The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the college experience for everyone, but socially distanced learning proved to be more challenging for performance-based education. Any crisis brings with it a call to overcome challenges and grow as a result. Several theatre students and Professor Cathy Thomas-Grant spoke with me about the challenges they faced with performing and learning during the pandemic.
Thomas-Grant and the theatre department had to find creative ways of telling stories regardless of the separation. “When I first found out we would use Zoom in the Spring of 2020, I was so freaked out about it,” said Thomas-Grant. “But thank God we had it. Thank God we had Zoom. I just can’t imagine not having it through this.”
In May, Thomas-Grant directed Ugly Lies the Bone, a story about an American soldier who deals with the physical and emotional trauma from an IED explosion in Afghanistan and the emotional pain of changed relationships at home.
Junior Skylar Brown, who acted in Ugly Lies the Bone, says of Pepperdine’s decision to continue in a virtual format even when many other universities put their productions on hold: “[They made] it possible by going above and beyond to make sure that we were still able to work on our craft.”
In October 2020, the Theatre Department presented their first fully online production, Polar Bears, Black Boys & Prairie Fringed Orchids, directed by Professor Nic Few. It was followed by As You Like It in April and Ugly Lies the Bone in May.
Samuel Brock, sophomore and actor in Polar Bears and Ugly Lies the Bone, said that “it was a tough time, but a good time to be an actor with Pepperdine.” He was unsure if the quality of the education would be the same online. “But…everyone was giving it their all, and we had Pepperdine sending us these green screens and these ring lights and we were still getting acting training.”
The actors set up all their equipment themselves and worked with the production design team to work out any technological glitches. According to Thomas-Grant, Professor Yelena Babinskaya was “the living example of resilience because she had to overcome many of the technical problems and [develop] expertise overnight, and keep her happiness and sense of humor while making decisions in a professional way. She was amazing.”
Besides difficulties with technology, the art of story telling had to be adapted for the Zoom format. “You can’t hug or touch each other,” said Thomas-Grant, “so what is the language you’re going to use to adapt the story?” Actors had to time their movements in order to create the illusion of the stories. So if Student A were to slide a ticket across a counter to Student B, Student B would have a ticket on her side to pick up and create the illusion of interaction.
“One of the main challenges was connecting with a camera and with the video audience and having that connection with the audience. In live theatre of course you have the energy of the audience [to interact with],” said Holly Jackson, a sophomore and actress in Ugly Lies the Bone. In the beginning, she said she and her peers thought “it was even more nerve racking” performing in front of a camera than a live audience.
Brock said, “There’s that initial barrier of, I’m talking to you through a screen and you have to naturally react to me—and it’s not natural obviously.” But he said that the experience with Polar Bears, troubleshooting the technology and organizing the blocking for each scene, helped prepare them all for the rest of this year’s shows.
“I was amazed at the resilience of our students,” Thomas-Grant said. “They embraced the challenge, and I think the art form and telling stories was so much more important than how we told the stories. We have to tell those stories. And we told some important stories this year.”
In the midst of the Pandemic, students and faculty were still able to find community. During the Ugly Lies the Bone production, Jackson described how “Cathy and Michael [the Assistant Director] always wanted to make sure that we were okay and our mental health outside was okay. It felt so much like a loving family.”
Brown said that looking back, she thought they bonded more than she thought they would through Zoom. “I just think it was really cool how the faculty and the students came together and found ways to do things, even in the midst of all that was going on, so I really found that to be amazing throughout this whole process.”
A part of that community experience was centered around faith. Brock pointed out that before a performance, he and his peers would have a small moment of prayer. He did not grow up “super religious” but felt that not only this year, but in general, “Pepperdine definitely helped me increase my connection to God, and a lot of people, I think, felt the same way.”
Although at first the challenge of theatre through Zoom appeared daunting, students and faculty found ways to thrive during this time. Benefits of the distanced learning included special guests from the entertainment industry making virtual appearances in classes.
The students I spoke with pointed out that they learned more aspects of the production process from having to set up their own lights, greenscreens, and other equipment. They became more comfortable acting for the camera which will help both in taped auditions and possible film careers.
The students themselves learned much during this time about themselves and lessons they can take moving forward.
Jackson said that she learned to “allow [herself] to be as authentic as possible with any of [her] pieces” whether with singing or acting. “I’ve learned so much about just being real and not like having to put on that Zoom face […] some people might be going through the same exact things, and it’s even more important to express whatever you’re going through so neither you or anyone else feels alone,” she said.
Brown said she learned the importance of living in the moment and not taking anything for granted. Her advice: “Have appreciation for what you do have and the people in your life because things can change so quickly.”
To honor the seniors who graduated in 2020, the theatre department, “instead of giving one award to one outstanding student, we gave it to all of them,” according to Professor Thomas-Grant. “So there’s a plaque that has everyone’s names on it in the hallway where we acknowledge their hard work and resiliency and how amazing each one of them is and their contributions to their productions.
For next school year, the Theatre Department will be moving forward with several shows. The lengthily titled play is: We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915. This show is about six South African actors trying to find a way to artistically recreate the extinction of the Herero tribe at the hands of German colonizers. The musical is Mama Mia which Thomas-Grant said “is uplifting and joyous and I just think will be a great celebration.” In January, they will perform The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde.
Plans are also in development for Pepperdine Theatre to perform again at the International Festival Fringe in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The theatre department looks forward to resuming in-person classes. “I just cannot wait for when we can all be in the same room again breathing the same air, even if it’s through a mask,” said Thomas-Grant. “But it will be wonderful just to be in the presence of human beings in the theatre again.”