Penn student performers persevered during the pandemic, finding innovative ways to create new shows together while staying apart during pandemic restrictions. Acting, dancing, singing, creating comedy, playing instruments, and more, they were able to collaborate and stay connected with each other and newly recruited members.
Tech crews usually behind the scenes with sets, sound, and lights learned new computer design and editing skills to help performers bring their productions to life. The performances were livestreamed or recorded and released on social media and video platforms, as well as new ticketed virtual venues for licensed theater shows.
The time student performers spent together virtually, they say, was a thread that kept them on track and motivated, with their classes online and the Penn campus closed to most undergraduates during the fall semester.
“Performing arts in this pandemic is a huge challenge, and they have risen to that challenge, even though they had their struggles trying to figure out how to operate on a virtual platform,” says Laurie McCall, director of Penn’s Platt Student Performing Arts House. “Through being persistent they have been able to do that, and keep connections with their group members, which can be even more important than the performances. That said, their virtual content has been brilliant.”
The Platt House team has supported the performers in many ways, advising and providing social programming like open mic nights, trivia game nights, virtual town halls, and career mentoring with Penn alumni who are in the performing arts, McCall says. The Platt House also promotes recorded performances on its YouTube channel and through social media.
The student Performing Arts Council (PAC) based at the Platt House is made up of 47 groups, led by an executive board of six College of Arts & Sciences seniors. The board provided support throughout the summer and fall, from how to hold auditions and recruit new members, to how to create and share their performances.
“As the exec board, we tried to take the pressure off of groups in terms of having certain expectations. But so many groups still worked hard, maybe even harder than they would have during a normal semester, to put together a performance, bolstering that sense of community,” says senior Henry Platt, an English major from Los Angeles, who is the PAC board A Capella Council chair.
“I was really blown away not only by the creativity that has come out during this time, but the leadership exhibited by all my peers in the arts community,” Platt says. “I think it speaks to the power of the arts community at Penn that every single person has made it a commitment to stay connected to their groups and continue making their art despite the limitations.”
That structure, community, and commitment helped keep students grounded, they say, and contributed to mental wellbeing during a time that has been otherwise so uncertain.
“Knowing that you have your group behind you is really huge when it comes to mental wellness, knowing that you are not alone, even if it seems like you are alone in such an isolating time,” says senior Hannah Lottenberg, a sociology and communications double major from Los Angeles who is the PAC board Dance Arts Council chair. “Rehearsals, yes, but also those really fun social events where you get to just hang out on Zoom and simulate that experience. I think arts groups did really did a great job fostering that environment and creativity.”
The semester started with a virtual Student Performing Arts Night, with recordings released over two days in September, to replace the live show during New Student Orientation. The virtual Student Activity Fair on a new Penn Clubs platform was also key to recruiting new members.
The semester ended with dozens of shows released on virtual platforms. A video highlighting performances by several of the groups, named Quarantine Collage, was released in December at an event for Penn Alumni in Los Angeles. The video was created by Platt, who is also the music director of the a capella group Penn Counterparts, which released a video performance called "Counter-six feet-A-Parts."
“It was a lot to navigate at first, but each group did what was best for them this semester,” Platt says. “I think that was a great thing and created a path to making music together that resulted in a wide variety of content.”
The a capella groups, many of which were able to put together virtual shows in the spring, continued to innovate and create a variety of performances that they shared virtually, some livestreamed and some recorded. Like the Counterparts, the Pennchants, Penn Dischord, Penny Loafers, Penn Sirens, and Penn Masala all released a capella shows they created by editing together each of them singing separately into one video.
Penn Masala, which specializes in mashups of songs in both English and Hindi, would usually travel to perform, often to groups interested in their South Asian music and culture. Instead during the fall semester, they created custom recorded performances for virtual events held by colleges and corporations and nonprofits, including the Penn Alumni Club in Philadelphia, says the business manager Sachit Gali, a sophomore economics major from Sarasota, Florida.
Penn Masala also found success in a national a capella competition this fall. “At Penn we always have that opportunity to showcase that language and that culture through our shows, but now being able to do that on a national level and reach so many Americans is just an honor for us,” Gali says.
The Penn Glee Club also would usually have a robust travel and performance schedule, but instead performed virtual gigs. This semester the group created a three-part recorded show with the Penn Dance Company, titled “Wavelength,” released in a YouTube event in three parts over three successive nights, Dec. 17, Dec. 18, and Dec. 19. The performance combined the singing Glee Club members juxtaposed with the dancers performing individually, a first for both groups.
The theater troupes also were innovative, putting on plays with actors filming themselves in costumes with props and sets created at home. Some retained the live aspect of theater with actors reading their lines in real time while streaming the video. Others recorded the performances in Zoom, and others made a film with virtual backdrops.
“It was cool because the groups ended up creating very different products, which were really enjoyable to watch,” says Adam First, a senior from New York City who is the PAC board Theater Arts Council chair.
The theater performances were released in a limited run and required free tickets on platforms like Showtix4U, because the material is licensed. Shows included “26 Pebbles” by the Quadramics; “After the Blast” by the Front Row Theatre Co.; “Now. Here. This.” by the Penn Singers Light Opera Company; “Tuck Everlasting” by the Penn Players; and “Before the Coffee Gets Cold” by the Penn Chinese Theater.
“The productions definitely felt different, but at the same time, they were very emotionally impactful,” says First, a visual studies major. “A lot of them felt like real performances at the end.”
The Quadramics production, about the 26 people who were killed in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, was especially powerful, First says, incorporating news footage from that December day eight years ago. “It really got to me,” says First. “It was almost more impactful virtually because they were able to incorporate all these different elements that they wouldn't have been able to do on a stage.”
Tech teams took on new challenges ranging from home-made props and costumes they sent by mail to the actors, to sophisticated new computer programs to design virtual sets, says senior Hannah Paquet, the PAC board tech chair, a cinema and media studies and communications double major from High Ridge, Missouri. They also worked with actors to choose locations and adjust lighting in their homes to improve filming.
“We were able to bring in a lot of people who wouldn't traditionally think about doing theater tech, as well as some people who were so passionate that they decided to figure out how to transform their craft in the digital sphere,” Paquet says. “There are tangible skills that have been learned and will continue to be implemented, but also important are what we learned about aspects of flexibility.”
The dance groups also had to find different approaches, says Lottenberg, who is a member of Strictly Funk, a contemporary and hip-hop dance troupe which created a 10-part show to release on social media. The Arts House Dance Company created a three part series released on YouTube titled "The Movement Series": Be the Change, Lead the Change, See the Change that features members dancing solo outside, wearing masks. The West Philly Swingers performed together and separately wearing masks in their show “Avatar, The Last Swingbender.”
Other dance groups opted not to put together a show, instead doing regular dance classes together. “Dance is really hard to translate to a virtual world,” she says. “A lot of groups just wanted an outlet to dance without creating a final product.”
Senior Ayaka Shimada, who is from Tokyo but grew up in Washington, D.C., is the PAC board chair of what is known as SMAC: singers, musicians, and comedians. “The needs for each group are very different, and each has taken their own route,” says Shimada, a communications major. “They have been creative and thinking outside the box.”
In a first, the Penn improv troupe Without a Net produced a podcast series titled “Without a Show” on Facebook. The Bloomers Comedy troupe decided to release content on a weekly basis, says group Chair Reagan Bracknell, a senior modern Middle Eastern studies major from Virginia Beach, Virginia.
“We hit the ground running producing new stuff week by week. It was definitely challenging,” Bracknell says. “We learned a lot about our capabilities and ourselves.”
At the beginning of the semester they translated sketches they had already performed on stage to a digital format, she says, but then switched to producing new content about current events, like the coronavirus and life on Zoom. The team edited and stitched the sketches together to release each week on Facebook and Instagram and YouTube, trying out new approaches each week.
The final Bloomers performance for the semester is a musical sketch, named "La Vie at Penn." “All things considered, we’re doing what we can, and it’s pretty great,” Bracknell says.
Senior Connor Beard, a communications major from Warren, New Jersey, is the chair of community service on the PAC board, and the student coordinator for the Platt House’s After School Arts Program. He led a virtual pilot program with 12 Penn student volunteers teaching 15 Philadelphia public middle school students voice, dance, theater, and musical instruments.
The experiment was a success, McCall says. “Now that we made it work virtually on a small scale, we will be offering it in February to more students and volunteers,” she says.
Looking to next semester, the Student Performing Arts Night videos to introduce groups to potential new members will be re-marketed in January, McCall says, and the performing arts groups will participate in another virtual Student Activities Fair on the Penn Clubs platform. Theater groups will hold auditions for spring productions soon after classes start.
The hope is that performing arts groups will be able to have “safe, facilitated” activities, like “distanced, masked rehearsals,” says McCall. Perhaps outside, or inside, with limitations.
“We are really hoping is that by the latter part of the spring semester, more things can happen in person, but we don’t know,” McCall says. “We are moving forward with everything virtual, but we hope to do some very limited things together in person.”