Hope and Joy in Isolation: Theater in the Time of COVID-19

Katie Gibson
May 1, 2020

Boston Conservatory at Berklee theater faculty are finding new and novel ways to spark their students' creativity. 

Alumni gather weekly via Zoom for a musical theater dance class.
Image courtesy of Michelle Chassé

Live theater often depends on interaction: between the actors and their crew and director, between different actors on stage, and between the actors and the audience. But theater also depends on creativity and improvisation: even actors and performers following a script often must deal with unexpected twists and turns. 

During the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, theater faculty members at Boston Conservatory at Berklee have come up with creative ways to help their students—and some alumni—sharpen their acting and dancing skills while staying connected to one another. 

First-year faculty member Dustienne Miller, assistant professor of theater, asked her students to choreograph a video relating to one, several, or all of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s famed five stages of grief. 

“I was hopeful that a creative project would help my students process what we are collectively feeling,” says Miller, who noted that her students were feeling frustrated, isolated, and tired of the constant screen time required by Zoom classes. “I thought it was important to honor the fact that people were sad, disappointed, overwhelmed, and angry because of what was happening, and not to gloss over it, pretending that everything is fine.” 

Miller mentioned a key principle of musical theater: “A good story moves the performer to sing when they are unable to express themselves by speaking alone,” she says. “When they can no longer express themselves in song, they must dance.” Her students, navigating the changes and challenges of learning at home during a pandemic, have submitted videos expressing a wide range of emotions. 

“Some of the submissions I received have moved me to tears,” Miller says. “To see how these wildly creative humans have interpreted what we are collectively feeling is quite moving.”

We’re not still pretending that we’re together in the theater, or doing monologues onstage. Instead it’s almost like we’re making a movie.

—Igor Golyak, associate professor of theater

Igor Golyak, associate professor of theater, has found a strange parallel between the curriculum he had already planned to teach and the isolation of COVID-19. In his first-year acting classes, students have been studying and preparing scenes from the plays of Anton Chekhov, whose characters are often emotionally (sometimes physically) isolated from one another.  

“We’ve been digging into the poetics of Chekhov and his characters, and what they are trying to communicate via subtext,” says Golyak. “His characters are often trying to reach out and support each other, but they almost have this film between them, where for some reason, they don’t understand each other. They can’t reach each other, even though they want to.” Golyak’s students, in acting out these scenes, have used their video screens as a literal counterpart to the metaphorical separation. 

“In Three Sisters, for example, we talked about how the sisters want to go back to Moscow, where they felt happy,” says Golyak. “So the students talked about self-quarantine and what their ‘Moscow’ would be. In another play, The Seagull, there’s a scene between a mother and son who are in a fight. We’ve staged it in such a way that the son has locked himself in the bathroom, and we have one student sitting on one side of the bathroom door, and another student coming up to the door and knocking. It seems like they’re at the same door.”

Golyak has urged his students to use Zoom almost like a video camera shot. “We’re not still pretending that we’re together in the theater, or doing monologues onstage,” he says. “Instead it’s almost like we’re making a movie.”

As the semester went on, Golyak says, the students grew to enjoy and even draw inspiration from each other’s new ideas. “We’ve really tried to approach this obstacle as a springboard,” he says. “Let’s make the best of this, and let’s make it better.”

It’s been great to see all these beautiful people in the room. They have this energy that’s full of hope.

—Michelle Chassé, professor of theater

Making the most of a difficult situation is also what Michelle Chassé, professor of theater, has done during the pandemic. Concerned about Conservatory alumni in isolation around the country—particularly in New York City, where the pandemic has hit hard—Chassé began hosting a free weekly Zoom class for alumni, alternating between ballet barre work, musical theater, and a jazz routine. Each Wednesday night, a group of 30 to 40 alumni from around the country join Chassé on Zoom to dance, sweat, and connect with one another. 

“I’m very close to a lot of alumni, and we’ve all been checking in on each other during this time,” explains Chassé. “So many people are out of work from Broadway shows right now, or they’ve lost their other gigs at restaurants. Some have escaped the city and gone to their parents’ houses, but others can’t leave—they don’t want to expose older family members to the virus. It’s a scary time.”

Chassé says the class has been an infusion of joy both for her and for the alumni, many of whom are spending most of their time isolated inside. 

“So many of these alumni were living their dreams, and now the city is shut down,” Chassé says. “It really helps all of us to get our minds off things for an hour, and be with the people we love so much.”

Many of the alumni participants in the class know one another from their time at the Conservatory, but some have “met” each other via Zoom for the first time. Several groups of roommates, or alumni couples who live together, are also participating in the class. “It’s been so rejuvenating, for them and for me,” says Chassé. “My neighbors are getting used to hearing lots of classical music—and the same jazz warmup every week! But the alumni are loving this—they’re remembering what it’s like to trust themselves and their bodies, and move without fear.” One alumnus, Makai Hernandez (B.F.A. ’19, musical theater), has even taken part in the class during breaks from his shift at Trader Joe’s near Central Park. 

“It’s been great to see all these beautiful people in the room,” says Chassé, adding that anyone is welcome to join the class. “They have this energy that’s full of hope.”

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