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College Theatre Programs Grapple with Fall Semester Amid Pandemic

By Kaitlyn Riggio

Joan & Edgar Booth Theatre at Boston University | Photo: BU CFA

“The show must go on” is an often-repeated phrase in the world of show business, and this is the attitude many theatre programs at Boston-area universities are adopting going into the upcoming Fall 2020 semester. As uncertainty continues to linger around the COVID-19 pandemic, college theatre programs are finding ways to keep education going amid new safety and restriction guidelines.


Many Boston-area universities, including Harvard University, have decided to remain fully remote for the Fall 2020 semester, so theatre programs have been working to adapt their programs for online-only learning.


“Right now, this summer, we’ve been spending a lot of time researching technologies, some of which exist and some of which are new, that are about online collaboration,” said James Stanley, artistic producer in the Theatre, Dance and Media department at Harvard University.


Stanley said one challenge that needs to be addressed is the different learning environments students might be living in while learning remotely from their homes.


“People live in very different situations in their home,” Stanley said. “So we are really trying to prepare ourselves to be nimble, to adapt our methods to students who might not have the same resources across the board.”


Other schools have had the challenge of adapting their curriculum to a hybrid program that is a mix of in person and online, such as Northeastern University. Antonio Ocampo-Guzman, chair of the theatre department in Northeastern University’s College of Arts, Media & Design, said the theatre department is working to operate under the guidelines of Northeastern’s hybrid curriculum, NUFlex.


Ocampo-Guzman said some of the faculty members in Northeastern’s theatre department are “very excited about all the different possibilities” that can come with remote theatre education. He said there have already been some positive experiences with remote learning at the end of the spring semester earlier this year.


“Some of the courses that we thought would never work online, such as improvisation, movement, have actually had some really fantastic experiences,” Ocampo-Guzman said.


To aid with social distancing efforts in the classroom, Ocampo-Guzman said the theatre department at Northeastern is exploring the possibility of renting off-campus theatre spaces at companies around Boston that are not currently holding any programming.


Ocampo-Guzman said the top priority for Northeastern is to abide by safety mandates from the state as well as “allow everybody, faculty, staff and students, to express whatever is safest and healthiest for them.”


Susan Mickey, director of the School of Theatre in the College of Fine Arts at Boston University, expressed similar priorities as Boston University also prepares for a hybrid approach to the fall semester.

“Our main priority is whatever we choose to do is that we keep everybody safe,” Mickey said. “And that we are doing things in a really measured, thoughtful way that keeps everybody safe.”


Mickey said there will be safety measures implemented, like designated entrances and exits in buildings, directional signs throughout buildings and mandated mask usage, but final decisions on what classes will look like this semester are still being determined.


“That’s what we’re exploring right now are all the possibilities of the things we can do in person safely and what really is best left remotely right now,” Mickey said.


Just as universities are preparing for an unprecedented semester, students are preparing to get their education in new ways as well.


Christian Harvey, a senior at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, is in the process of registering for classes for the third time after Boston Conservatory made the decision to make the fall semester fully remote, following a previous announcement that the fall semester would operate under a hybrid model.

The Boston Conservatory at Berklee | Photo: GBC/VB

“In April, which is our normal registration time, we registered, and then those schedules were deleted, and then students got a new schedule to map out their hybrid model and what that was sort of going to look like,” Harvey said. “And then those were taken down to make room to register again for the completely remote semester.”


Harvey said while it is not certain what classes will look like this semester, he thinks it may be similar to how classes operated at the end of last semester, such as operating in smaller cohorts and submitting scenes and dance combinations as self tapes.


Harvey said while he was disappointed, he does not blame the school for their decision.


“Everyone is sort of in this unknown territory, like no one has ever experienced anything like this before,” Harvey said. “So I have to give credit to our theater chair and our dean and our president for adapting and trying to keep the students’ interest and education and well-being at the forefront of all of their decisions.”


Kaitlyn can be reached on Twitter: @KaitlynRiggio

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