A backstage look at the future of the arts

Diego Villada, Ph.D.
Diego Villada, Ph.D.

By Abby Weingarten

Behind the curtains of theatre companies, dance studios and cultural centers throughout the region, arts leaders are navigating a daunting dilemma: how to survive the COVID-19 crisis. What can students learn from these visionaries about inventiveness and resilience in the face of turmoil, and how can they apply these lessons to their own lives?

Diego Villada, Ph.D., the director of New College’s Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies (TDPS) program, will be sharing these insights during his “Pandemic and the Arts” lecture on November 9—part of a comprehensive remote course this fall entitled “COVID-19: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Pandemic.”

“This particular moment of crisis touches everything, but in particular, the performing arts, where liveness and closeness used to be inseparable,” Villada said. “This is an epic-sized production problem that every theatrical space in the world has to consider. And there’s no right or wrong answer to it.”

Villada wants his students to examine how they might handle a production problem of this magnitude. To this end, Villada is interviewing prominent figures from The Ringling Museum, Sarasota Contemporary Dance, Florida Studio Theatre, Asolo Repertory Theatre and CreArte Latino—as well as directors from national theatre organizations—about their mid-pandemic methods. The interviewees will discuss how they have pivoted in business—by doing everything from leveraging technology to reach audiences on a broader scale, to investing in virtual workshops to engage the community while theater spaces have been vacant.

Understanding these smart maneuvers will not only help New College students learn critical thinking skills, but it will also allow them to make connections with local organizations to potentially pursue arts and humanities internships in the area.

“By exploring how the leaders in my field are approaching the pandemic, we will find out, What do they care about? What do they see as their essential function in serving the community during this time? And how are they engaging with their audiences?,” Villada said. “The decision-making process on the executive leadership level is what I’m trying to expose students to.”

After Villada posts his interviews on the Canvas online platform and invites students to watch, he will create a fictional artistic company and put his students in breakout teams to play various roles (artistic director, education director, theatre producer, etc.). He will challenge the teams to make hard choices to keep their respective companies afloat. And he will also encourage students to locate and interview arts leaders from their own hometowns—to tell the ongoing stories about artistic ecosystems in different cities.

“I’ve chosen to come at the COVID-19 lecture from an arts management perspective instead of talking about what’s happening (or not happening) onstage. I’m doing this because this is an interdisciplinary course, and many of the students won’t be studying theatre, so I want them to walk away with something that is transferrable to all fields,” Villada said. “These are conversations that are being had in boardrooms and leadership offices in every field. A student studying marine biology or neuropsychology can look at this and find the theatre aspect interesting, but also extrapolate important decision-making processes from it.”

This is one of the overarching goals of the entire COVID-19 course, which is a three-month-long series of sessions. Coordinated by Assistant Professor of Religion Manuel Lopez, Ph.D. and Digital Humanities Librarian Cal Murgu, the course involves 20 faculty members teaching 28 lectures—from 12:30 to 1:50 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays through November 23.

The content explores the pandemic from epidemiological, biological, historical, political, economic and sociological angles, with points of view from experts in data science, literature, ethics, religion and the arts. Other lectures cover the history of epidemiology, microbiology and quarantine; the economic impact of the virus; and pandemics in literature.

Lopez and Murgu developed the concept during the remote learning period at New College in the spring of 2020—a time when Villada was tasked with quickly reinventing the TDPS program to fit a virtual curriculum.

This fall, along with the COVID-19 lecture, Villada will be teaching “Acting I” and “Introduction to Performance Studies” in a hybrid format. There will be no onstage performances in the Black Box Theater on campus; instead, TDPS mainstages will include a guest theatre company presenting a social justice piece over Zoom and a radio play (similar to a podcast) presented by New College student-artists and directed by Theatre Professor Andrei Malaev-Babel.

Villada, like his contemporaries, has learned that there are multiple mediums for entertaining crowds when circumstances are challenging; it just takes a tremendous amount of research and reimagining to get the job done.

“To see Broadway go dark because of the pandemic, I cannot explain what that says to a theatre person; it is like the canary in the coal mine. If Broadway has gone dark, that means things are not good,” Villada said. “But theatre and ritual have been around since before time started being recorded, and it will be here after COVID—of that, I have no doubt. It just may not look like what we’re used to.”

For more information on the COVID-19 course, visit dss.ncf.edu/covid19/index.php/Main_Page

To watch the mini class, go to youtu.be/bTOJYJT0wz8

Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.


Founded in Sarasota in 1960, New College of Florida is the state's only legislatively designated Honors College of Florida. New College prepares intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement by providing a highly individualized education that integrates academic rigor with career-building experiences. New College offers 45 undergraduate majors in liberal arts and sciences, a master’s degree program in data science, and certificates in technology, finance, and business skills.

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