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‘It’s a mess, but we’re getting there’: How student arts groups are adapting to COVID-19

The Rubenstein Arts Center’s von der Heyden Studio Theater, where Hoof ‘n’ Horn performed “Cabaret” in Fall 2019. Hoof ‘n’ Horn is one of many student performance groups whose spring programming has been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Rubenstein Arts Center’s von der Heyden Studio Theater, where Hoof ‘n’ Horn performed “Cabaret” in Fall 2019. Hoof ‘n’ Horn is one of many student performance groups whose spring programming has been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

When she received the March 10 email from Duke administration announcing the extension of Spring Break and the transition to remote learning, senior Christine Yang’s first thought was whether Street Medicine’s annual showcase would go on.

“Some of us have been dancing for 10 hours a week,” Yang, who is co-director of the student dance group, recalled thinking. “What do we do?”

As each new email to the Duke community arrived — with the restriction on large gatherings extended to May 7 and beyond, well past the initially-announced date of April 20 — it became clear that the showcase could no longer go on as planned. But like many other arts groups that have found their spring programming upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, StreetMed has been forced to get creative with virtualized alternatives.

For arts groups on campus, the weeks between Spring Break and the end of classes typically present an opportunity to showcase the culmination of a semester full of rehearsals and planning. This year, dance groups such as StreetMed had planned to present annual showcases during the first weeks of April. Hoof ‘n’ Horn was three weeks deep into rehearsal for its spring production, “Pippin,” originally scheduled for April 9 to 19. Both Duke University Wind Symphony and Duke Symphony Orchestra had concerts booked after break, and the campus-wide Duke Arts Festival was scheduled for the week of April 5.

These in-person events are now off the table, but student organizations are finding other ways to honor students’ creative work. For StreetMed, this has meant combing through footage of rehearsals and previous shows with the goal of putting together an online zine — with visuals accompanying links to edited video — which will be released to the public in April. While she acknowledged that a virtual production was no substitute for viewing dance, Yang emphasized the importance of recognizing the work put in by students throughout the year.

“We want to feel like what we’ve done is being put out there and there is an ending to us preparing so much,” Yang said. “That’s the goal.”

Other groups are similarly turning to video to make up for lost shows. Duke University Stand-Up Troupe (which goes by the acronym “DUST”) had planned its inaugural comedy showcase for March 20 at Duke Coffeehouse. Instead, performers will record their sets remotely — with strategic pauses for the laugh track — and present the showcase online as a single, cohesive “comedy special.”

“It’s a big group of people who really wanted to make their voices heard and perform their comedy,” said sophomore and DUST co-founder Thalia Halloran. “I wanted to make sure that was something that coronavirus wouldn’t take away from them.”

The Coalition for Preserving Memory, meanwhile, is transitioning its eighth annual 24-Hour Name Reading Ceremony — which honors the victims of genocide and mass atrocity by reading their names over the course of a full day — to a virtual platform. The ceremony will still go on as planned from April 19 to 20, but instead of taking place at Abele Quad as usual, it will take the form of a 24-hour YouTube video, with 288 readers recording themselves for five minutes each. (And yes, you can post a 24-hour YouTube video. They’ve checked.)

To senior Jill Jones, who is president of both the Coalition for Preserving Memory and Duke Wind Symphony, the virtual ceremony presents a unique opportunity for the Coalition’s mission of fighting hate, which she compared to a “virus” — just like the one causing the current crisis. Moreover, the virtual format allowed alumni and dedicated former members to participate, many of whom could not have traveled for an in-person event.

For many performance groups, however, moving forward with programming presents an insurmountable logistical challenge. Rehearsing together is no longer an option, and the slight delay that occurs in video-chat programs like Zoom renders a “live” rehearsal or remote performance impossible.

Senior Adam Beskind, president of Hoof ‘n’ Horn, described the “confusion, anxiety and disappointment” that began to mount as it became evident that, on top of the stress and uncertainty of leaving campus and canceling classes, the remainder of the theater group’s spring schedule had vanished. At first, virtual options were floated for “Pippin,” but the difficulty of performing without rehearsals — along with the complex licensing restrictions that prevent any video reproduction of most musicals performed by student groups — meant that “options became more limited,” Beskind said.

While he hopes that the group can look into new ways to showcase its work once students have settled more into a routine of remote learning and social distancing, Beskind acknowledged that Hoof ‘n’ Horn, like many performance groups, remains very much in the “trying to figure everything out” phase amid the recent upheaval.

“It’s a mess that we’re trying to figure out how to approach,” Beskind said. “But we’re getting there.”

Perhaps above all else, arts groups have taken the disruption caused by COVID-19 as a chance to build community and celebrate creative work, whether it gets performed publicly or not. Yang pointed out that, for many dancers in StreetMed, it was never about the showcase anyway.

“People are still dancing,” Yang said. “We’re still dancing together in a way, and just keeping our love for dance as the central part of our connection.”

Beskind and Halloran, too, both expressed the enthusiasm that remained among members of their respective groups. In the past week, Beskind said, Hoof ‘n’ Horn has hosted casual hangouts for cast and crew members via Zoom, while DUST plans to host a “members-only” comedy show over Zoom next weekend to showcase the work of performers in an encouraging setting.

The loss of arts events, while disappointing for so many, has only gone to show how the arts are not merely a platform for performance, but above all else a space for community.

“People have still been connected and, if anything, are especially eager to stay connected right now,” Beskind said. “The strength of the community that has continued, and hopefully will continue throughout the rest of the semester, has been really great to see.”

Editor’s note: Will Atkinson currently works as the booking manager at Duke Coffeehouse, where DUST was scheduled to perform March 20.

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