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Music and Theater Programs Face Challenging Semester

While the coronavirus has continued to make waves throughout our campus, the nation and the world, it has had a notable impact on the performance industry. A student and a faculty member within the music and theater department at John Brown University shared the changes they have personally experienced and how they feel their community has responded.

Benjamin Choate, junior music major with a theater minor, stated that when the pandemic hit, the theater world “just shut down.” “We’re only just now finding new ways to make it happen. Everything COVID says we can’t do is exactly the essence of what theater is — and music, too,” Choate said.

One way that the coronavirus has taken its toll is by changing the way students are able to participate in choir. Instead of meeting all together, practicing and performing in one big group, the choir is now split into smaller groups. Choate expressed that choir is truly a family and a community, which has now been stifled by social distancing precautions.

However, Choate said that people have found inventive ways to adapt performance to fit the demands of 2020. Some have written plays designed to be performed over Zoom, performed socially distanced outside and even done Zoom choir performances. “Zoom can never replace in-person interactions. Especially in performance. Music is for and with people. And that’s just gone,” he said.

Josiah Wallace, associate professor of speech and theatre, said that his department started talking about what to do and how to adapt before the university even had to send students off campus. “We knew it was going to continue to have an impact,” Wallace said. “Ultimately, when researchers found out that the virus was spread with aspiration, with moisture particles, we realized that music and theater would be impacted as much as—or more than—anything else in terms of our ability to do what we are used to doing and gather together.”

Because it has been safer to be outside, the department quickly sought to move as many activities as possible out of practice rooms and recital halls and onto the quad, where distancing is easier and the spread of the virus more difficult.

The effects of the pandemic on performance arts stretch far beyond JBU. While Choate took notice of this impact affecting the professional world of performance, Wallace has experienced it second-handedly through his friends in the industry, many of whom have been furloughed or laid off since the pandemic hit. Many performance artists and even costume and set designers are teaching online classes or having to step totally out of their field in order to make money.

According to The New York Times, “Museums, theaters and concert halls in the United States are steeling themselves for fearful patrons, lighter crowds and possible government shutdowns.” Establishments that rely on ticket sales such as theaters are having to face the fact that they may take hits they will be unable to recover from.

While the effects of COVID-19 have put a grim light on things for those in the music and theater world, hope is not lost. Choate expressed that the department has done its absolute best to maintain community through this time, and Professor Josiah Wallace explained the many ways that the program has found ways to navigate the difficult parameters that are in place to protect students.

Both Wallace and Choate said that while theater may be changing, it isn’t going away any time soon and those in both the professional and academic worlds are ecstatic about the possibility of returning to the stage once again in the future. For performance arts, the show must go on as everyone continues to fervently hold to a notion of a brighter future.