Dora Guo

The show must go on. There are no bad audiences. Performing artists are trained to adapt, to keep their heads held high in the face of adversity. No one is allowed to peek underneath the mask to see the human behind the character, behind the voice, behind the movement. COVID-19 changed that. In the last 11 months, artists have had to reckon with their creative outlet being taken away from them without warning. For many performing artists at Yale, rehearsals and shows were an escape from the banalities of classes and work. Theaters and rehearsal rooms were spaces to exhale. Like-minded people came together to create something meaningful to be shared with the community. When the pandemic shuttered theaters across the country and across the globe, artists lost all of that. And for many, it was difficult to cope.

There is no set date as to when buildings will reopen and guidelines will be loosened. Even if there were, live performing arts events are some of the last things that will become operational. While this dramatically impacts the livelihoods of professional actors and performers across the globe, it also affects those who simply find happiness in making art. Yale’s closure in March, while not necessarily a shock, caused many undergraduate artists to put their projects on pause. 

Jordi Bertrán ’24, currently on leave from Yale, is a member of the undergraduate hip-hop group Rhythmic Blue and a board member of the Dramat. He was planning on being a part of five different productions in the spring semester as both an assistant director and a performer. The sheer number of projects Jordi was involved in was overwhelming. However, among artists on campus, this is somewhat commonplace. Many artists are involved in more than one project at once, in both onstage and behind-the-scenes roles. They are in a state of constant motion, running from classes to meetings to rehearsals. It’s not exactly the easiest path to chart at Yale, but for many, it is the most rewarding.

As the announcement came over spring break that undergraduates would not be allowed to return to campus to finish the semester, artists were forced to have difficult conversations. Leadership on each project had to evaluate whether they wanted to postpone their opening night until a theoretical future semester, adapt to a virtual landscape or cancel their show altogether. What made matters more difficult was the fact that the class of 2020 was graduating before any in-person events would possibly occur. Projects involving seniors would have to recast roles if they were to continue in the future. As a result of this, many projects were scrapped. 

One such project was Y2K: A Survivalist Musical. A senior thesis project for Dylan Schifrin ’20, a music major, the show became oddly resonant in the COVID-19 pandemic. “It was funny to look back on our Facebook posts the creative team and I made when we were holding auditions,” the show’s director, Alexandra Thomas ’21, remembers. “I made a post that said: ‘Barring the world coming to an end before it happens, I will be directing Dylan Schifrin’s musical, Y2K.’ I was like, ‘Oh no, I jinxed myself!’” 

Claire Sattler ’23, a cast member, reflects on the cast’s experience in hearing the news about not returning to campus. “We still kind of had some hope that we would do the show at some point because the cast was all juniors and younger,” she said. The cast attempted to reschedule their opening for the fall of 2020. “And then things just didn’t get better, and we all together realized, ‘Yeah, this isn’t going to happen.’” Months of hard work went down the drain almost instantaneously. 

Artists put so much of themselves into their work, and to see that work amount to nothing was devastating for many. Reframing the idea of performance was difficult and took a lot of time and some artists never wanted to explore virtual options for performance. Cancelling projects altogether could be easier than seeing some alternate version of a project that had been thoroughly planned for an in-person experience.

As the semester ended and the summer began, hope began to creep into artists’ hearts. Thomas began planning her own senior thesis: directing a play she had discovered in the second semester of her first year. “My show was happening in the spring [of 2021], so I was very optimistic, and trying to hold onto the hope that things would find some normalcy again,” she said. “If there wasn’t a way to do a performance as usual, then maybe we could do a performance while masked.” When the announcement came in July that certain students would not be allowed to return to campus in the fall, projects were once again up in the air. The Singing Group Council released a statement in response to the administration’s announcement: “We have officially canceled A Cappella Rush for the 2020-2021 academic year. Auditions will next take place in Fall 2021.” Talking is one of the easiest ways to spread COVID-19, and singing is even worse, so the decision of the SGC was inevitable.

This decision had dramatic effects on the morale of a cappella groups on campus. Rachel Ababio ’22, a member of the all-female a capella group The New Blue, had difficulty imagining what a virtual semester would look like while making music. “I struggled to see a school year or semester where we could maintain the same musical level so many miles apart.” 

Many a cappella groups participated in a virtual jam similar to the event normally held at the beginning of the school year. Each group recorded their own performance however they could, and the videos were then put together and streamed for the Yale community. The event went well; it allowed for musicians to gather and do what they enjoy most, albeit virtually. Once that event concluded, though, many groups did not know what else to do. Sattler, in addition to being involved in theater, is also a part of Proof of the Pudding, another a cappella group on campus. She helped to edit the group’s submission for the jam, and greatly enjoyed the experience, as it channeled a new aspect of her creativity. “But oh my God, it took so much time!” she said. “After doing it once, I was like, ‘That was fun. I never have time to do that again.’”

The a cappella jam at the beginning of every academic year is normally used as a recruiting event to show first years what each a cappella group is like. In a year where no a cappella auditions were being held, first years had limited options. Those that wanted to sing had to find other avenues. Other artists fared slightly better, but the experience was still very different from the normal first-year experience. 

Bobby Gonzalez ’24 danced in high school and was looking forward to continuing to dance at Yale. Gonzalez was encouraged to audition for Rhythmic Blue by a member of his pre-orientation group, Cultural Connections, and was admitted. After the audition, though, the dance group became less of a part of his Yale semester than he anticipated. “I was left kind of disappointed because I had such a good experience with the performing arts, especially dance, in high school.” He doesn’t blame the group itself for his feelings. “It’s just not the same as dancing with people in the studio.” 

In the fall, many remote Yale students moved to cities across the country and worked on political campaigns during the 2020 Presidential election. Others lived at home, working remote internships or local jobs. Some artists also made the difficult decision to take time off of Yale, including Bertran. He waffled over the decision to take a gap year up until the day the form was due. He had a number of concerns about how the decision would affect his future education and performance ability. “I didn’t want to lose my trajectory and my momentum from first year.” 

Momentum is certainly a resonant concept for many artists at Yale. When performing, it often feels like one show rolls into the next. Artists learn and grow from each performance, and as the number of performances increases, so do confidence and technical skill. A break sets artists back to square one. And when the break has no end in sight, artists struggle immensely with what to do. Bertran knew that he would lose the communal bonding that naturally comes with performing in a group. “But at the same time,” he said, “I think part of me chose Yale because of its art scene. And I would have been remiss to let that opportunity go and lose a year of performance and experience with other Yalies.”

During his time off, Bertran has not been entirely disconnected from the Yale performing arts scene. He was a part of a textually-modified production of Jason Robert Brown’s “Songs for a New World,” titled “Our New World” by Madison Cole ’23. The performance, available on YouTube, recasts and presents iconic songs from musical theater history to create a new narrative about the isolated world. Each artist recorded visuals for their performance and then dubbed over their vocals to create a more sonically pleasing experience. Sattler also performed in this production. She also was a set designer for Catherine Alam-Nist’s original work, “Dominion.” The play examines the hero narrative that pervades in Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida” and Homer’s “The Iliad,” as well as the role women play in those shows. Because “Dominion” is written in modern English, performers and audience members were able to directly analyze the characters portrayed onstage. 

Artists have often made their voices heard in times of crisis. During the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement that occurred over the summer, artists at Yale aimed the magnifying glass at racist policies and practices in their own fields. They had to grapple with an environment that made BIPOC individuals feel unwelcome, as well as other issues of accessibility. As the Outreach Coordinator on the Dramat executive board, Bertran has made a conscious effort to consistently engage in dialogue surrounding issues in theater. Change is a long time coming in the Dramat, according to Bertran. “There are so many barriers to accessibility in theater that we’re really trying to interrogate and break down,” he said. “We have that time this year now that we’re not performing virtually.” 

As the spring semester has begun and the population on campus has increased again, performances are slowly picking up. Thomas’s senior thesis, a production of McLaughlin’s “Ajax in Iraq” that she is directing, premieres in mid-April. The show examines PTSD and how veterans are perceived in liberal society. Ababio, while rehearsing and performing with The New Blue, auditioned and was subsequently admitted to the Yale Whiffenpoofs, which she will be a part of in the 2021-2022 academic year. Sattler used her time away from classes in December to begin writing an original play based on the game Dungeons and Dragons, called “Roll With It!” The show is scheduled to premiere in May. 

The pandemic forced artists at Yale to pause and evaluate how much of a blessing art is, as well as how fragile it can feel. But Yale actors, dancers and musicians remain hopeful that their artforms will long outlive the current historical moment. “Oftentimes people think of theater as the dying art,” Bertran said. “But I think the fact that it’s been dying for hundreds and hundreds of years shows its resilience.”

Camden Rider | camden.rider@yale.edu