At night, the Jenkins Avenue parking garage is lifeless, the only break of silence being the sound of a passing car. But in recent days, the shuffling of musical theater freshman Hunter Yocom’s feet fill the quiet air as he dances alone on the concrete.
Practice facilities on campus are closed after hours due to COVID-19, forcing fine arts students like Yocom to find artistic solace in the unconventional and allowing musical theater senior Taylor Ratliff to delve deeper into his art form.
“I've had a lot of life happen in the past year and being isolated away from the craft (gave me) the opportunity to step out of the performative aspect,” Ratliff said. “Living life, being human and collecting a multitude of experiences makes my personal art form deeper and more rich and more rewarding.”
A campus made empty by COVID-19 left students majoring in the performing arts hopeful for the fall as they awaited their return. Their arrival, however, requires an adaptation to modified classroom procedures, personal protective equipment and working remotely with their quarantined peers — all amid the looming uncertainty within the professional performance world.
Students like Yocom signed up for a heavy fine arts course load — taking ballet, music theory, acting and stagecraft classes alongside gen-eds, private voice lessons and an optional yoga workout session. He said finding a balance while also managing COVID-19 measures in his in-person classes has been anything but conventional.
Yocom’s acting class, for example, has decreased its capacity from 14 to seven students who are required to sit six feet apart at labeled desks. Masks are required, but the usage of a face shield instead is permitted so classes can better make use of their facial expressions as they act.
Professors, he said, have differing principles regarding the types of university-approved PPE they allow students to use. He said each form of PPE, whether it be a face shield or surgical mask, present challenges of its own.
“With masks, we’re kind of muffled, but then with face shields there’s a lot of glare from the lights, so then you can’t see people’s faces,” Yocom said. “Luckily (face shields) are anti-fog, so they don’t cloud up when we’re singing or speaking — but either way our art form is different.”
Yocom said intensive and physically demanding classes like ballet have proved to be far more difficult when it comes to performing.
In the studio, socially distanced X’s on the Clorox-cleaned floors mark where students stand as they stretch and rehearse dances. Yocom said his professor has had to adjust the way she teaches as she cannot approach students to fix their technique.
“Especially in ballet, teachers will usually go up and touch you and make corrections,” Yocom said. “Obviously, that can’t happen, so my professor has this long six-foot pole she goes around and whacks feet and hands with.”
Contactless dance has proved to be extremely inconvenient, musical theater junior Garrett Morris said, and the method has forced even the most seasoned professors to adapt.
“One of our professors, Lyn Cramer, is definitely having a hard time not being around us,” Morris said. “She always walks around the perimeter of the room and squats down to see different angles because she really can’t be next to you (or) hold your arm.”
Randi Tucker, a modern dance performance sophomore, said she has danced both inside and in socially distanced practice spaces outside of Holmberg Hall with her peers. Tucker said she is just happy to be dancing again, even though beginning-of-fall temperatures are warmer than ideal dancing weather.
Students from OU’s School of Dance are currently preparing for a small performance scheduled at the end of October, which currently includes about 10 dancers.
Tucker said she is trying to be optimistic in her approach to this performance as she maintains the mindset that it will remain on schedule. The most difficult part of the process, she said, is not being able to do partnering work and dance in close contact.
“I didn't realize until five months ago how much I relied on the person standing next to me (for) motivation,” Tucker said. “You learn from the students just as much as you learn from the teacher … (but) I guess I've kind of accepted that partner work is not going to happen anytime soon. It is such a huge part of dance to forget about for the foreseeable future — so hopefully we can get back to that.”
For the fine arts to continue, Ratliff said sacrifices are being made — especially by seniors who are preparing to enter the real world.
“A lot of people are upset because it’s (their) senior or junior year … that are essential to learning about fine arts and the real world,” Ratliff said. “Not having that kind of sucks.”
Tim Carroll, a music senior and Pride of Oklahoma percussionist, postponed his graduation until the fall of 2021 for one recording techniques class. The class is not offered this semester because the shared recording equipment cannot be used while social distancing.
Carroll has also given up opportunities to learn, rehearse and perform music in large groups. Ensembles of 15–20 percussionists could meet together and rehearse prior to COVID-19, he said. Music selections have recently changed to smaller chamber pieces that require only a few students to play.
“We want to be playing the big pieces all together because it's fun, and it's cool, and it's why we're here at OU,” Carroll said. “But the good news is we get a chance to work on repertoire we don't normally get to do.”
All of Carroll’s classes that don’t require students to have access to their instruments, like music theory, are online, he said, but his in-person lessons and practice with other percussionists has changed.
“We play things like marimba, vibraphone, timpani, which are huge instruments. You can't really pack that up and take it home,” Carroll said. “And they also cost, like, tens of thousands of dollars. So it's not like you can expect the students to have their own.”
The students are expected to sanitize everything they touch in the practice rooms and allow 15 minutes after they leave for the room to air out before another student uses it, Carroll said.
COVID-19 precautions within the Pride include slip masks, which open and close when needed, allowing wind players to wear face coverings while playing. Socially distanced field formations and bell covers preventing air droplets from leaving the instrument have also been implemented.
“It's all necessary for the fact that we can still be out there (and) we can still be doing what we love,” Carroll said. “We're all willing to make those sacrifices.”
The pandemic has required fine arts students to consider their priorities and dedication to their craft. Ratliff said he has had to grow up and is more than willing to take advantage of COVID-19 procedures if he can continue performing.
“We were essentially forced to choose how committed we wanted to be to the art,” Ratliff said. “So it's really forced us all to … realize if we want to do this and do it seriously moving forward, considering we don't know what the future holds with the virus and with New York City … to come to terms with the legitimacy of our devotion to musical theater.”
Uncertainty regarding Ratliff’s last few months at OU and his future career is something he said comes with fear.
“I'm scared that (Broadway’s) closed right now, and I'm scared that we're in college and we are wanting to jump straight back into things,” Ratliff said. “But it's almost exciting, because we feel like we're on the brink of a new discovery of musical theater and a new discovery of art we haven't done yet.”
Although Broadway is closed through Jan. 3, 2021, it is in a unique position, Ratliff said. He explained Broadaway is a necessity — both as a moneymaker and an art form — so instead of worrying about its return, he has used time away from the theater as the perfect opportunity to grow artistically.
“Artists have the opportunity to take a step back during this time and refocus on the future … or even refocus on ourselves in our performance and acting skills or growing our instruments,” Ratliff said. “So, in my mind, there is no question of whether (Broadway) comes back — it’s just when, and how and how aggressively it can come back.”
Logistically, Ratliff has had to significantly revise his dreams by considering film acting alongside his Broadway aspirations. His hope is that New York City is a viable option by May, but the possibility of prolonged closures has forced him to pursue other job options.
“I'm starting to very seriously consider grinding my gears in the film world, which is always something I’ve been fascinated by,” Ratliff said. “So it’s broadening my approach to the craft, which I’m actually really grateful for. I would say hindsight is 2020, but I think we should get rid of that phrase because 2020 has just been so bad.”
Morris said each big event in history has sparked a new fire within theater communities, and he thinks COVID-19 will be no different. He said the post-pandemic era will be just another section of how the fine arts will live.
“The thing that keeps me sane … is that theater was invented by the ancient Greeks and it made it through the (1918 Pandemic), the Bubonic Plague, the Black Plague, World War I, World War II, Polio and the Great Depression,” Ratliff said. “So I think the name of the game is patience, keeping our heads down, staying motivated and focusing on how to prepare for the next chapter.”