Creating Connections and Ideas Online in Theater Design
By Sofia Sallaway | Friday, December 11, 2020
By Sofia Sallaway
Friday, December 11, 2020
During this pandemic, we have faced many hardships. At UMass Theater, we witnessed this as we adapted to mostly-remote courses and stringent safety measure for face-to-face classes, calling on faculty and students alike to adapt to new modes of learning. Theater design classes, which focus on costumes, scenic design, lighting, and sound, are typically a hands-on learning experience, often paired with work in the scene, costume, or electrics shops. This fall, Design Professors Amy Altadonna (Sound), Anya Klepikov (Scenic Design and Technology), Yao Chen (Costume), and Penny Remsen (Lighting), as well as master electrician Michael Dubin from the UMass Department of Theater have all needed to innovate new methods to deliver content, and often reimagine the content itself in order to achieve the essential objectives of their respective design courses. Even aspects which one might expect to translate easily to the online platform sometimes presented significant challenges. In the undergraduate lighting course, for example, Remsen and Dubin had to carefully test and experiment with how the lighting qualities of different fixtures appeared on camera, in order to successfully live stream the demonstrations of stage lighting equipment. Lectures which normally could be set up in a few minutes in the lighting lab required many hours of preparation to discover the camera angles and settings needed to allow the subtilties of the lighting instruments to be conveyed over video.
But as important it was to adapt the technical elements, professors also found themselves called upon to adjust the intangible aspects of their teaching. Altadonna says, “I've let go of my assumptions about what makes a ‘good student’ and become more flexible and empathetic. I now feel more prepared to participate with students in changing the world to be more how we want it to be, instead of struggling under the weight of outdated norms and expectations.”
Empathy for an unusual situation: Finding time for connection
Theater design courses usually rely heavily on in-person interaction and mentorship so these faculty members had to make sure to find new ways to maintain connections. In sound design, Altadonna states, “in the spring, we suddenly ‘lost’ things that were in the original syllabus: hands-on time with audio gear, in-person collaborations, live shows on stage. For the fall, I was able to plan skill-building activities that made the most of the situation, and so the tone was more positive: what can we create from this opportunity, instead of focusing on what we were missing out on that got cancelled in the spring.” Remsen began her class with student check-ins. She found that simply asking students how they are doing at the beginning of each class created connections and an open environment. Altadonna’s empathetic approach to this fall semester gave her “more insights, and a more swift and comprehensive shift in [her] classroom style.”
One positive aspect of remote learning that these professors took advantage of was exploring opportunities presented by the virtual context. Klepikov brought theatermakers and artists from NYC to LA and Oregon to share their practice and give feedback to her students including the Production Manager of the Park Avenue Armory, Claire Marberg. Her classes also participated in a cross-university initiative around Naomi Wallace's play One Flea Spare. Students built digital and physical models which were then featured on a central website and have had access to Open Classes as well as webinars with internationally-acclaimed artists hosted by Fordham, Georgetown, SUNY Purchase, and Princeton Universities. Chen explored other spaces online with her course by showing production videos of top theatres from around the world. She says, “All these high-quality live theatres are more accessible to students. There is more exploration about the outdoor space, Zoom production, pre-video recording, devising, and new play development.”
Design faculty spent considerable time retooling courses to work effectively in the online format. Chen had her students learn “aesthetic training, skills, crafts, software,” and more in the costume design course. Klepikov also focused on group collaboration in her graduate course, where teams of students created theoretical production designs through scale models and costume sketches and also created an interactive online experience, a whimsical journey through the spaces of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
Altadonna took the storytelling aspect of theater to podcasts, sound art, and design with her students. They used sound software to record themselves in their homes. Remsen and Dubin used a software program for lighting called “ETC Augmet3d” for their undergraduate class. This lighting visualization program was used for the project “Seven Deadly Sins” where each group had to create a lighting sequence based on the assigned sin. Students created videos of about 40 seconds to a minute long using different lights and lighting cues to tell a story using their sin as the main message. Students used the same software later in the semester to create longer sequences of lighting cues for songs from popular musical theatre productions.
Although many changes were made to syllabi, design professors were able to adapt their courses for students to have a rigorous and exciting educational experience tapping into new opportunities which would not have been available under normal circumstances. This pandemic prompted these courses to explore alternative performance spaces, create podcasts, invite guest speakers, use visual lighting programs, and more. Altadonna says, “I think we've opened up the horizons to more kinds of sound design and audio production during this time. I just can't wait to see everyone in-person again. Even seeing my students in their zoom boxes makes my day brighter.”
An example of remote innovation in learning and creation: To complete Prof. Penny Remsen's assignment to illustrate on of the Seven Deadly Sins, Introduction to Lighting student Nikki Ready used lights in a virtual space to create her take on "Pride."