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Retaking the stage.
Dancer practicing with stretchy band.

Retaking the Stage

Pandemic performances showcase innovation

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There’s no longer safety in numbers. In fact, it’s been downright dangerous to gather together at theaters and music venues. So, how have artists—especially collaborative creators and those whose art is contingent on engaging an audience—worked in a world that’s gone remote? The performing arts have been particularly hard-hit economically by COVID-19, but fortunately, artists have applied their inherent creativity and innovative spirit toward finding new mediums for self-expression. And as many artists innovate their craft and how the public enjoys it, they are finding solutions born out of adversity that may persist even after the pandemic is long gone.

Student sitting outside playing tuba.

Photo: Eric Berlin

Reaching a Wider Audience

The group of UMass alumnae working on a play at the WAM Theatre based in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, knew they needed to rethink their approach after the pandemic hit. Focused on producing art paired with activism, they had long been planning a fall 2020 debut of their play ROE about the pivotal Supreme Court decision that protected reproductive rights, including access to abortion. Not wanting to postpone the performance—and the conversation that comes with it—they decided to release the play as a digital production on their website.

Though the transition from onstage to online was a challenge—especially for actors who feed off the energy in the room—according to Talya Kingston ’08MFA, WAM’s associate artistic director, this new medium allowed for greater audience access. She explains, “Over 1,000 people were able to ‘attend’ from around the United States and internationally.” WAM also offered closed captioning for the first time, reaching audiences who are hard of hearing. Kingston notes, “The ability to watch from home opened up attendance for those who are caregivers and not able to attend such events in person. Working on a digital platform also made it easier to share information about the charities and causes WAM works so hard to promote.” Kingston believes that incorporating this medium in the future could present interesting opportunities even after the pandemic ends.

Masked student practicing ballet positions on grass.

Creating in New Places and Spaces

UMass faculty also adjusted their approach to performing arts classes. Courses that couldn’t be taught remotely were taught on campus, but with a notable change of scenery: Large white tents were erected over open spaces ready for choirs, bands, and music classes to use as weather permitted. Just large enough for social distancing, the tents still offered protection from the elements and—perhaps more importantly—a feeling of togetherness.

This next generation of musicians is getting an early lesson in changing directions and overcoming obstacles. As music major Julia Blackwood ’23 explains, “I think that any life experience (especially adversity) impacts the way musicians approach music. When I read the stories of the composers that we appreciate and love to this day, I increasingly realize that most of them did not have smooth paths. And of course, because these composers put their hearts and souls into their works, we can gain a sense of how they viewed themselves and the world around them at the time.”

On-campus dance and theater courses also needed to pivot. When the weather was good, they met outside. In the fall, performances were done exclusively online and embraced the new features available on digital platforms. For example, UMass theater productions explored using multiple virtual rooms to bring the audience through a series of separate short stories in Café Subterrain. Theater Chair Harley Erdman reflects, “The last six months have taught us that the best and most exciting ‘Zoom theater’ consists of events designed especially for that medium, rather than trying to translate traditional live theater to a remote format. So, with the leadership of our grad students, we took a big leap in that direction, which also allowed us to come up with programming responsive to this moment in history.”

Music and dance concerts followed suit. Instrumental and vocal ensembles used combinations of recording music outdoors, streaming live, and playing together virtually over Zoom to create performances—examples of which are shared with the public on their YouTube channels. Both the Department of Music and Dance and the Department of Theater plan to continue hosting performances online though Theater did offer live performances outdoors during the spring semester. Despite the setbacks, they are grateful for the push to stream their content, which was something they had wanted to do before, but the pandemic supplied new urgency.

I think that any life experience (especially adversity) impacts the way musicians approach music.

—Julia Blackwood

Beyond performances, some students took a new direction entirely to meet their course requirements. Senior dance major Rachel Marchica ’21 explains, “Pre-pandemic, I was planning to create a senior thesis performance—historically that is the norm for dance majors. I was also exploring the idea of creating a podcast about dance but didn’t even consider having that be my senior thesis.” Once things changed, she says, “I felt it was really important to make the podcast and to be a part of the rise in arts advocacy work and speak out about important topics in the dance community (such as mental health, eating disorders, and injuries).” The podcast became her senior thesis project, and it’s continuing, even though the requirement is complete.

Student standing and practicing the flute.

Art as an Outlet

Artists like indie rocker and poet Sad13, also known as Sadie Dupuis ’14MFA, reevaluated their creative processes. “I think a lot of us are using this time for emotional work and self-reflection,” Dupuis tells Fader magazine. The sudden halt in touring forced her to confront the many losses she’s suffered—and she now uses that to fuel her work. Dupuis hosts an online poetry journal through her label Wax Nine Records and released her new album Haunted Painting in September 2020. She’s also focused on how to improve the industry by working with the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers steering committee. Leave it to artists to find meaning—and opportunity—in the face of chaos.

Finding a New Rhythm

Drummer Kenny Aronoff, who studied at UMass in the ’70s, has used this time to really dig into the digital gig economy. Mainly pushed by budget cuts in music production, Aronoff had already traded his hectic travel recording schedule—and drum sets at studios all over the country—for a stationary studio in Los Angeles. Now, when clients like John Mellencamp, the Rolling Stones, or Paul McCartney reach out to him to play on a track, sharing music files is all done online. On his website, Aronoff discusses his process and how he now records up to five songs a day: “I make a chart before I even walk in … I mean a really detailed chart … mostly to accommodate the engineer.” As one of the most prolific rock drummers, Aronoff is a master at laying down tracks in just three or four takes.

Though performing artists and their audiences will someday embrace traditional venues again, the innovations sparked by the pandemic will continue to provide new ways to reach patrons and inspire fresh possibilities for performances. And the UMass students and alumni tested by these times will be key to a thriving future for the performing arts.

Pictured in this article in order of appearance: Sophie Schilling ’24; Eric Montgomery ’21MA; Lili Greenberg ’24; and Ryah Lichtenstein ’23.

Hear Theater Department Chair Harley Erdman explain how the department rose to the challenge of 2020 with new courses, initiatives, and plans.