Soon enough, the University of Illinois will begin its fall 2020 semester. As the COVID-19 virus continues to spread throughout our country, this semester will be like no other in the institution’s history. Through a hybridization of virtual learning and socially distant in-person instruction, the university hopes to provide the same level of excellence to its students while keeping its students, faculty, and staff safe. This presents substantial challenges to degrees in areas of study — for instance, performing arts — that typically demand a high level of physical interpersonal interaction. I reached out to the heads of dance, music, and theatre at U of I to learn what can be expected during this highly unique semester of instruction.

The simplest transition to social distant learning lies with academic courses such as history and music theory, which will be taught completely online heavily utilizing video conferencing. “We still miss some of the live connection,” said Gabriel Solis, Head of the Theatre Department, “but Zoom does help provide some of that back and forth that you get in a classroom in kind of a Socratic style question and answer teaching. Much of the work in lighting design, sound design, set design, and so forth, will also be going online.”

These courses traditionally taught in classrooms account for only a small portion of many music, theatre, and dance students’ curricula. A majority of students in the School of Music take instrumental lessons and participate in ensembles each semester, as is required for many of their degrees. This semester students and professors will communicate to mutually agree on how they will receive instruction on their instruments. This could mean continuing in-person lessons in a larger space, moving to exclusively online lessons via video conferencing, or a combination of both methods. As for ensembles, we won’t be hearing much from our favorite large ensembles such as the U of I Symphony Orchestra and the Black Chorus this fall — at least not in their complete, grandiose forms. All of the larger ensembles will be broken up into smaller chamber groups.

Jeffrey Sposato, Director of the School of Music, described in more detail the safety precautions that will be mandatory for these ensembles as they meet in person:

“One thing that we are enforcing across the board is that everyone will be required to wear a mask. If you’re playing piano or strings you just wear your regular everyday mask. For woodwinds and brass, we’ve actually commissioned these specialty masks that slide up over your mouth and nose but are designed in a way that they have an opening to put the mouthpiece through so that you’re wearing a mask as you’re playing. We are buying covers for the bells of wind instruments. For singers, we’re buying specialty singer masks as well.”

He further explained that these coverings have been proven to reduce aerosol emissions from wind instruments and vocalists.

Similar precautions must be considered for dancers rehearsing and performing in groups. Jan Erkert, Head of Dance at Illinois, explained how in-person dance classes will be accomplished safely:

“There is a basketball court in the Illini Grove. It’s a beautiful space all in the shade. We have it reserved every day so that a primary of our classes will be outside on nice days because dancing indoors is probably the more dangerous. So outside is where we’re going to be as much as possible. The thing that I think will be really rich is that you’ll see dancers all over campus in outdoor spaces. They’ll still be masked. And we’ll still keep socially distant, but I think the outdoors will be an exciting place to work.”

A basketball court, viewed from behind the hoop. The court and hoop are surrounded by green trees and grass. Photo by Osiris Ramos.
Illini Grove. Photo by Osiris Ramos.

Erkert went on to explain that the dance community has decided through their studies that 10 feet is the minimum length to practice optimal physical distancing from others. Thus, all of the dance studios have been mapped out with 10-foot squares to help adhere to that safety measure.

In the same spirit, Theatre at Illinois will be significantly reducing the capacity of people permitted into spaces such as the costume and scene shops to maintain a safe level of physical distance. Additionally, courses on stage combat will take place outside whenever possible and will utilize quarter staffs rather than the shorter swords typically used.

One fundamentally important aspect of a performing arts education is gaining real experience performing for an audience. Solis detailed how the university may still be able to give students these opportunities despite restrictions on large gatherings:

“Our courses are a part of our education here. Our production season, which is typically six large scale productions, is the other part, and I would say they are almost an equal pairing for most of our students. This year we cannot do some of the things we would have done. It’s not safe. It’s not safe to do them live for an audience. Many of them it’s just not safe to do at all. So we are working on figuring out what kind of productions we can do safely; how we can film and stream aspects of productions that we can do safely; and we are also looking at what are some types of productions that we don’t normally do that we can give time to now. That might mean, for instance, readings of new plays that we don’t have fully produced but can allow us to really explore aspects of dramatic art that we maybe haven’t had much time for in the past.”

Erkert described what this year’s November Dance performance may look like:

“We asked the extraordinary set designers, who are also students and faculty in the Theatre Department, to build a set that provides COVID protection. If you can imagine a set with a lot of cubicles, ramps, levels, etc. so that the students are more protected in this environment than they would be on a normal dancefloor.

The choreographer and director can be in the audience and be socially distant at a great distance, and we can still work live. We think this is really exciting, and the other thing that I think is fun is that we have five choreographers who are each going to build a piece based on the set. They all have to respond to the set, but each choreographer will of course respond in a totally different way. Audiences will be able to see the choreographers’ response to the set designers. I think that will be interesting for audiences to see how different artists respond to the same prompt so to speak. If we are able, we will probably have fifty students in the audience (That’s the limit right now.), but Krannert has done a tremendous amount of work to build all of our streaming possibilities, so we will stream this all over the world to the bigger audience. The students’ parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles will be able to see the performance in a way that they never could before. I think the streaming is going to be a really important part of our future as well, so we’re excited to set that up and get that started right now.”

Similarly, music students will likely be performing their recitals to mostly empty recital halls while live streaming to a wider audience online.

Despite all of the enhanced safety accommodations, there remains a risk to attending these in-person courses. Students who find this risk too high will have the option to continue their studies completely online. “We are working really hard to make it so that every student is able to continue pursuing their degree regardless of whether they are comfortable coming to campus or not,” stated Solis.

Music students will be able to take their lessons completely online. In place of ensemble participation, they will work on comparable projects such as score study or audition preparation work. Sposato said:

“What we’ve been asking the faculty to do is come up with something that’s going to be as rigorous as being in an ensemble, something that’s going to get them to do the kind of work that they would do maybe in their preparation for performing in an ensemble. In some cases, it might also involve putting together the kind of videos that we did in the spring — virtual concerts and performances. Everybody performs their part separately listening to a click track metronome, then they get blended together later on with software.”

Every in-person dance course will offer an online section as well. While the professor teaches in-person, they will be streamed via video conferencing to the remote learners. “Each teacher will have an assistant who will be watching the people online do the class and giving comments so that we’ll be able to hopefully meet the needs of both populations,” Erkert explained.

She added that the dance department does have ample studio space so that every student can participate in person if they wish. In regard to performing, she continued:

“The goal for the choreographers is to incorporate all of the students in whatever way they can. Let’s say a choreographer has ten students that are doing it live and four that are online. They might create small video dances that are projected on to the set or onto the back of the stage or create a dance for camera piece that is a supplement to the live piece.”

As of today, the University of Illinois intends to offer a variety of in-person courses until November 20th, at which point all classes and exams will be online. Members of the faculty are aware that this cut-off date could come even earlier in the semester given the high level of unpredictability and challenges presented by the COVID-19 virus. Sposato commented:

“Everyone is prepared to work remotely whenever that moment comes. I’m sure there will be scrambling as there would always have to be to a certain degree. This is something that is a possibility, and we’ll just be ready to move online if that is what happens.”

With so much uncertainty and safety concerns, students are facing the toughest decisions of their educational careers — whether or not to attend class on campus, or even whether they wish to continue their degrees this fall. While the university is committed to providing students with an excellent educational experience, there are simply some aspects of the performing arts curriculum that cannot occur under strict social distancing regulations.

Solis explained:

“I think the things that are the hardest for us to put into an online setting and really meaningfully get done is obviously interaction in acting, whether that’s physical or text-based like dialogue. That’s harder to do online simply because there isn’t a physical presence. Even the best teleconferencing has some latency or lag, which can make it seem just a little stilted to talk with somebody. That’s not what it’s like to act on the stage, so that creates some challenges for us.”

Erkert elaborated:

“We learned this spring we can give dance classes online through Zoom. We did a lot of Zoom classes. It’s still problematic and misses the most essential part of dancing, which is community and being together and reading each other’s energy and all of those things that we do in dance.”

Solis continued:

“We really hope that students won’t have to pause their studies. The array of things that we really can’t do as well in an online context is surprisingly small. We are optimistic about being able to serve all of our students either here in town on campus or through some kind of remote program. I would say that there may be some instances where a student would opt to take a gap year and come back next year to continue, but we’ve been working pretty hard to try to address this.”

In a similar vein, Sposato commented:

“What we’ve tried to do from the beginning is to create an environment both for people joining us face to face and those joining us online to not want to take a gap year, so they can say, ‘They’re going to give me a really good music education even under these circumstances, and I should move forward with my education.’ That’s been the goal from the beginning. We called it at one point the ‘don’t-take-a-gap-year plan’. We really wanted to try to set it up so that people would feel confident that they’re getting the education that they want to get, and that they need to get, and that we are going to provide them with the same level of quality that they would have gotten under better circumstances, and I think that we’ve been pretty successful with that.”

To inspire this level of confidence and optimism for students, much of the focus within these performing arts degrees will shift to areas that may not have gotten as much attention previously but are ideal for their lack of physical interaction requirements. Scenic designers will work more with projections. Dance students will create dance for camera pieces and will have new networking opportunities. Musicians will be able to enroll in a new music entrepreneurship course series, which will explore topics such as video and audio recording.

Erkert described some of the ways that dance students’ instruction must shift this semester:

“It’s very hard for me to teach moving through space and techniques of moving through space with grace and ease and efficiency — all of those things. The way that our dance rules are set up right now is that we have to stay within our ten-foot squares. Their skill level in moving through space might not get better this semester, but their skill level of listening to an ensemble is going to get really good because they’re all going to have to move together to stay socially distanced.”

“We’re looking at this experience as an opportunity to try some things that we’ve always wanted to try and never were able to before. The students will be well prepared too because this is going to go on for a while. There’s not going to be a switch that turns off, so the students are going to be well prepared for going into the performing arts and have all kinds of experiences with this that I think are going to be really valuable to their future.”

Truly, we have witnessed a radical transformation of the performing arts industry since the start of quarantine, and it won’t be snapping back to normal any time soon. Erkert, Solis, and Sposato each posited that an institution such as the University of Illinois is in fact an ideal vehicle for navigating these new changes.

“Obviously the situation is much more difficult now, but from the beginning, music has always been a very difficult industry to break into,” explained Sposato. “If we’re going to be a responsible school of music, it’s important for us to recognize that we need to prepare students so that they have multiple career options when they graduate.”

Solis imparted his views:

“One of the things that differentiates a pedagogical or student production from a professional production is that we are part of a research institution, so all of our productions are research. We are always engaging our students in the research process. We’re always asking, ‘How do you make theatre safely?’ That we have this new constraint on the measure of safety is a new challenge, but it’s a new challenge within an old framework.”

“In a way, this is a really difficult time we’re living through not just with the pandemic but real questions about racial inequity and injustice and real questions about economic inequality and everything that surrounds this. None of that has gone away. It’s gotten in fact more crucial. We are fortunate to be at a research university in this moment because we are in a position to work with students to find potential answers to the questions that lie in front of us.”

“If we have the opportunity to work with students on these things from a research standpoint and look at our work as research and material for learning then we really have the opportunity to do interesting things, even if they aren’t the things that we expected we were going to be doing and even if they take us out of comfortable known paths. I think that’s fantastic. This situation isn’t fantastic, but the education that our students are going to get is going to serve them well throughout their lives. It is good to be part of the wider university in that way. I don’t want to sound as though there is a silver lining to this pandemic. I do not think that. I would not say that. I’m just saying we are always part of the research mission. Our work is always exploratory. We are always trying to find answers to enduring questions, and that remains true.”

Though many aspects of this bizarre semester have yet to be nailed down, the heads of the music, dance, and theatre departments seem confident in their resources and abilities. Acknowledging the many challenges at hand, they intend to educate with the same standard of excellence students have come to expect while keeping everyone safe and healthy.

Top image by Osiris Ramos.