse than anything. Just to say hey, I am thinking about you.
Within hours, the emails poured in. Checking in, sharing a memory, or just happy to be remembered. What a great lesson for me; it doesn’t end on the last class day; the impression has just been made.
I decided that the other group I needed to connect with were the freshman seminar students I taught for chemical and electrical engineers forced to take a Humanities elective.
Mine was called ‘The Theatre Scene,’ and you know Luis Alfaro ran with that ridiculous idea into making young scientists write short plays, do stage combat and mask workshops. Oh, my goodness, they were so young! And maybe because of that, I thought I should send an email now to check in as well.
The notes poured in just as quickly. This group of 18 to 19-year-olds express their fears and anxieties even more, but also chiming in about how much fun they had and how I forced them to all be friends and buddy up and work in groups and how they now all keep in touch in their labs.
It gave me such hope that their humanities experience will help them be better engineers and scientists. Citizens of the world.
How is it that you can have hundreds of them in classes, and still remember them all?
One student wrote, “Professor, I know you probably don’t remember us because we always complained about everything, especially when we refused to make puppets and made fun of your Cambodian Shadow Puppet documentary. I’m sorry we thought it was so weird and boring, but this was the best class I have taken so far and now that I am half-way through, you were the only one who has ever called me by my name.”
I write back, “Are you back in Santa Maria?” and she responds, “OMG, you remember me? You really remember me!! LOL OMG!!”
Of course, I do. Especially in a pandemic.
Every single one of you.
If you’re a faculty member and would like to share, please submit your dispatch letter to firstname.lastname@example.org.