As we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic created many unique challenges for members within the performing arts community, but the Theatre Arts students and faculty at the University of Oregon (UO) have continued to persevere through these times of online learning and virtual performances. I sat down with Dorothee Ostmeier, UO Theatre Arts Department Head, to talk about her experience observing the department’s transition to online learning and navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ostmeier joined the theatre arts team as the Department Head in September 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 shutdown. Over the past year, she has spent countless hours on Zoom meetings with her fellow UO Theatre Arts faculty, coming up with new and innovative ideas for UO students to stay engaged in the community. She felt privileged to be a part of this crucial, creative brainstorming and problem-solving process. Ostmeier emphasized that “it’s not worse, it’s simply a different kind of learning experience.”
Theatre faculty members have taken up the challenge of creating opportunities for students to develop integral practical skills despite being in a virtual classroom. “Screens are our walls, but they also break down many other walls,” Ostmeier said, highlighting the ability for students to experiment having a different relationship to the medium of theatre. Students have participated in virtual performances of Or Not to Be, Shakespeare’s Hamlet reinterpreted by John Schmor and Dominic Taylor’s, Personal History directed by Stanley Coleman. In February, the department put on their first live theatre experience of the year, Personal Game, which showcased MFA candidate Ashley Baker’s costume designs, with original music by Orchestra Next. “There are so many levels that I’m learning to appreciate,” Ostmeier said. “You devise, you write and you translate it into practical Zoom reality.”
Technology and Zoom allows students and faculty to not only develop a new skill set, but also experiment with the diversity of the theatrical experience. In November, students and faculty had the opportunity to participate in Katie Farmin’s “A Package Play” where participants received a small package that guided them through a visual meditation on being alone in this time of isolation. Ostmeier felt inspired by the Package Play experience to “create alternate realities via audio file and Zoom” for students and faculty at UO.
Though online learning provided unique opportunities, it also presented many obstacles. “All of our faculty’s plans for a spectacular season couldn’t be realized,” Ostmeier said. The department understood the devastation of these lost experiences, but they used their creativity to make the most out of their situation by devising online performance opportunities and participating in virtual theatre events such as the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF) which the University Theatre usually attends every year. “We are proud of our four students who won awards at this year’s KCACTF,” Ostmeier adds.
Through compromise and open collaboration between faculty and students, the department reimagined classes to provide students with plenty of exciting opportunities and engaging learning experiences. “Zoom should never replace live performances,” Ostmeier said. “But it adds into our actor’s digital world of different realities.”
Going forward, the department has started planning for the upcoming season with the hopes of being back in-person and continues to function following COVID-19 safety protocols for any in-person interactions or performances. In the next year, Ostmeier hopes to increase interaction with the larger Eugene area and with members within the performing arts community. Their goal is to present art and theatre performances that the community will embrace while also allowing opportunities for theatrical experimentation and expression from students and faculty. “We want the community to enjoy what our theatre department has to offer,” Ostmeier said.
The UO community has been working hard to provide the arts with an outlet for expression throughout the pandemic through online events and opportunities. If you are interested in supporting the arts at UO, check out the University Theatre website for more information on upcoming shows, events and joining the mailing list for TA’s community of friends.
I want to leave you with the beautiful words of Ostmeier about her mission and goals for the future of the University of Oregon Theatre Arts department:
“My mission is discipline, creativity and collaboration in the humanities and arts and its translation into performance skills. Media and communication will be a vibrant basis for humanity’s survival in the future and its success in creating sustainable, local and global communities. Theatre works at the intersection of all strands of local and global civil society and can build strong relationships across disciplines and cultural avenues. Theatre arts have moved with much energy into ‘zoom land’, connecting many people who would otherwise not be able to come to our theaters. We have offered and will offer many zoom experiences for our faculty, UO students, colleagues, theatre friends and the larger Eugene, Oregon national and international communities.”
Article and Interview By Megan O’Keefe, Hult Center Marketing Intern