In a non-pandemic year, first years would be introduced to the wide range of extracurricular clubs and activities offered at Yale through the fall Student Organizations Bazaar, a totally overwhelming experience of hundreds of tables and hundreds of people, all of whom are urging you to join their group. Do you sing in the shower? Join acapella! In the fall of 2020, the bazaar was held virtually, with all the increased structure and awkwardness of Zoom and GCal appointments. It’s hard to imagine a sharper sense of contrast. And yet, clubs did their best to adapt online.
The Yale Society for the Exploration of Campus Secrets, who in the past recruited members at the extracurricular fair by handing out cryptic business cards and then vanishing back into the crowd in time to avoid follow-up questions, pivoted their recruiting strategy to sending cryptic emails linking to an equally curiosity-provoking website. Responding to interview questions through this mysterious ~email~ format, YSECS acknowledged the effects of the pandemic on its activities, but with optimism for the future, stating: “Though physical exploration is curtailed for safety, the traditions of Society have continued and plans for the next year are unfolding without a hitch. While our activities are not visible to the untrained eye, be assured they will continue.”
YSECS also sees an opportunity in online or remote activities: “The many secrets that Yale has meticulously attempted to conceal cannot be fully understood solely through physical or digital means. Even so, many elements can be explored via the worldwide web. Furthermore, we encourage those who can to explore via astral projection; for those who can’t, store bought out-of-body experiences are fine as well.”
In some sense, “store bought out-of-body experience” is not a bad way to describe participating in an activity via Zoom: there, but not physically present. When Selin Goren ’24 joined the Yale Dramat Association back in the fall, she was a remote student due to COVID-19. It felt warm to be involved in an extracurricular activity, as she didn’t know much about Yale. She had never been on campus before. Thankfully, the team rehearsed during a “convenient time” in her schedule. Yet, that wasn’t the case for the actual performances. An evening performance from Nov. 13 to 15, 2020, meant waking up for a show at 4 a.m. for her, as she was joining the team miles away, back home in Istanbul, Turkey.
“I think in general, just the performances themselves were tough in terms of waking up. Yet, it was a really nice experience, especially being involved in something even though I was remote,” Goren said.
The director, Catherine Alam-Nist ’24, wisely adjusted the play “Dominion” according to a pandemic production. Zoom was actually a part of the play where the characters called each other. It made perfect sense for both the actors and the audience.
The audience also became a part of the production. At the beginning of the play, the actors requested the audience to switch to participants. The audience hid the non-video participants, so they saw only the actors. The actors themselves closed their camera too when they exited the stage, so that they would disappear from the screen instead of going blank. Goren thought it made it more engaging and felt more like a show rather than another Zoom meeting of an ordinary day.
In general, costumes were do-it-yourself. Though some actors bought a few pieces of clothing, most of them wore what they had at home. The play itself didn’t involve that many costumes; rather, the actors paid the most attention to the colors that would represent the moods of their characters. For instance, Goren wore gray and black clothes for her troubled character Briseis.
Despite all the witty adjustments, performing on Zoom still felt like a different experience for everyone. “Performances, theater, dance, music, these are really hard to convey through Zoom, I think. But still, considering the circumstances, it was a good experience,” Goren said.
It’s true that some activities simply cannot be replicated online. When describing the activities of the Yale Drama Coalition, President Eliza MacGilvray ’23 said with a laugh, “We used to go places and be in front of people!” Co-Vice President and former co-first-year liaison Jay Mehta ’24, added, “We would sell baked goods and stuff, but alas, we have nothing but virtual baked goods to offer now.”
In every way aside from baking, though, the YDC has been working to make sure that theater is something that can succeed over Zoom for as many people as possible. The YDC is an umbrella organization, whose mission statement Mehta describes as seeking “to promote accessibility, fairness and community building in Yale theater,” a mission the coalition adopted in addition to providing administrative functions for Yale theater, such as organizing season previews and managing casting cycles for shows.
“We just want to make sure that people who want to do theater at Yale can do so in a healthy way,” Mehta said. “I think all of us individually found a home in theater, and among people who do theater, and we want to make sure that everybody has that chance, and that it’s open to everybody.”
The YDC has been able to take advantage of the upheaval of the pandemic to pause and evaluate the typical undergraduate theater-making process at Yale. Their recent activities include hosting town halls to collect feedback on how to make audition processes more accessible, compiling a Yale theater wiki document, and starting the Collaborative Arts Matching Program, which pairs students interested in creating shows and those interested in collaborating on shows in various roles. The program doesn’t hold auditions or require experience, and intentionally keeps commitment stakes low, bringing down the various barriers that students interested in theater may face to actually getting involved with a production.
This focus on creativity and accessibility extends to the coalition’s view of the best practices for the day-to-day creation of Zoom theater as well. MacGilvray acknowledges that “theater in general is just such a live experience,” and that element of Zoom theater is not the same, but also notes that the YDC has “been trying to focus on the new opportunities that Zoom theater is providing, and trying to take advantage of it while this is the situation.” Samantha White ’22, a theater-making liaison on the YDC board, affirmed, “Discovering ways of taking what we would use in a live piece and making it interesting on Zoom has been very fulfilling.” She noted that Zoom fatigue is one of the major issues of virtual theater, and went on to describe the list of best practices the organization created to help mitigate its effects, such as shortening rehearsals, and asking for the actors’ access needs each time before starting.
“2020 was the first year we had this new mission statement and it’s been really, really fulfilling as an organization to get to work on that,” said MacGilvray. “Even though so much has been taken away by COVID, it’s been a really vibrant space.”
The YDC’s mission of striving towards accessibility addresses an element of Yale extracurriculars that extends far beyond the world of theater. While the extracurricular activities offered at Yale are numerous and diverse, many students encounter a not-so-widely advertised layer of exclusivity when they try to join a club for one of their interests — an audition or selection process, required previous experience or simply an unwelcoming atmosphere.
Due to the pandemic, a kind of reversal has occurred, with many clubs now struggling to meet as normal, recruit new members, or work on projects together. Yale’s community is defined by its passionate, interested student body, but this student body is also exhausted by the wide variety of challenges brought on or exacerbated by the pandemic.
Kara Liu ’23 has faced these issues as the editor-in-chief of the Yale Literary Review, a semesterly magazine that publishes reviews of art. It is the only publication at Yale that accepts pieces on art about anything and anytime, from book reviews to critical analysis of theater to dance.
Liu has been a member of the organization since February 2020. Back then, the Review didn’t have frequent meetings. Yet, as everyone was on campus, the members would meet up or talk directly to the editor-in-chief or other managing editors if they had any questions or things to discuss.
For this year, everyone is in different time zones, so it’s much more difficult to reach out to writers and people who submit different types of works. Each member is experiencing difficulties of their own, whether it be electricity outages or Wi-Fi problems.
“It definitely affected the activities. For any type of literary magazine, we all literally need to be there to discuss each publication because it’s not a one person thing,” Liu said.
Even before the pandemic, the club was fairly small. Now that everyone is in different places, it’s just impossible for people to get involved or the club members to coordinate enough people to sustain the magazine. Therefore, the Review is focusing mainly on promoting the club, recruiting new members and developing their website, as there are simply not enough submissions for the magazine.
The Guild of Bookmakers, another literary undergraduate organization that runs bookmaking workshops for the Yale community, has also faced difficulties trying to operate as normal over Zoom. In a typical year, the guild would run around two workshops a month. This year, the guild has so far run three softcover book binding workshops, two last semester and one this semester, with a hardcover workshop coming up later in the spring.
Matt King ’22, president of the guild, noted that it has been difficult not to have access to the physical binderies in the Silliman and Davenport college basements, where more specialized and expensive materials and tools are kept, and where workshops would typically take place. When assembling kits to distribute to interested students for workshops, “We really have to start from scratch,” he said. It has also been frustratingly difficult to reserve other Yale event spaces to hold workshops or prepare kits.
The in-person and communal aspects of bookbinding were a central part of the appeal of the guild for King. He had been introduced to the guild as a first year at the extracurricular fair, and discovered he loved working on bookbinding projects after attending some of the workshops. “It was a way for me to dedicate, especially making a hardcover book, several hours to a single activity — it was almost a sort of meditation, and it was also a way for me to connect with friends. … Plus there was the bonus that books make really good gifts, so I can feel accomplished having made this really nice thing, and then I can give it to someone else.”
The transition to an online format has missed some of these qualities: “It’s had less of a community feeling, just by virtue of being on Zoom — it’s one thing being in a room at a table with people and music, and another thing having a wall of screen faces in front of you, so I’m really looking forward to getting that community back.”
However, this same lack of access to physical spaces or connections is also something he has seen drawing people to participate in the guild’s activities. “One thing I’ve really liked about the virtual workshops is that we’ve been able to reach more people, and I think part of that has to do with a new interest in a tactile activity, especially since no one really has those [opportunities] any more. A lot of the people coming to our workshops are people who have lost a lot of their other creative outlets.”
King has also been proud of the guild members’ ability to improvise and come together to pull off successful workshops: “It was nice seeing the ways we were able to not just make do, but even flourish with very limited supplies and spaces.” He’s looking forward to doing a hardcover workshop in the future, though this presents its own challenges. “Who wants to sit on Zoom for four hours? Not many people,” he says, smiling.
King is also looking forward to expanding the leadership roles present in the guild. Leadership turnover has been a concern, as the typical member progression to guild leadership involves binding five books of significance — an advanced project that has been nearly impossible to complete over the past year. Instead, this year the leaders sent out a wide call for interest in helping lead the guild. They were pleased with the response they received from first years and sophomores who had maybe never had the chance to bind a book before, but were excited about learning and helping run the organization.
While there are currently three named leadership positions, King has had interest from five or six people and foresees finding roles for all in leading the guild. “It’s been really heartwarming seeing so much interest and participation, even more than pre-pandemic, from people who don’t know us as well as they could,” he said. “It gives me a lot of hope for the future of the guild, and I see the guild’s future in this group of people.”
The members of the YDC board, too, were thrilled to talk about the process of recruiting new people and their incoming board members. “It gave us the opportunity to step back and appreciate each other, and the space, and the organization, and what we like to do, and think critically about the way we wanted to present ourselves to the people who were entering the organization,” said Mehta. “I feel like they’ve already brought a lot of really good ideas and energy to the board, and they’re all just amazing people, so that’s a big plus.”
So perhaps YSECS gives the best summary of any organization’s activities, in their own snarky way: “As the name suggests, a society is principally a collection of people.” At its best, it seems that adjusting to the challenges of the pandemic can offer something of a renewal of Yale’s clubs at their essential level: finding a community of people interested in the same thing, and working together to do it.
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