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Performing arts students continue to adapt to virtual rehearsals and performances.

February 12, 2021

The Show Must Go On: Performing Arts Students Adapt to Online Performance

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Acting in their rooms, producing short films on Zoom, singing in virtual a cappella practice — these are just a few ways that performing arts students are adapting to perform safely as the COVID-19 risk on campus remains high.

As Cornell moves into its second hybrid semester, the mix of remote and in-person classes has posed a unique challenge for the performing arts department, which normally relies on in-person performances and rehearsals. While many miss the in-person camaraderie of rehearsals, some have found silver linings.

For Duoer Jia ’21, whose performing and media arts coursework has largely focused on acting, filming scenes from home has meant learning a host of new skills, including lighting, prop set-up and camera work.

“If I were in-person the lights would already be set up by the lighting designer, and then the stage crew would do set-up, so I wouldn’t do anything by myself. Someone will take care of the camera and filming,” Jia said. “This time I have to do everything.”

Last semester, when Jia participated in the production of Off Campus/On Screen, the PMA department shipped her specialized lights and props so she could produce her own scene at home. Now, as Jia co-directs a short play for a thesis project, the production skills she learned are proving useful. 

According to Linshuang Wu ’21, who studies performing and media arts and psychology, technology mishaps are one of the main barriers to smooth virtual productions — and can be hard to resolve in the middle of a performance.

“During the theater readings, one of the actors had a really bad connection,” Jia said. “We had to carry on. We can’t really be like, ‘Oh what’s wrong, should we pause,’ because it was a live-streaming event.”

As Grayson Rosenberg ’23, a student in performing and media arts, takes acting classes from her room in her sorority house, she tries not to disturb her neighbors. 

“It’s weird sometimes, but I’m glad that I have a single,” Rosenberg said. “I try not to shout too loudly if I have to speak things out loud, but I guess unless I’m being obnoxiously loud for any reason, it’s no different than somebody else just talking during class. My class just involves more physicality.” 

Rosenberg is also a member of The Chordials a cappella group. According to Rosenberg, a cappella from a distance has been a particular challenge, as performing means editing together individual vocals.  

“Zoom only picks up like one, two, three voices at a time, so there’s really no way for us to actually sing together on Zoom,” Rosenberg said. “We have done things where we each individually record our own voices in our parts with the track playing in our ears so that we know what the timing should be. Our music director will edit that together.”

While she knew virtual rehearsals would be a challenge, Abby Schulman ’24 decided to audition for a cappella groups anyway. Schulman has never had an in-person rehearsal with her group, the Key Elements, but is still glad she joined. Even virtual rehearsals still have helped her adjust to college life. 

“I’ve still been able to make some connections and get involved in something that I want to be involved in,” Schulman said. “I didn’t want to let the virtual process of getting involved stop me from doing it all together.” 

While they understand the need for virtual or physically distanced classes, all the students interviewed said they miss performing in front of live audiences. They look forward to a return to in-person gatherings when it is safe, but in the meantime, they still plan to continue making and studying art. 

“It definitely was baffling in the beginning, but then supported by all those faculty members I feel like it’s not that big of a deal,” Wu said. “It’s a process we are going to adapt to pretty quickly. It’s not easy, but we are almost there.”

Jia said she has been impressed by her peers’ resilience, despite the challenges of online rehearsals and the rapidly changing virus risks Cornell students face. 

“Even in these super weird times, people are still fighting for every single chance to put on Zoom plays and other performances online instead of giving up,” Jia said. “That’s what really surprised me.”