Opinion | University pandemic guidelines harm theater

Students at the on-campus recreational theater perform onstage. Columnist Micky Horstman argues that the Universities pandemic guidelines have limited theater majors from learning.

Photo Courtesy of Graham Lauthan

Students at the on-campus recreational theater perform onstage. Columnist Micky Horstman argues that the Universities pandemic guidelines have limited theater majors from learning.

By Micky Horstman, Columnist

The University has followed the strictest COVID-19 guidelines and implemented a yearlong plan to minimize the spread of the disease. While prioritizing the health and safety of its faculty and students, the University underwent many changes. Everyone on and around campus felt the impact of the University and Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s decisions, but none more so than individuals involved in the performing arts. 

Performing arts majors and individuals involved in on-campus recreational theater found very few outlets for live performance. The performers lucky enough to be in person were limited by capacity, masks and social distancing. 

Not to say that any of the performances this year were poorly executed, as the University always strives to create high-quality performance art and this year was no exception. However, the shows this year were impeded by COVID-19 restrictions — a fact which became more frustrating toward the end of this semester, especially as the campus became vaccinated and cases dropped. 

Departments were forced to put on small cast productions, limiting the number of performers able to participate in the show. Faculty became less understanding as time went on, expecting students to constantly meet the changing guidelines and leaving them to manage the effects of the pandemic on their mental and physical health alone.

Each department was playing by different sets of rules. Illinois Theatre’s “Kitchen Sink” was allowed to make physical contact between performers, but an outdoor Lyric Theatre production of “Ordinary Days” wasn’t. 

“Ordinary Days” featured an extremely talented, intimate cast of four main performers and two swings. The six rehearsed daily and followed the University’s rigorous testing program. Even though the show was performed in an outdoor venue — and all six performers were fully vaccinated by the time of production  — the cast still had to remain socially distanced.

If two performers were singing simultaneously, they had to face the audience rather than each other. Being outdoors allowed them to avoid wearing a mask, but it left them at the mercy of the weather — one of the shows was canceled due to rain as a result. 

Illini Student Musicals, an on-campus RSO, produced two socially distanced productions this year. The first was a showcase at Foellinger Auditorium that featured three individual casts and each group performed a few numbers while wearing masks. 

The University’s guidelines kept changing throughout the production, which originally allowed for a live audience of 50 and social distancing of six feet but tightened to a live audience of 20 and social distancing of 10 feet. 

The second was a recent production of “Little Women” performed in Lincoln Hall with two casts. The show was selected because it was able to be performed by a cast size of 10 people or less and was easily socially distanced. Although the performance was beautifully executed, the actors had to painstakingly fight the constraints of COVID-19 even though the vast majority of the casts and staff were fully vaccinated. 

The romance and physical intimacy is being adapted to work for social distancing, masks are being worn while wearing heavy, hot-period piece costumes. The cast had the added difficulty of producing vocal sound while confined by a face mask. 

The cast, crew and faculty put on amazing shows, whether they were produced by the University or an RSO, regardless of the circumstances brought on by the pandemic. However, in the face of their faultless performances, it was the University and state guidelines that failed them. 

It’s impossible for actors to create the level of emotion needed to portray roles of romance or tragedy while being masked and forced six feet apart. Dances had to remain distanced, resulting in the removal of stunts or intimate pieces. Performers couldn’t invite their families to see the shows in person — they were only allotted a small number of tickets, with a seldom few productions having streaming capabilities. 

There were schools all over the country that operated their theaters this semester as if life were back to normal. Admittedly, while that couldn’t work safely at most schools, it would have worked here.

The University has one of the most comprehensive testing protocols and vaccine rollouts of any college in the United States. They had the potential to create a near-normal experience for performing arts students this semester but chose to remain cautious. 

Theater organizations on campus have already been told that the fall semester will likely resemble this past spring. Shows have already been picked that follow the same small cast and distanced guidelines. Next semester cannot follow the same formula — vaccinations are readily available for University students, and since March, new cases have plummeted. 

By choosing to focus on the physical well-being of its students, the University caused irreparable damage to their social, mental and educational health. Online schooling doesn’t compensate for the social and educational opportunities that accompany in-person RSO and classroom experiences. 

For many students, the performing arts are not only a part of their education but also an outlet necessary for self-expression and escape. Limiting this outlet for performers and viewers for another year while having the means to support student health would be a dramatic oversight on the part of the University. 

Micky is a sophomore in LAS.

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