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'The Class Must Go On': How FIU's Theatre Program Made A Live Art Form Work In The Virtual Realm

Screenshot from Zoom
Florida International University theatre professor Ivan Lopez, top left, leads a dramatic literature class over Zoom in late March. The class had an easier transition online after the coronavirus closed campuses than his performance-based courses.

Your scene partner is delivering a line when his face freezes on the computer screen. Your little brother won’t stay quiet long enough for you to videotape a rehearsal in your childhood bedroom. Your senior production: Canceled.

This is what it was like for college theatre majors this spring semester, as courses shifted from classrooms to Zoom.

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The COVID-19 pandemic is upending higher education, a new reality that began in March when colleges and universities closed campuses and sent students home. Finishing the semester virtually was especially tricky for performers, who had to figure out how to translate live art forms to the virtual realm.

“Artists and creatives — we're equipped to deal with these situations,” said FIU theatre professor Ivan Lopez, “because we're comfortable going into the unknown.”

Improvised classrooms and special guests

On campus, Lopez would lead lengthy physical and vocal warmups to begin his voice and movement class.

When the class could no longer do the warmups together on campus, he began recording audio guides for his students, telling them to do things like:

“Make the next breath the biggest breath you've ever taken in your whole life.”
“Feel your feet firmly grounded, lines of energy going from your heart and splitting off into your legs and shooting down into the center of the earth.”
“Bring your hands together in those finger guns and raise them straight up in the air, feeling that string attached to those fingers pulling you up, elongating the spine.”

For some students, the hardest part was the first instruction: to find a quiet, private place to work for about 30 minutes.

“Some students were sharing that they live in a house with eight other people, a lot of which are also working from home now,” Lopez said. “Some of them are going into the bathroom to do this."

His dramatic literature class was easier to do over Zoom. Students sometimes read plays out loud — which can mean interruptions from unwieldy internet connections — but it’s mostly a discussion-based course.

“At least one upside is most of us do bring our pets to class now,” said Morgan Phares, a student in Lopez’s literature course. “When I moved home, all of my classmates got to meet my parents’ dog, Cedric, which was a lot of fun.”

In addition to his role as a professor, Lopez is also the theatre department’s director of audience development, so he works on marketing the productions. With this spring’s productions canceled, he put student staffers to work on a video blog instead.

In a few episodes posted on YouTube, the host interviews students and professors about how they’re coping with the abrupt transition online.

The vlog is called: “The Class Must Go On.”

Missing the classroom: ‘I do feel just a little bit cheated’

Even before the coronavirus crisis, Shadya Muvdi was spending a lot of time in a mask.

Muvdi is studying for a bachelor's of fine arts in acting, and one of her classes last semester focused on performing with masks, like in the tradition of the early Italian style of theatre called "commedia dell'arte."

Typically, Muvdi and her classmates would wear the masks and explore their characters physically and with their voices while getting real-time feedback from their professor and each other.

Credit Courtesy of Shadya Muvdi
FIU theatre major Shadya Muvdi records a video of an improvised performance using an Italian commedia dell arte Zanni mask. Her performance space was a narrow pathway in her childhood bedroom.

In her regular classroom, Muvdi would do her mask work in front of a full-length mirror. After campus closed, she had to use a small vanity in her bedroom at her parents’ house in Kendall.

Her dad helped her rearrange her bedroom, pushing a dresser and her bed flat against the wall, so she could open up a narrow pathway of about five or six feet in front of her computer camera. That’s now her performance space.

She recorded her improvised skits wearing the Zanni mask, a mischievous clown character, and uploaded them onto a private YouTube page, which her professor and classmates used to offer critiques.

For the most part, it worked. “But I do feel just a little bit cheated. Just a little bit,” Muvdi said.

That’s because this particular class was really important to her.

“At the end of this class, we have the smallest mask, which is a red clown nose,” she said. “You pick the one part of yourself that you're most insecure about, and that is your bit for the clown — to kind of like get over it.

“Everyone would always talk about how, once you go through clowning, you really just don't care about anything. Like you don't care about how you appear to other people. You don't care about like, looking dumb,” she said. “This class was supposed to be the class where you could see yourself really grow. We don't really have the chance to go through that.”

Credit Courtesy of Clarissa Fleurimond
FIU theatre major Clarissa Fleurimond records herself applying stage makeup at home after classes were shifted online for the spring semester.

Discovering newfound confidence — off campus

When Clarissa Fleurimond learned she had to move out of her dorm — and quickly — she realized she wasn’t going to be able to go home.

Home is a house with seven siblings in Homestead, where she said it would be “impossible” for her to continue her studies.

“I would be cleaning, cooking, helping with them with their assignments,” she said. “It’s way too much.”

Instead, she moved in with her boyfriend in Kendall for the rest of the semester, so she could get the time, space and quiet she needed to finish her classes.

For her stage makeup class, she had to trade the bright lights of the dressing room for sunlight streaming in from the bedroom window. She found an unexpected benefit to her new setup.

During her regular class, she relied a little too much on her professor, she realized.

“I asked him, like, 20 times: ‘Hey, am I doing this wrong?’ He was like, ‘Be more confident. You have this.’

“Now that I'm home, I don't have him here 24/7,” she said. “So I have to trust my gut. And it's like, I do know what I'm doing. I was just scared.”