Soon after the University of Mary Washington Chamber Choir performed live in the James Farmer Hall atrium last March, UMW went totally online, and singing was deemed a “super-spreader” activity.
Last fall, UMW Choirs sang together again – virtually – performing In Te Domine Speravi. The new piece by composer Sarah McDonald focuses on isolation, sickness and loneliness, forming an acrostic spelling the word “quarantine.”
“Our students said it was a very real expression of how they were feeling,” said Associate Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities Christopher Ryder.
With the arts a more critical part of our lives now than ever, the Mary Washington departments of theatre, art and music have spent the last year discovering fresh ways to create, collaborate and learn while socially distanced. New technologies and classes, private lessons and virtual visits by professional artists take center stage as UMW moves forward with early-stage plans for a state-of-the-art theatre complex and an update to Pollard, Melchers and duPont halls.
As the pandemic dawned last spring, UMW Theatre ventured into new media, with a Zoom production of Much Ado About Nothing reaching thousands of viewers across the globe. But rather than mount large-scale works online, faculty shifted focus to support the student-led Studio 115 and its digital performances, including one for families at a Fairfax elementary school. Learning to produce theatre digitally and act on camera is an invaluable skill that will prepare UMW students for future careers, said Theatre Chair Gregg Stull.
“Our professors have been so helpful as we’ve developed new production guidelines, learned new software and battled with technology,” said senior Ben Lechtman, who is directing Mickle Maher’s The Hunchback Variations, an absurdist comedy about artistic experimentation and failure. “I can’t think of a better time than now to talk about those themes.”
Lechtman has gotten permission to perform the work, which features just two actors, for a livestream and a very small in-person audience. The process will include temperature checks, participating in UMW’s daily health survey and closely following social distancing and cleaning protocols.
Special courses, like 3-D modeling and rendering, sound design, soft craft fabrication and hand-sewing, have been added to the curriculum, and D.C.-based professional actor Craig Wallace, a Helen Hayes nominee, is teaching a Shakespearean acting class.
“As they work diligently and creatively to make a living for themselves during COVID, actors like Craig are eager to share their expertise with students,” said Stull, who also hopes to have Broadway and television star Anissa Felix ’13 teach a master class.
The pandemic has broadened horizons, as well, for the Department of Art and Art History, which is reaching wider audiences than ever through virtual artist visits and online exhibits, said Art Chair Jon McMillan. “There will never be a substitute for live events, but Zoom has helped us rethink how we’ll shape our programming moving forward.”
UMW Galleries, for example, has rolled out a reservation system so patrons can view works in person. Upcoming shows include the Annual Student Art Exhibition on April 1 and UMW Studio Art Senior Exhibition on April 26, both in the duPont Gallery. Also on display is “Untitled: Into the Mind of Margaret Sutton,” showcasing work by a prolific artist who graduated from Mary Washington in 1926, in the Ridderhof Martin Gallery from April 8 through Aug. 1.
Students have become more self-directed, creative and resourceful over the past year, McMillan said, citing senior Riley Gildea, who produced a body of work illustrating the closeness and connection we’ve lost during the pandemic.
Gildea, who took online classes last fall, was buoyed by constant guidance from Professor of Art Carole Garmon. “With her help, I learned to focus on the conceptual importance of the piece, rather than dive right in.”
These types of mentorships also have gone a long way in the Department of Music, where students have turned to applied lessons to perfect their craft. “I’ve learned so much working one-on-one with [music instructor] Andrew Donlon,” said freshman Alexander Gluchowski, a bagpiper who came to UMW to perform with the Eagle Pipe Band.
Displaying the sheer creativity that has flourished this year, the department introduced a “Fall 2020 Showcase” on Facebook. “I usually hear musicians practicing in Pollard, but this year I had no idea what people were up to,” said Music Chair Brooks Kuykendall, who was surprised to receive so many submissions from both students and faculty.
One of those entries, senior Nadiya Carcana’s project, “My Friend the Moon,” was a culmination of all she has learned at Mary Washington, from songwriting and recording, to mixing vocals and creating digital video. “It was my chance to pull everything together.”
In lieu of live concerts, Mary Washington music ensembles have offered socially distanced and virtual performances. For UMW Philharmonic, it’s been a little of both. Interim Director Glenn Quader is leading the string section in person, and other musicians, who cannot wear masks while playing their instruments, are recording their parts to be synched with the others.
Rehearsals and performances take a tremendous amount of effort these days, Kuykendall said. “But the students have been patient with us, and there is genuine fulfillment in seeing it all come together.”