Students object to restrictive performing arts guidelines
Performing groups reflect on their futures as the COVID Review Team continues to update performing arts permissions.
Tenzin Jorden, Staff Photographer
In light of the University’s tightening of COVID-19 restrictions, students have voiced concerns about a perceived discrepancy between policies regulating the performing arts compared to other pursuits, including athletics.
At the end of the fall semester, all performing arts were suspended due to the increased transmission risk posed by the Omicron COVID-19 variant. Restrictions were gradually lifted, with the COVID Review Team approving a small set of performance activities over the winter recess. On Jan. 10, permission was granted for one-on-one lessons to take place in person starting Jan. 25 and faculty-led ensembles could begin rehearsals starting Feb. 7. The rules were expanded slightly 10 days later, with permission for student-led performing arts rehearsals to resume in-person on Feb. 7, two weeks earlier than previously announced.
An open letter written on Dec. 22 by Yale Symphony Orchestra cellist Spencer Adler ’24 calling for changes to performing arts policies and addressed to Yale College Dean Marvin Chun, Associate Dean for the Arts Kate Krier and Yale School of Music Dean Robert Blocker circulated around the University community, with more than 230 undergraduate and graduate students signing onto the message.
The letter contained a link to a petition outlining a series of demands, which included making tickets for Yale College and Yale School of Music performances available to the entire University community starting Feb. 4, allowing Yale College classes with a performance component to meet in person at the beginning of the semester and ensuring Woolsey Hall can open at 50 percent capacity when the University returns to a green or yellow COVID-19 alert level.
On Jan. 20, an update from the COVID Review Team made some changes to Yale’s guidelines: small practice rooms will be available in residential colleges and the Adams Center for solo practice; Yale faculty-led ensembles, such as the Yale Symphony Orchestra, Yale Bands and Yale Glee Club, may resume rehearsals starting Feb. 7; student-led performing arts may also resume in-person rehearsals on Feb. 7 with a capacity limit of 10 people; and performance rehearsals that are both curricular and faculty or staff supervised and have a plan approved by the COVID Review Team — including select theater and performance studies rehearsals and individual music lessons through the Yale School of Music — could resume starting Jan. 25.
According to Krier, these activities are in accordance with the University-wide suspension of events and gatherings permissions for the duration of the spring semester “move-in and start-up period” ending on Feb. 21.
“While I disagree with the broader administrative approach to deciding public health restrictions on the arts, Dean Krier has been instrumental in helping us achieve our top priorities for the start of the semester,” Adler said.
Since Adler’s letter was released, changes were made to allow for individual lessons through the Yale School of Music to be in-person starting Jan. 25.
However, Adler maintained that it will be difficult to prepare polished performances with the loss of two weeks of rehearsals. Due to the lack of rehearsal time, the Yale Symphony Orchestra had to postpone a piece originally included in its upcoming Feb. 27 concert’s program.
For Chloe Hong ’24, co-captain of Yale Movement, a K-pop and open style dance group, it was disheartening to see differences in policies surrounding student-led and curricular and faculty-led activities.
“I would hope that any restrictions would apply equally to all performing arts organizations. We must all do our part to keep each other safe and nobody should get a ‘free pass’ for being directly [organized by] Yale,” Hong said.
Hong referenced a policy from last semester which restricted a cappella groups to outdoor performances with no more than 50 audience members and performers in attendance, yet allowed for the Yale Glee Club to stage indoor concerts with a seated audience and around 100 people onstage.
According to Hong, the current set of restrictions has forced Movement to conduct auditions online, scrapping their two-round audition process, which previously allowed for acceptance to the group based on improvement between the stages.
Michelle Barsukov ’23, co-president of Yale Danceworks, shared Hong’s concern for the group’s future plans.
“The allowance of 10-person rehearsals beginning Feb. 7 is somewhat helpful, but does not change the situation that much,” Barsukov said. “Most Danceworks dances have more than 10 people, so I wouldn’t be surprised if choreographers still chose to hold remote rehearsals until Feb. 21.”
Adler pointed out that sports such as swimming and diving have competed in indoor meets throughout January, with in-person fan attendance permitted since Jan. 17.
University spokesperson Karen Peart said that reactivating rehearsal and performance activity, including student-led groups, remains a top priority.
“The University’s approach to approving other activities, whether in the arts or athletics, is based on the same principles,” Peart said. “These principles may lead temporarily to different outcomes, depending on various factors. The results of arrival testing will provide essential data that will inform what is possible and when for further reactivations. The COVID Review Team, meanwhile, is permitting some curricular and faculty-led arts activities to get an early start.”
According to Peart, the University’s decisions are based on recommendations from experts in public health and medicine, in the context of the University’s academic mission and the wishes of students, faculty and staff to engage in on-campus, in-person activities. Yale College students may not attend events or have gatherings during the spring semester move-in and start-up period while completing their quarantine and arrival testing requirements.
Peart explained that the measures are designed to facilitate a safe transition back to campus from winter recess. She further added that the University makes decisions on student activities and other aspects of campus life with the overarching goal of preventing illness and promoting good health outcomes for all.
Yale Dramat President Sam Bezilla ’24 hopes that restrictions will continue to be lifted to allow for rehearsals with the entire cast and performances with in-person audiences. The Dramat is also pushing for unmasked performances, similar to productions in the Theater and Performance Studies Program, based on concern that masks limit actors’ ability to be expressive and connect emotionally with the audience.
The evolving COVID-19 restrictions could also have the potential to impact performances pursued through the Creative and Performing Arts Awards. To mitigate this possibility, the awards’ application deadline was extended from Jan. 24 to Jan. 31 to allow student artists and production teams time to receive more accurate guidance regarding changes to such restrictions.
According to Kerry Cripe, a senior technical director at the Yale Undergraduate Production, the University has been advising students involved in the performing arts to switch rehearsals to a virtual format and adjust their performance dates for later in the semester.
“Although the Feb. 21 date is just a point to reevaluate the current policy and does not guarantee any relaxing of the current guidance, we are hopeful that at least some measure of the previous permissions for performance will be allowed to resume,” Cripe said.
For students who are unable to adjust their performance dates to a later point in the semester, Cripe said that options include substituting staged readings for fully staged productions or devising online or hybrid productions rather than traditional staged ones.
“We are hopeful that the situation will improve, and we will see a return to live, in-person performances this semester, but nothing is guaranteed,” Cripe said. “No one can say with any certainty what will happen, but I am confident that the student artists and production teams will find a way to keep the arts alive and well at Yale as they have continued to do throughout this pandemic, and we will do whatever we can to try and support those endeavors.”
Yale College’s performing arts culture encompasses over 400 events, 2,500 students and 30,000 audience experiences annually.