By Abby Weingarten
Take away the stage, the set, the props and the audience, and what is left of theater and performance? New College students and faculty learned the answer to this question during the remote learning period in the spring, and it was more inspiring than they expected.
Young thespians and aspiring cultural workers filmed monologues, experimented with gestural improvisations, choreographed routines and built art installations for two months. They pushed the limits of their creativity without relying on external elements, and found that it made them work harder, emote deeper, and ultimately emerge as better actors.
“In an essential way, we’re storytellers,” said Diego Villada, Ph.D., the director of New College’s Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies (TDPS) program, who crafted an innovative spring curriculum for his students. “And, if you’re a real theater person, you can tell stories even with extreme limitations.”
Villada taught numerous courses in the spring, including Latin American and Caribbean Performance, Movement for the Actor, and individual tutorials. When the campus population was evacuated due to the pandemic, New College’s fourth show of the season (Milk, Milk, Lemonade)—directed by third-year Sara Recht and overseen by Villada—was cut short.
To design a performance-based curriculum on Canvas and Zoom (all New College professors only had about two weeks to do so), Villada sought guidance by joining multiple Facebook teaching groups, consulting colleagues from other universities, and reaching out to his theater mentors. For his Movement class (which was intended to be held inside the dance room at the campus fitness center), students participated from their home bedrooms, recording pieces on their phones and posting clips online for Villada to view.
“Students were experimenting with gesture, dance, monologues, mime, art installations and lip-syncing. They even did duets, working with technology and having fun using TikTok or iMovie to move together in the same piece,” Villada said. “Theater is about a live experience so you can’t really do theater 100 percent online, but there’s a wide array of things you can practice. You can practice your monologue work and have somebody coach you through a video. Many audition submissions are done online these days anyway.”
Despite the inconveniences of not being able to interact in person during classes, participants made it work, and Villada did everything he could to accommodate his students’ needs.
“I thought my students were extraordinarily resilient and resourceful during all this. One student had only intermittent use of the Internet. One student had housing instability. So there were matters of equity and inclusivity that I addressed by creating different versions of the class,” Villada said. “If you couldn’t upload a Word doc, I accepted pictures of handwritten work. If you couldn’t email, I accepted the work through texts. If you couldn’t make videos, I accepted audio. Each one my students, even the ones who weren’t in the best material circumstances, pulled through. I was really amazed at their work ethic.”
As the students persevered, the weight of current events regularly brought a spectrum of emotions to the surface. But they were able to use those feelings to enhance their theatrical work.
“We were definitely affected each week by what we heard on the news. And all of my students expressed a deep sense of loss in terms of what their college experiences could have been,” Villada said. “They described what I can only express as an anxious lethargy, not being able to get up and do their work. I understood that and, in one class, I canceled all of the papers and had students do informal writing on discussion boards (as part of a writing-enhanced curriculum model that uses informal writing as well as formal portfolio work).”
Villada’s understanding helped his students power through the semester and evolve into more well-rounded performers. He looks forward to working with many of his students again in the fall and, while they plan on participating in a full theater season, there is still plenty of uncertainty about what that will look like. Will livestreamed performances be involved? Will there be open-air shows instead of interior shows? Smaller audiences? It is still a giant question mark, but Villada knows that he (and his tenacious students) will make the best of it.
For students like Kyla Hunter, a rising third-year with a TDPS area of concentration, being in Villada’s class in the spring was a healing experience.
“As movement relies heavily on physical interaction and influences from our peers, completing this course remotely was quite the challenge. Fortunately, the course content worked to engage us physically and creatively,” Hunter said. “I could throw myself into the work, using the chaos surrounding me as inspiration. It was cathartic, in a way, to use art as an outlet during this time.”
Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.