In a student-wide email sent on March 12, Wayne State extended spring break to give professors time to transition to online classes as schools across the country took similar measures to slow the spread of coronavirus.
From the second half of the winter semester, faculty and professors within the College of Fine Performing and Communication Arts have worked hard to keep art alive given the challenges that online learning poses for interactive programs.
The importance of art during these uncertain times echoes throughout CFPCA.
“I think it's really important more than ever, that people do understand the value of the arts, and the value in getting a degree in the arts, and all the different ways in which that the arts contribute to society and to the health and well-being of humans,” Director of Dance Meg Paul said.
Paul has had the help of her husband and son throughout this transitional period, she said.
Her husband runs the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts and had extra strips of Marley flooring that were used to transform a room in their house into a makeshift dance studio, she said. Marley flooring is used to provide the right texture for dancers and also prevents slipping.
As Paul created her dance environment, she wanted to make sure her students had access to Wi-Fi and a safe dancing area, she said. While it’s not a full class, members have been meeting online at their regular time over Zoom.
“I said to them, ‘You know, listen, if we can provide structure during this time it will be super helpful,’ and they agreed,” she said.
Paul’s son recently finished his master’s at Rice University and moved to Baltimore to start his new job with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, she said. He returned to Michigan as the symphony stopped performances and has been accompanying Paul during classes.
While doing big leaps across the floor is not possible within a home, students are focusing on stationary exercises and different types of strengthening.
“It is challenging, I'm certainly not going to lie about that,” Paul said. “You know, it's not ideal, and it's something that no one wants to have continue, but we're also very, very grateful that we can finish out the semester and that there's values still.”
Professors in the art and art history department have also been finding creative ways to keep students engaged from their homes, Chair Sheryl Oring said.
“While it was incredibly challenging to move classes for 550 students online in a week, we've come up with some creative solutions to how to do that and I think it will have a lasting impact on our teaching,” she said.
Before WSU closed, students were encouraged to get whatever supplies they had. But, professors are thinking beyond traditional supplies when it comes to educating students.
Some of the new things that art professors are doing will be incorporated into their regular curriculum.
“I think a lot of professors are going into a more you know, DIY (do-it-yourself) mode where it's like you use what you have, be creative, try to see what you can make with what you have on hand,” Oring said.
New teaching approaches include a weaving professor challenging students to make weavings using objects in their house, and sewing professors asking students to find makeshift fabric in their homes and turn it into a new creation. A teacher in metal arts also had students make jewelry out of recycled materials.
Oring said art plays a role in communicating and recording things about our society. Art further serves as a distraction for the person making it, helping artists to get through this hard time. This is an idea that Department of Music Chair Norah Duncan also believes in.
“We feel disconnected, yet we have music, and it’s the love of music and musical activity that will help us get through this difficult time,” he said in an email to faculty and students before classes resumed.
Duncan’s email said all teaching and learning would be over the internet, with lectures utilizing video chatting platforms like Zoom, Skype or FaceTime.
Theater classes have also relied on technology in order to continue educating students, Maggie Allesee Department of Theatre and Dance Chair John Wolf said. Students record themselves for acting class assignments. In movement classes, professors record the exercises and students send a video of themselves performing them in response.
The transition has affirmed what Wolf has always known about the department, he said.
“We are made up of a bunch of phenomenal men and women who are dedicated to not only staff and students but making sure everyone knows how vital the arts are to our world,” Wolf said. “It's through entertainment that we actually help people find peace in their world. It's part of who we are and what we do.”
The importance of performance and entertainment at WSU has continued, made possible by social media.
Live performances that feature theatre and dance faculty are streamed on their Facebook page daily at 1:00 p.m. that include story readings and short performances. Scenes from students and videos showing the backstage theatrical process are also being shared on social media.
The department of music also launched the Music Studio at WSU, which gives students and faculty the ability to create and share music virtually, according to the department’s website. Content consisting of department concerts and performances can be seen twice a week on their Facebook page.
A part of the artistic experience is being able to gather; being at a gallery, museum, concert, opera, play or any other creative space. Artists are struggling as coronavirus affects all of these areas.
While technology is helping bridge the experience, Paul hopes people realize the importance of being physically present.
“We're all just collectively holding our breath and hoping, you know, that when we all do return, that there's a resurgence, in fact, of appreciation for live performing arts,” Paul said. “I mean, thankfully we have technology that we can rely on, but let's not rely on it too much, you know, let's get back out there when we can, and let's support our arts.”
Jack Filbrandt is the arts and entertainment editor at The South End. He can be reached at email@example.com
Jenna Prestininzi contributed to this story