For the USC School of Dramatic Arts Class of 2020, COVID-19 may have hindered a physical get-together, but there was no shortage of excitement and community on May 15, the day that would have been commencement day.
“…today we gather in the spirit of celebration. It is important and necessary that we recognize the strength, creativity, excellence and resilience of our remarkable students,” said Dean David Bridel.
He spoke to the graduating class during a virtual celebration on Friday via a Zoom webinar for graduates, families, friends, faculty and staff — citing that “Today is a day to remember your joys and struggles, your growing pains, your work and achievements. It is also a day of sweet sadness as you say farewell to your SDA family and to your home for the last four years.”
Applauding the graduating class’ creativity, ingenuity and resilience during such an unideal circumstance, Dean Bridel emphasized the role these moments would have in their future. “During your careers, you will experience many more challenges, and your experiences at USC — including your response to the current situation — will equip you well for the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that lie in your futures,” he said.
When the global pandemic upended plans for a usual spring semester and graduation day, the SDA community was quick to adapt to the new normal of supporting dramatic arts education through virtual means, and did so with a great deal of support from its student population. In particular, the graduating class shifted to online showcases, finished their last courses and many spring productions in the digital space, and welcomed a virtual celebration until an in-person graduation would be safer to do so.
“We — as a class — are resilient, determined and so passionate about the work we do. If there’s anyone who can come back from this stronger than ever, it’s us,” BFA student speaker Carrie Hiramatsu said to the Class of 2020.
At the event, the graduate of the stage management program shared “… how much of a privilege it really was, to have the opportunity to come together with my peers and friends every night. It’s a uniquely collegiate experience we got to have — to explore and just figure it all out as we went along; to laugh and joke and just be with each other, without the stakes of the ‘real’ world weighing heavy upon us.”
Seeing a silver lining in the unusual circumstances, MFA Acting student speaker Deja Thompson expressed her relief in not having the pressure of success right after graduation. “We can sit, in this world, and listen to our emotions, transition smoothly, and focus on our health and not feel any pressure having to prove ourselves,” she said at the event.
She advised her peers to take the moment instead to create: “…reflect and write down all that you have done, here and now — how you stuck through hardship, remained ‘til the end and be proud of your greatness, know that you deserve all the congratulations. Continue to shine and strive on with great strength. This is the time to write your story, get creative, because no one is going to do it for you. You have to push yourself past your limits, be brave and set the bar high.”
For BA student speaker Antoinette Ricchio, “Graduating from USC is just the beginning for us though. What we might think is a sad ending is rather an unexpected and unwarranted beginning to some really beautiful stories.”
“Together, we must look forward because there is a future for us. The day will come when we can be together again and resume the work we so passionately have been moving toward,” she added, addressing the close-knit graduating class and encouraging her peers to stay connected and lean on each other.
Even after the virtual celebration concluded, it was apparent just how close this group was to each other and to their SDA family. Many — along with several alumni, faculty and staff — stayed on the webinar. In response, the room was opened up for an impromptu chat for everyone to see each other one last time before the school year truly ended.
A word, from artist to artist
The artistic community rallied behind the SDA Class of 2020, bringing welcomed surprises — such as a special visit during the virtual celebration by award-winning Oscar Isaac, who offered a reassuring message to the group.
“I just want to say a big congratulations to the Class of 2020! What an amazing thing to finally make it this far. It’s uncertain times and it’s scary out there, but doing the one thing that you’ve already done, which is taking that step and dedicating yourself at mastering your craft, that’s the one thing you can control,” he said.
Renowned artists Stephen & Kelly Coffield Park, Kathryn Hahn, Mark and Marylou Hamill, Mandy Moore, Kelli O’Hara, Kevin Pollak, Ali Stroker and Rainn Wilson — as well as SDA board of councilors members Connie Britton and Michael Chiklis — also sent their well wishes to the SDA class through video messages. Their recordings were shared throughout the day on social media and a special celebration page dedicated to the class.
Among the many messages of affirmation, Stroker said: “There are so many wonderful things coming your way. Don’t worry, you are in the perfect place. There are so many things that are going to happen that are going to be spectacular and scary and you have the courage to move through any of those things.”
In her message, Moore encouraged graduates to remember just how important the day was. “This is a big deal. You guys have been working for years and years and years towards this. Your dedication, your perseverance, all of it should be acknowledged and celebrated,” she said.
Dramatic Arts faculty, staff and parents also recorded words of encouragement and congratulations for graduates, which are all housed on the School’s celebration page.
Celebrating like never before
Due to the school year ending in an unprecedented way, the university and its schools hosted virtual celebrations for the graduating class to provide hope, encouragement and support. The day began with the USC virtual celebration, followed by individual school virtual celebrations. The university and the School of Dramatic Arts will be celebrating an in-person commencement ceremony at a later date.
“Class of 2020, you couldn’t have predicted where your journey of discovery at USC would take you. Over your time here, you’ve shared with each other moments of great joy and sadness, pride and disappointment, inspiration and success, and, of course, COVID-19,” USC President Dr. Carol L. Folt said at the main USC virtual celebration address.
She continued: “None of these moments by themselves define you or your experience here at USC. Together, they paint a beautiful picture of achievement, passion, and shared values and purpose.”
Citing her special kinship with this group since it was her first graduating class as president of the university, President Folt charged the class to “Trust yourself, remain true to hearts and to your values.”