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Navigating the Arts During a Pandemic

Madison Brown '24

Staff Writer

Humans have sought out performance as a form of entertainment for thousands of years, be it sporting events, movies, TV shows, or live performance art. It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of these entertainment forms to alter the way they operate. With due diligence to the risks and thorough prevention plans, some entertainers have managed to successfully and safely continue working amidst these changes. The NBA just finished their season with no confirmed positive COVID-19 tests. Some film and television sets have commenced filming, and numerous bands and comedians have even begun giving drive-in performances. However, Broadway has remained dark since March, and most dance, opera, and orchestra companies have cancelled their seasons. This begs the question: how can the performing arts function during a global pandemic? I sought out the perspective of LUXE show choir director, Adam Pulver – known to his students as Mr. A – because he holds a master’s in epidemiology and public health.

As he explains it, creating a COVID response for performing arts classes has been particularly difficult because, for a number of political and economic reasons, the arts tend to take low precedent when institutions are faced with massive decisions about COVID research and prevention. Research into the risks and potential adaptations specific to a performing arts setting has been relatively scarce, and it was even scarcer in the early months of the pandemic in the United States. We do know, however, that ensembles share the same risks inherent in any large, physically and socially close group. Singing, or simply projecting one’s voice, and physical exertion all increase respiratory rates, or the amount of respiratory droplets released into the air.

Mask wearing can also be more complicated for a performing artist than for others. Singers and actors often have to fit deep breaths in short rests between lines or phrases in order to carry the voice all the way through to the next rest, and cardiovascular exertion causes dancers to reflexively breathe in through their mouths. This kind of breathing can cause masks to collapse inwards during inhalation, simulating hyperventilation and causing a panic response in the brain with symptoms like actual shortness of breath, dizziness, and lightheadedness. To be clear, masks do not reduce oxygen intake at all, but instead have the potential to trick the brain into thinking this is the case when the wearer is breathing heavily.

As such, the performance ensembles on our campus have largely remained online, even though sports teams, clubs, and classes are meeting in person. Performers have had to essentially teach their roles to themselves, with regular check-ins from their professors. Singing as a group over Zoom is a new experience, and not ideal, but the concert choir has also been experimenting with ethernet cables and a remote musician software called Jamulus to create arrangements. This independent style of remote learning has, of course, been difficult, especially for new students, but Mr. A thinks it will pay off in the end because Randolph-Macon’s COVID-19 response “is all about the best interests of the students, not the financial part of it.” It is true that the performing arts students’ sacrifices, like those of the entire student body, are yielding results: the college’s risk assessment was recently lowered from “medium yellow” to “light yellow,” and since the most recent update, there are only two active COVID-19 cases in the school.

Mr. A quarreled with my use of the word “sacrifice” in reference to the changes students have faced during this pandemic, saying that “People think of a sacrifice as losing something… I would use the word ‘compromise.’ Show choir is going to meet, for example, just not in the same parameters.” While performing artists on our campus, as in every majorly affected area in the world, are making some massive compromises, Mr. A has observed that they are taking it all in stride, stating that “From what I’ve gathered, students are doing well. If anything, based on reports and health status, it seems like they are doing even better than they were before. It’s called buy-in. In order for any community or society to accept a new policy, you need buy-in. That’s the hardest part of implementing any policy, but we seem to have the buy-in.”

Though it may be awhile before we can safely attend performances, artists will be ready when that day finally does arrive. Students in the show choir are meeting in small groups to ensure that everybody is up-to-date on the music and dance, the theatre program is already in the process of producing two Zoom radio plays, and the concert choir held an impromptu, outdoor, socially distanced mini-concert last week. “We’re a small school,” says Mr. A, “but we’re mighty.”

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