Lessons in creative coping during COVID-19: Bowie State University theater and dance faculty tell how it’s going

"We are remaining fluid and supporting innovative approaches to performance. It's a new world."

With university campuses closed because of COVID-19, how is student education continuing forward? This is a critical question, especially for higher education theater and dance departments—where one-on-one, in-person relationships have always been key to the learning process. To learn how theater and dance programs at the historically Black Bowie State University are responding in these unsettling times, DCMTA sent three questions to Theatre Program Coordinator and Assistant Professor Elena Velasco, who shared them with three of her BSU faculty colleagues, Bob BartlettKathryn Kawecki, and Psalmayene 24. Elena then coordinated their joint responses.

A screenshot of one of Elena Velasco’s new online classes. Courtesy of Elena Velasco.

How are Bowie State University theater and dance programs connecting with students, given COVID-19 and the campus closure?

Like nearly all universities in the country, in mid-March we quickly shifted to online teaching in just a matter of days. At that time, there was the hope that we would return to campus by the first week of April, but it was soon clear that we were in this new reality for the remainder of the semester. The transition meant that many of our students were met by challenges that were already realities in their lives. A significant percentage of students do not have the resources off-campus to attend online classes. This went beyond laptops, which the university offered to students who were lacking appropriate devices. Wifi is something that many take for granted, yet not everyone has access in their families’ homes, and mobile phone data plans are not a given for everyone. Many of our students also felt the direct impact of COVID-19 with family members who have become unemployed, others who have became ill, and some experiencing homelessness. There is great disappointment on many campuses for the lost connections, celebrations, and graduations, but for some of our students, survival is now a daily challenge.

So, for our community, connecting means checking-in. The theater and dance program at Bowie State is a small but tight community. Keeping that spirit alive and present in our students’ lives is central to how many of us are delivering online instruction. While we move forward with learning objectives and addressing curricular content, there are times when we simply make space for students to share with each other. Sometimes that means just letting them vent, while other times, they’re finding the space to self-reflect or deepen relationships with loved ones. 

Bob Bartlett, MA, MFA
Associate Professor.
Areas of Specialization: Playwriting, Directing, Dramatic Literature, and Theory

We, the faculty, also check on each other. While we are trying to define a new, safe space for our students and manage their needs, the reality is that our homes have become our workplace. In the midst of juggling children, partners who are either working from home or are newly unemployed, prepping food and homeschool lessons early in the morning, we are converting our personal spaces into “classrooms.” Our daytimes are filled with synchronous teaching that requires an increase in individual student assistance and meetings. Grading and lesson revisions happen in the late hours. We’re learning every day how to work more effectively in this new reality, so having colleagues who look out for one another makes it more manageable. 

What other changes has COVID-19 brought to Bowie State University students and faculty?

Elena Velasco, MFA
Assistant Professor
Specializations: Theatre for Social Justice, Acting, Directing, Physical Theatre. and Youth Theatre

A shift like this means having to change the way you think about instruction. Because you are using tools and methods that work in a digital world, it means reframing how you teach. That takes a lot of time for material that was centered largely on human, not digital, engagement. Even though I [Elena Velasco] have always posted assignments on Blackboard, the details of my instructions are far more extensive, noting that students will sometimes will have their connection interrupted during class instruction. All too often, students can miss what is said and shared in that virtual space. This can be simply because their wifi is not stable, or there are numerous people in one household needing to be on wifi at the same time. Then there are the occasional “guests” in our classroom space. No, this is not Zoombombing but rather family presence. Last week, as I was conducting an acting class, a student’s four-year-old niece popped in the camera. At first, the student was trying to shoo her away—but the class encouraged her to stay with us. Instances like this have shifted the paradigm of an inclusive environment.

Beyond employing online tools, there have also been necessary changes to planned content. For example, I also teach a Stage Movement course that includes a unit on silks aerials, which students love. This was to begin at the end of March, so that meant having to replace this content to focus on a different type of “performance” language. Instead I focused on kinesthetic storytelling. Students made videos that were still collaborative, but only used the body and music to create scenes. We are remaining fluid and supporting innovative approaches to performance. It’s a new world and, while they have skills for how theatre has been, they’re learning how to create theater for the “here and now.” 

Kathryn Kawecki, MFA
Assistant Professor
Areas of Specialization: Theatrical Design: Scenic and Costume

Sometimes we find ways to forge ahead without much change. One extracurricular activity that made that change without much adjustment is BSU Improv. This is a group that is open to all students—majors and non-major—and it really functions as a community builder. At first, everyone was a little dubious this could happen on Zoom. Now we’re finding new ways to use virtual functions to keep actors on their toes, and the group laughing and enjoying company.

How has COVID-19 affected the planned spring theater and dance productions at Bowie State University?

Traditionally, we have one theater production and host one dance concert featuring our majors during the spring semester. Our theater production this spring was a senior capstone for Shalom Omo-Osagie, who had written a voodoo adaptation of Medea. While faculty offered support to move forward and make this a virtual performance, Ms. Omo-Osagie and her director, BSU Theatre senior Rashaud Matthews, did not feel the work was suited to this platform. Therefore, we are looking to produce this at another point in time, even though she will have already received her degree. That is our commitment to this student team. Meanwhile, our dance concert is moving forward online on May 8 at 6:30 PM. The focus is now more family-centered and process-oriented, featuring student work that is site specific, and has been opened to include family members in their choreographed pieces. 

Psalmayene 24
Artist-in-Residence
Areas of Specialization: Acting, Directing, Playwriting, Hip Hop Theatre, Movement

While there have been changes to planned programming, the quarantine has also inspired students to pursue passion projects. One example is the BSU Urbanz Monologue Slam, a livestreamed event on April 24. Born out of a spontaneous midnight gathering led by our students at the recent Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, the Urbanz Monologue Slam was a virtual event curated and hosted by BSU Theatre students. Nate Hatchett, Ryan Anthony, and Sahira Parker led this effort to provide performance opportunities for students at BSU and other Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The trio worked together to recruit participants and audience. Featuring a variety of original monologues, spoken word pieces, and vocal performances, the BSU Urbanz Monologue Slam was a heartwarming reminder to all that this time can be used to create and keep their art alive.

RELATED: “Lessons in creative coping during COVID-19: A conversation with Rick Davis, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at George Mason University” by David Siegel

The Bowie State University Department of Fine and Performing Arts is dedicated to providing a comprehensive and holistic education that will produce empowered graduates prepared to meet the challenges of their discipline, stay abreast of technology, and embrace diversity. The Department fosters community outreach that perpetuates an overall appreciation of visual arts, music, dance, and theater and recognition of their places in academe.

Tax-deductible contributions can be made at the Bowie State University website.

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