All stories are, at their core, driven by conflict.
“Someone is always in pursuit of something and something else is always in their way,” says Laura Flanagan, head of voice and associate professor of theatre practice at the USC School of Dramatic Arts. “That’s a universal truth of theatre. You want something and you can’t have it.”
View this story in the digital version of the 2020-21 Callboard magazine.
Today, with students and faculty physically separated from the stage — and each other — during the COVID-19 pandemic, that universal truth is more acute than ever.
“In the virtual space, that conflict is ever present,” Flanagan says. “You’re trying to connect with someone that you literally can’t connect with. We’re not getting what we want. It’s a hard truth and it’s emotionally taxing. But for theatre makers — and actors, especially — it gives you this very palpable affirmation of the dramatic experience. And a great challenge to confront.”
Since March 2020, the School’s faculty and students have met this challenge head-on, devising countless innovations for teaching and learning the dramatic arts within a very novel context. Classes and showcases have transformed online. Production and design students have learned to create a physical space from their virtual environment. Actors and directors have invented ways to pass an object, tie up a suspect and fight a foe — from one Zoom screen to the next.
“We’re trailblazers all over again,” says Vice Dean Lori Ray Fisher. “We’re finding new ways to use theatre to tell social stories. We’re reexamining our art and why we fell in love with it in the first place. In the end, what we’re doing now is the same as the Greeks did thousands of years ago. Theatre is a form of expression. No matter where or how it takes place, we’re still using theatre and the dramatic arts to reflect our world and tell our stories.”
Rising to the moment
The School’s virtual makeover continued in earnest this summer when faculty immersed themselves in a 12-week course — hosted by the USC Center for Excellence in Teaching — to rethink how to deliver their classes in this new medium for instruction.
“I think that spark of creativity was reignited for a lot of professors,” Fisher says. “As the whole theatre world learns how to adjust to this climate, our faculty are motivated by the challenge of who’s going set the new standards of excellence.”
Faculty also used the summer to hear what students were most interested in exploring through a virtual setting. By the fall semester, classes were preparing plays for Zoom, becoming more confident with virtual auditions and expanding the very boundaries of what constitutes theatre online.
In one example of that boundary-pushing, Bachelor of Fine Arts students in design and production created a series of interactive experiences that would live online, each influenced by this historical moment in time. For instance, one was a virtual and theatrical labyrinth depicting voter suppression methods that many Americans face at the ballot, while another reimagined Karel Čapek’s prophetic play, The White Plague, within the coronavirus pandemic.
For each project, students worked collaboratively to create an online infrastructure for their production, meet deliverable dates and master new tools to bring their visions to life.
“There was a lot of discomfort at first and a lot of people had to take on different roles for these virtual productions,” says Elsbeth M. Collins, head of production and associate professor of theatre practice. “At some point, everyone involved had a moment of complete and utter confusion, which, for learning’s sake, is great. It led to a lot of new skills and confidence being developed.”
Inspired by USC President Carol L. Folt and supported by the leadership and generosity of the School’s Board of Councilors, an SDA Student Emergency Fund was created to help support students who are facing critical short-term needs as a result of COVID-19. To donate, visit dramaticarts.usc.edu/giving
Conversations and connections
This fall, the SDA brought in more industry professionals and working alumni for online conversations through the Spotlight@SDA and CareerSeries@SDA programs. Recent speakers have included Emmy Award-winning actor Jane Lynch, Spirit Award-winning actor Aubrey Plaza, Tony Award-winning choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and Tony Award-winning actor Leslie Odom Jr.
Even though students weren’t allowed on campus, they still designed physical set pieces, configured lighting and built special effects thanks to virtual collaborations with the School’s technical staff. Students sent prototypes and plans to the School’s shop, then consulted with technical directors and props managers as their designs took shape. Finally, via Zoom, the students directed remote photo and video shoots of the physical set pieces, which they then incorporated into their digital productions.
“It’s mind-blowing what our students and faculty were able to achieve,” Collins says. “Some of these innovations turned out really, really beautifully.”
The School’s acting students have come up with similarly inventive ways to advance their craft. In a Master of Fine Arts in Acting production, designers created a virtual room in which three actors tied up another character — seamlessly passing objects back and forth from each of their Zoom windows in the process.
Meanwhile, actors in Edgar Landa’s popular stage combat class filmed fights one move at a time to recreate a sequence of physical acting. One student would fire off, say, a front snap kick, then send the clip to their partner. Their partner would film himself or herself absorbing the blow, then respond with a strike of their own. Eventually, the partners edited the elements together into a full action sequence.
Anticipating the post-pandemic landscape
Exercises like these offer a glimpse of the entertainment industry to come.
“As much as we mourn the pre-pandemic world, there are going to be things we learn now that we like and we keep,” Fisher notes. “Elements of the old world will come back but we won’t be returning to the same profession and the same learning environment as before.”
Virtual productions will continue to increase. So, too, will virtual auditions, even for live theatre. At the School, showcases will continue to be recorded, enabling talent representatives to watch performances on their own time and see how students’ work translates onscreen. And the camera will become a more frequent teaching and learning tool both in the classroom and on the stage.
“During this pandemic, we’ve had to pivot and see the glass as half-full. Now, our charge is to fill it,” Fisher says. “To treat Zoom and online learning as something we have to tolerate for a little while is shortsighted and a disservice to our students. The world is changing and that includes the world of theatre. We, as a school, must continue to ask ourselves: ‘How do we craft new tools that will add to our students’ skill sets and serve them when they graduate?’ No matter what the world looks like by then.”
This story originally appeared in the 2020-21 issue of Callboard magazine, the USC School of Dramatic Arts annual publication for its alumni, parents, students and friends.