Curtain rises: the date is March 11, 2020; A.K.A, the day Hope students first saw the words “Campus Health | Important Updates from Hope College” in their email inbox. In this email was a message from our President, Matthew Scogin, explaining that all students were to move out of their dorms and return home by the weekend due to the spread of COVID-19. Hope College was no longer a safe space for students to learn and all classes moved online. Students around the world who had been living independently were now logging onto classes via Zoom and Google Meet from their childhood bedrooms. No one knew how long the terror of this virus would last nor how truly devastating its affect on humanity would be.
Theatre is a field that has been especially wounded by the pandemic. The essence of live theatre is a group of people sharing an experience in communion with one another, but that is nearly impossible to do in tandem with proper social distancing. I had the opportunity to speak with a few Hope Theatre alumni from the class of 2020 about their experiences graduating from college while navigating the world of theatre during a pandemic. Here are their stories:
The first alum I had the chance to talk to was Michigan native Teresa Cameon. While at Hope, Teresa was a Musical Theatre Composite major with an emphasis in performance. You may have seen her in various Hope productions such as Into the Woods, Good Kids, and Jane Eyre: The Musical. As a dancer, she also performed in productions such as Dance 44 and Cinderella. Teresa was studying off-campus with the New York Arts Program when Hope shut down and sadly had to cut her semester in The Big Apple short. While in NYC she interned with the off-Broadway theatre company Amas Musical Theatre along with Steps on Broadway, a dance studio for both students and professionals. Teresa stated that she was specifically at work the day everything was shut down:
“It was surreal for all of us to hear that Broadway had gone dark,” said Teresa. “Amas’s own off-Broadway show had to be shut down during one of its last tech rehearsals. It was the strangest feeling to be sitting at work and not having anything to do because all of its future events were cancelled. Throughout my last week at Steps, fewer and fewer dancers came to class. No one imagined that it would ever shut down completely. I had to leave before Steps officially closed its doors.”
After being sent home from the city, Teresa was supposed to be working at Walt Disney World over the summer, but the park first closed and then cancelled her position when it reopened in July. On top of her professional aspirations being postponed, she never got to say goodbye to her fellow classmates at Hope because the 2020 commencement ceremony was also cancelled.
Since quarantine began, theatre companies have had to be creative with how they share their work with the world. There have been many Zoom productions of plays as well as online live recordings. While these changes pose some benefits to the industry, as the internet provides a reach to larger audiences, most theatre artists agree that these alternatives aren’t truly live theatre. In Teresa’s viewpoint, theatre is an essential part of society: “Theatre and dance are all about our person, our humanity, our minds, bodies and souls. There is a connection and understanding between people on stage, people backstage, and people in the audience that you just can’t get from a computer screen.”
Another alumnus with whom I corresponded is Ben Douma. Ben graduated as a Theatre and Communication Composite major with an emphasis in Media Production. Directing and photography are two of Ben’s passions along with acting, but he enjoys directing the most. “Of course, theatre isn’t a basic need for survival, but the theatrical arts have always been a source that challenges authority within society,” said Ben. “Society can’t move forward without those who are willing to push the envelope, and theatre artists certainly do that very well – especially in regard to social justice.” Ben is currently living in Ann Arbor working as a photographer for a car dealership, but says he is staying connected to his artistry by listening to art-related podcasts and watching masterclasses taught by prominent filmmakers.
Recent graduate Gracen Barth also shared her experience with me. Gracen focused mainly on pursuing production management while at Hope but spent some time as an actor as well, such as playing Corey in The Line Between. Gracen is a Texas native but is currently living in NYC. She is also an alumnus of the New York Arts Program. Gracen has an optimistic spirit and chooses to look at the pandemic with a glass half-full mindset. “I’m grateful not to have anyone close to me have a serious case of COVID, and I’m grateful to have still been able to move to the city I want to be in and live with friends and be employed,” said Gracen. She stated that she originally booked a job to be the Administrative Apprentice at the Juilliard School Drama Division, but due to Covid-related budget cuts the position was dissolved. Currently, Gracen is an administrative and personal assistant for a top broker at Douglas Elliman and also works part-time as the production manager for Titan Theatre Company whose artistic director is our very own Hope Summer Repertory Theatre’s Lenny Banovez. Titan has continued to produce virtual productions in the midst of COVID-19.
In being asked for any advice she might have for current theatre students about to enter the profession, Gracen responded, “Now is the time to explore other things. Give yourself the time to figure out if you love theatre. You don’t have to love every aspect (there’s a lot of needed change), you don’t have to love it all the time, but it’s a demanding career and I can’t imagine pursuing it without the love.”
Another ‘20 alum, Maxwell Lam, similarly encourages current students to “take this time to find your artistic center, whatever it may be. Try new things! I never had seriously considered creative writing as a young adult, but with this time in waiting we all have an opportunity to explore new reaches of our creative potential.” Maxwell is currently writing a fantasy novel. “Secondly, don’t give up on your dreams just because there’s little opportunity. Take this time to hone skills that will help your success in the world of fine arts.” said Maxwell. At Hope, Maxwell studied music and acting along with working in the costume shop. You may have seen him as The Baker in Into the Woods with Teresa.
However, not all live theatre is non-existent right now. Another alum from the class of 2020, Katie Joachim, is currently working as an Artist Educator at Kentucky Shakespeare in Louisville, Kentucky. While at Hope, some notable roles Katie played were The Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods as well as Sister Aloysius in Doubt by John Patrick Shanley. At Kentucky Shakespeare, Katie performs four plays along with three other actors and runs six workshops for children in grades K-12. Katie states that Kentucky Shakespeare’s biggest struggle this season is figuring out how to best serve its communities virtually and in a safe manner. “Theatre is without a doubt an essential part of our society,” said Katie. “While film and television have been the lifesavers of this quarantine, I think people are dying to return to being around people. What makes theatre so special is that it is a dialogue between everyone in the room. We all get to experience the same story for an hour and a half; we laugh together, we cry together, we sing together. Theatre puts people from all walks of life into the same space and gives us the opportunity to be together, which is something we are all craving right now.”
As one can see, it may be awhile before live theatre gets back to its normal flow. In fact, theatre as we know it may be forever changed. As of October, Broadway is closed until June 2021 and artists have to be creative with how they share their work. Earlier this semester the Hope Theatre Department produced an outdoor production of Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare, proving that not all hope for live theatre is lost. Art and storytelling are what people turn to in times of need and according to recent graduates, they are an essential part of the human experience. I am confident that the stage lights will be turned back on again soon. In the meantime, it is clear to see that the theatre community is resilient and will continue #KeepingHope.