When UNC senior Michele Metzger left campus for spring break last March, she expected to return a little over a week later and continue the rehearsal process for the play she was producing for Kenan Theatre Company.
However, spring break was extended for two weeks, which put Metzger, along with her fellow actors, into a waiting game to hear when they would be able to return to campus. Those two weeks turned into a month which turned into the rest of the semester, and KTC was never able to perform their show in front of an in-person audience.
Kenan Theatre Company is not the only University arts group or organization that has had a wrench thrown into its plans from COVID-19. While the pandemic has affected every aspect of campus life in some way, artistic pursuits have been especially altered by the new digital, socially distant landscape.
Carolina Performing Arts has been forced to pivot its scheduled programming over the last year. Christina Rodriguez, CPA’s associate director of marketing and communications, said the last in-person event the group held was on March 5, and before the next scheduled program could happen CPA was forced to cancel the rest of their season.
Despite the abrupt development, Rodriguez said CPA was able to transition to remote programming relatively quickly.
Rodriguez said one of the first virtual events CPA held was in collaboration with the Arts Center at New York University Abu Dhabi, where they streamed a filmed version of Toshi Reagon’s opera “Parable of the Sower." She said she was presently surprised at how engaging the event was, even virtually.
“I remember just how energizing it felt to experience this incredible performance and still feel everything, all the feelings and emotions that it could create, feeling that coming through my laptop, and it gave us a really wonderful blend of the community that you can still build and feel even though a YouTube chat room,” Rodriguez said.
Catering to all audiences
That feeling of community has been increasingly difficult to find throughout the pandemic, especially for students who have never been able to interact with the UNC community face-to-face. Kathryn Wagner, the associate director of Arts Everywhere, said the program has been trying to connect students and bring joy amidst the often monotonous every-day routine through Art.
"So you arrive as a first-year and where do you plug in?" Wagner said. "How do you feel connected to this new environment and make new friends? maybe find people that do things? Like similar interests, right. And so I think that the pandemic really highlighted that need for connection."
To achieve this goal, Arts Everywhere has been holding virtual workshops and events through the Morrison Art Studio and has been doing giveaways of art supplies so students can be creative in their own homes. Wagner also said the short story dispensers across campus have been adapted to be touch-free, and feature winners of student writing competitions they have held.
While the pandemic has been difficult for arts groups, it also has forced organizations to be creative in ways they might not have thought of before.
Metzger said the virtual nature of performances during the pandemic has allowed for increased flexibility than in a typical year. She said instead of doing full-length plays, KTC has been putting on virtual script readings, which allows the actors to still participate in a show without as lengthly of a rehearsal process.
“None of us would have chosen to do it, but it did give us a little more freedom of being able to do shows that maybe we wouldn’t do in person or we didn’t choose to do this season but members of the board really liked, gave us a little more creative flexibility of what we could put on,” she said.
Lauren Flors, one of the executive directors of LAB! Theatre, said in an email that the group also produced a stage reading of "Fear of Buildings" by Sam Bible-Sullivan in addition to a 24-hour virtual monologue event and other programming options.
Coming together, virtually
Jacob Messer, the executive director of publicity for Pauper Players, a student theater group, emphasized the need to collaborate during this uncertain time. He said that four student-run theatre groups on campus — Pauper Players, Black Arts Theatre Company, Company Carolina and LAB! Theatre — formed a collective to figure out how they would run theatre virtually, and as a group sourced works written by University students.
“It ended out working out really really well and we ended up being able to produce something, which is something we very much wanted to do, and we didn’t really know how we were going to do it, but working together with the other theater companies we figured out a way that worked," Messer said.
Black Arts Theatre Company held a virtual workshop with Broadway and "Hamilton" actor Fergie L. Philippe in October, in addition to their participation in the Student Theatre Collective. Company Carolina put on a virtual production of "Angels in America" and is now taking proposals for their spring 2021 show. BATC and Company Carolina could not be reached for comment by the time of publication.
Messer said while not being able to have rehearsals or performances in person has been difficult and at times emotionally draining, he is grateful that he and his fellow actors have still been able to do what they love in some form.
“Theaters all around the country have completely shut down and are empty, and there’s no real activity going on because they can’t host audiences and they can’t do these live performances, so I personally felt lucky I was able to participate in a theatrical production of some kind, because there’s a lot of people that are also passionate about theatre that were not able to do that and so I still felt good about it,” Messer said.
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