UVU Wind Symphony

The Show Must Go On

Students, faculty, and
administrators in UVU’s
School of the Arts
learn to improvise
during COVID-19

By Layton Shumway | Photos by Jay Drowns

If you have a soul, you need the arts.

Alex Malone

Noorda Center
for the Performing Arts
executive director

Dance classes still meet in person, but in smaller numbers, as dancers wear masks and watch for instruction via television and computer screens.

Opening: Some student musicians are required to sit in the choir loft to maintain social distancing as UVU music department chair Tom Keck conducts the UVU Wind Symphony.

Above, right: Dance classes still meet in person, but in smaller numbers, as dancers wear masks and watch for instruction via television and computer screens.

Socially distanced choreography in action.

Dancers performing socially distanced choreography. Opera singers belting out their notes through cloth masks. Musicians sitting so far away from each other that they have to rely on their eyes, not their ears, to stay in rhythm. Stage actors learning to play to a camera and an audience, all at the same time.

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has affected all aspects of life, but the arts have been hit particularly hard. Students, faculty, administrators, and supporters have all had to adapt to new norms of instruction, practice, and performance.

But the message at Utah Valley University’s School of the Arts is clear — the show must go on.

“The arts are not cancelled,” says Alex Malone, executive director of The Noorda Center for the Performing Arts. “The arts have changed the way they’re presented due to the pandemic. But we’ve adjusted to keep our performers and our audiences safe. We’re moving forward to support our students and make sure they receive an experiential education.”

A Sense of Community

In mid-March, Malone and other leaders around UVU began discussing the realities of the growing pandemic and what they might mean for the rest of the winter 2020 semester.

“I got a call from [UVU School of the Arts Dean Stephen Pullen] at about 9 p.m. on March 11,” Malone says. “He told me, ‘Things are about to change. Can you come in early?’”

Malone attended a day-long meeting with UVU President Astrid S. Tuminez and other leaders, where the decision was made to cancel all in-person events through the end of the semester. At the time, the hope was that the pandemic would get under control within a couple of months. But as time went on, that looked less and less likely.

“We started having weekly meetings with all the department chairs and directors in the School of the Arts,” Malone says. “Basically, we had two questions: How do we, first and foremost, protect people? And how do we complete our mission of training performance, community engagement, university engagement, and cultural literacy for the world?”

For students, the questions were even more fundamental. “At the beginning, there were a lot of feelings of confusion,” says Hallie Purser, a senior majoring in acting. “Am I going to be able to do classes if they’re online? How does this affect the career that I want to go into, and will I be able to make money if something like this happens again? I knew some people who thought, ‘Maybe I should just drop. I don’t know if this world is right for me anymore.’”

Preserving the educational experiences and making sure students could still prepare for careers in their fields were absolutely vital, Malone says. But just as important was making sure they were cared for mentally.

Preserving the educational experiences and making sure students could still prepare for careers in their fields were absolutely vital, Malone says. But just as important was making sure they were cared for mentally.

“My biggest initial reaction was concern for everyone’s isolation, all of a sudden being in a different mental space,” says Tom Keck, chair of the UVU Department of Music. “The notion that performances were going to go away was disappointing, but for so many people, the music and the ensembles are why they come to school. They look forward to that time together. That was a major source of concern for me — how can we still keep a sense of community, a sense of family, when the thing that has been our community will need to be reimagined?”

Learning to adapt

The answers required a lot of research, planning, and coordination, not just within UVU’s School of the Arts, but from a network of academic and performing professionals across the country. Malone tapped into a group called the Event Safety Alliance, which helped form guidelines and standards for reopening safely. And Keck reached out to colleagues at other universities to find out how to modify or augment wind instruments to limit aerosol transmission.

“We were learning that the six feet of distance really does matter,” Keck says. “We learned that just putting some nylon over the bell of an instrument cuts down tremendously. We use masks with a little Velcro slit for the mouthpiece to go in. In reality, this resulted in less transmission than normal talking.”

Actors and singers, meanwhile, faced a different reality. Because of the danger of talking or singing in close proximity, choir classes were held outside as much as possible, where social distancing could be maintained. Vocal performers, like those in the department’s opera production of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” donned masks and stood farther apart than they normally would. And stage actors like Purser had to adapt to performing for a camera instead of to the back row of a theater.

“It definitely was a very challenging experience to have to pretend like you were talking to an actor who wasn’t there,” Purser says. “The ability to think on your feet and stay focused on the different actors that you're supposed to be looking at just takes a lot of concentration. There was a lot of a trial by fire.”

In addition, because Broadway shows in New York were shut down, it freed actors like UVU alum and “Book of Mormon” star Chase Ramsey to come back to Orem and teach.

“We’re learning so much from his real-world experience,” Purser says. “He’s opened our eyes a lot. I didn’t realize how much I could be creating on my own, even with COVID.”

Ballet distancing at the barre.

Jamie A. Johnson, UVU assistant professor of dance, speaks to students via her computer due to safety limits on in-person attendance.

“I think now,
more than ever,
people need a lifeline.
They need comfort.
They need familiarity.”

Lisa Anderson

UVU Woodbury Art Museum director

UVU student Spencer Holt receives a COVID-19 test.

UVU student Travis Burkett sits far from his fellow musicians as part of Wind Symphony practice.

The play Purser starred in, titled “She Kills Monsters,” was filmed and later broadcast to ticket buyers via internet livestreaming. The experience, she says, taught her skills she might not otherwise have learned.

“We're learning to play to the camera and not just play to the space, because so much can get lost on film,” she says. “Trying to still keep that energy of theater while playing to the medium that we have has definitely been a challenge. We're very grateful to UVU for letting us be able to still do our performances.”

A need for the arts

Despite the changes in format, UVU School of the Arts’ performances have frequently “sold out” during the fall semester, whether via livestream or limited in-person seating to maintain social distancing.

Lisa Anderson, director of UVU’s Woodbury Art Museum, says in times of crisis, the arts become even more vital. “I think now, more than ever, people need a lifeline. They need comfort. They need familiarity. And art can give us that. Art is really a great mediator of what we’re experiencing as a culture.”

During the pandemic, with many exhibits unavailable for travel or display, Anderson’s museum team has translated several shows to online formats, along with community arts activities that can forge a sense of connection even at a distance.

“We had just fully installed our student exhibition, our largest show of the year, when we went into quarantine,” Anderson says. “So nobody got to come in and see our students’ work. We wanted to make sure that our students, who had worked so hard for four years, could bring their work to the community at a very stressful, unsure time. We wanted to be a constant for the community.”

The School of the Arts is finding ways to continue those connections for UVU students and employees, too. Keck says when music students were unable to meet and rehearse together in person, they spent time on video calls sharing their favorite music with each other.

“I divided each class up into groups of five or six people, and we would talk about ‘What music do you listen to? What’s on your Spotify playlist?’ It didn’t have to just be music from band class. It gave us a chance to get to know each other better and to also maintain that connection.”

Malone says in-person academic performances will continue to be produced in 2021, with limited seating available to preserve social distancing.

“The arts are alive and well and waiting for you to need us,” he says. “Which, whether you know it or not, you do. If you have a soul, you need the arts.”

If you have a soul, you need the arts.

Hallie Purser

UVU acting student

Social distancing for Social distancing for theater audience. audience.

Increased testing, social
distancing and masks, and special instrument
covers are a few of the precautions UVU’s
School of the Arts has put in place during the
COVID-19 pandemic.