INSIGHT: Kiss Me Through the Webcam
Performing arts students adapt to online classes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You liked that, that I wanted to die for you?” John says to his webcam. In another part of town, Julie curses and spits in his face. The saliva lands on her cracked screen. Suddenly, everything goes black. John is gone, and Julie isn’t Julie anymore — just an actress alone with a broken laptop.
In the transition to online learning, some classroom experiences remain essentially the same. Students in “Bioethics and Law” can still scribble down notes while they listen to Stephen Latham lecture; philosophy students can still discuss the nuances of Heiddegger’s “Being and Time.” Performing arts students, though, have experienced a great loss. These disciplines are inherently collaborative, inherently tactile, and impossible to truly recreate on Zoom. New York University Tisch School of the Arts students have asked for a partial tuition refund, saying that arts learning via Zoom is not of equal value.
Students at the Yale Schools of Drama and Music are also reckoning with the limitations of online classes. Rebecca Kent DRA ‘22, who plays Julie, studies acting at the Drama School. Originally from London, the U.K. travel ban was devastating for her. She doesn’t know when she’ll get to see her family next. For now, she’s still in New Haven, sparring with “John” via Zoom.
The scene from “Mies Julie” posed a particular challenge for online rehearsal: The play involves shoving, kissing, even sex. Kent said they had to take the kiss out because it felt “so ridiculous to kiss a camera.” Having sex with a camera felt ridiculous too. Instead, they moved off-screen and just made “sex noises.”
Under different circumstances, new performance platforms could provide a creative opportunity.
“Any medium can be used in an artistic way to be innovative,” said acting student Sola Fadiran DRA ‘21. “But we’ve just tried to transfer what we were doing and sort of shoehorn it to [Zoom].”
Fadiran is no stranger to art. He’s spent the extra time reading poetry, plays, screenplays, even theater criticism. He’s also engaged in conversations about a partial refund for Drama School students, especially those experiencing financial hardship. Fadiran said that although teachers are doing their best, he isn’t getting the education he paid for.
Physicality is an essential component of drama education. According to Jessica Wolf, a veteran professor at the School of Drama, the body is an actor’s instrument. “They study to learn how to play it,” she said. Yale Drama School teachers often touch students to call attention to a part of the body that needs adjusting. “They’ll release a part of your shoulder and all of a sudden the character comes alive,” said acting student Adam Shaukat DRA ‘21. “We lost that. We’re mourning that.”
The move online is difficult for everyone, but drama students without ample living space face even greater challenges. Recently, while rehearsing a monologue in his home, a black actor in Los Angeles was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence.
“Especially as a black man,” said Fadiran, “there is merit in worrying about how I treat my neighbors.” In his shared apartment complex, he doesn’t feel comfortable screaming or banging his fist against a wall.
There’s a disparity in internet capacity too. Students who can’t afford high-bandwidth internet often experience technical problems. Virtual drama school is difficult enough without being constantly “kicked out” of the Zoom classroom.
The strain of learning on Zoom is also felt at the Yale School of Music. Before COVID-19 hit, Daniel Tucker MUS ‘20 was supposed to travel to Florida and Puerto Rico with the Yale Glee Club. The trip was cancelled. Now, he’s taking his online choral conducting classes back home in Ohio.
“Most of our ‘classes,’ so to speak, are ensembles,” Tucker said. “We were in rehearsal. We were singing. All day, every day.” The internet time lag makes it impossible for people to sing together in real time. Students have started to record themselves singing alone. “We can sort of make a collage of individual people singing and turn it into something that sounds like a choir,” Tucker said.
This solution, though, is technically insufficient. Choral singing isn’t quite like a piano. One can’t simply play different notes at the same time to make a chord. Singers constantly make slight adjustments to their pitch and timbre in order to mix with other voices — that’s why virtual choirs often don’t sound quite right.
Tucker says that when singers sing alone, “you can’t tune anything because there’s nothing to tune against.” But together, he says, “Our heartbeats line up with each other, so you have this physical sense of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.”
Students have lost precious time to hone their crafts. But many artists in the real world have lost their source of income for the foreseeable future. “I’m so grateful that I’m an actor at a grad school that’s taking care of me right now, and not an actor who’s just lost six months of work,” Kent said. “All of our peers who just graduated are pretty scared.”
Both professional and student artists, though, are missing the thing that makes them want to perform in the first place.
“There’s no point in acting without an audience,” said Shaukat. “It’s not a masturbation. It’s storytelling for people who come to see it and come to see themselves, or feel less lonely, or feel inspired, or feel like someone understands. On stage, it’s not for us… Everything we do is for an audience.”
These artists don’t know how long it’ll be until they can have an audience again. They continue to train in the limited ways they can, but without an audience, Shaukat says, it’s all “irrelevant.”
Despite these setbacks, all of the arts students I spoke to expressed immense gratitude for their teachers.
“I’ve been really impressed with how teachers are adapting,” Tucker said. “To give us the most like an in-person experience that technology, with all its limits, can provide.”
There have also been some unexpected positives to virtual learning. Tucker’s organ lesson has become more of a music history class — he said it’s been thrilling to learn material he would’ve never learned sitting at the organ.
This moment has also forced the artists to pause and let their training sink in. “When you’re constantly in motion,” said Fadiran, “there’s a lot that you’re consuming. And it actually isn’t until I’m still that it can metabolize.”
Fadiran also said they’ve been presented with a unique opportunity. “At the end of the day, acting is an act of the imagination,” he said. “It could be a positive challenge to be forced to imagine so much.”
These students can no longer make art in the way they once did. They hope to be able to come together again soon, but for now, they’re just looking for ways to keep their “souls alive,” Kent said. During these uncertain times, perhaps pretending through a broken screen is enough.