Building KU's Teaching and Learning Community

Bonding while masked: Preserving community for Jayhawks during Covid-19
Laura Kirk, Theatre

Acting classes in Murphy Hall offered by the Department of Theatre and Dance are known for building inclusive community. Many friendships last beyond the course. Risks students don’t feel comfortable taking in other courses are encouraged. They get to know themselves and each other, because the skills needed to act include self and public observation, empathy, deep listening and focus. So, what happens when you can’t see faces or touch? It becomes even more vital, because in that room or Zoom session a student can be present for that time period, while sharing an unprecedented year at KU.

In-person classes begin with a check-in so actors can leave behind the day, the masked walk to class, and share lack of sleep stories, and worry together over organizational skills needed to be online students. When students anticipating performances voice concern over how the class might go, it’s dismissed by the instructor. It will be low stakes work so they can grow. A thinking actor is a stinking actor—the old weird saying goes—so stepping into the room and the character and given circumstances provide freedom for both actors and audience.

Hybrid means a combination of masked, distanced whole body work in the room plus seeing each other’s faces intimately on Zoom or flipgrid online for performances. The combination bonds students and works well. The exercises are the same. Pre-recorded online flipgrid work removes pressure of a live audience. Some students grow who might not otherwise. More advanced performers thrive and excel with a live Zoom audience with an active chat allowed—popping joyful comments about moments that surprised or shake them even in this format.

While I find myself stressed and exhausted by the adaptation required and miss the old studio model, the reward of laughter and good work keeps me showing up. The mantra of Wynn Handman, my legendary acting teacher in New York, (who died of COVID this year) is my current mantra: “Stay with it.” If a scene was starting to feel shaky, he would simply coach this guidance and the scene would continue. We were never allowed to just stop. The bond of students going through Covid-19 together and persevering will last beyond 2020 and become alumni to be very proud of indeed.

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