In March 2020, theatre students at New Mexico State University had performed just one weekend of “The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee” when the COVID-19 global pandemic hit and changed everything.
“We got permission to run on that second Friday night with only 100 people total including cast, crew and audience in our theatre that can seat 467 – but we had to social distance,” said Wil Kilroy, professor and head of the theater department. “I did have to turn away some audience members who were quite upset. We had hoped to continue, but after that any gathering was reduced to only 10 people so we had to cancel the remainder of the shows.”
“The last performance was certainly melancholy, said theatre student Riley Merritt, who played the character of Chip Tolentino in the play. “I think we all felt slightly cheated, and it was hard.
“But there was an energy that night that drove us and the audience. We all shared an understanding and it made the show all the more powerful. Though there were so few people that night, it didn’t feel different. We were able to share our work, and that was what was important.”
But after that night, the world changed for NMSU theatre students along with people around the world, sent home to shelter in place and continue work, school and other activities from home.
Kilroy was impressed at how quickly NMSU theater faculty adapted to the new online environment.
“We all took to zoom; made videos for our students; graded projects via videos and were sure to keep communication steady,” Kilroy said. “I was teaching stage combat so had to get my significant other to fight and fence with me out back in order to demonstrate the techniques on video, so that was fun! Students were amazingly creative with the projects they turned in.”
For some students the transition to online learning was difficult.
“Honestly, I didn’t like it at all, Merritt said. “It was so alien and so new that I felt as if my education that semester ended completely. I no longer felt that I was learning, and in turn it made me lose my drive. In my opinion, for theatre to be theatre, it requires that face-to-face feeling.”
“We were all working together to make the best of something none of us had ever experienced, which made it easier to keep going forward,” said Jenna Ivey, who played Olive Ostrovsky in the play. “The most difficult things about theatre classes online were the lack of environmental shifts as well as human contact that is so essential to this art form. I found that the best thing about classes being moved online was the forceful halt that made me sit with my progress and recognize my strengths and weaknesses.”
Theater actors aren’t the only ones looking forward to returning to face-to-face classes in the fall semester. Kilroy describes the new normal for faculty as a combination of teaching environments. Many theater classes will be hybrid so students will meet in-person through typically one half of the class at a time while the other half will either view on-line or have a virtual project. They are working to accommodate those that may not feel safe in returning “live” classes at all so there are multiple options.
“We have a plan in place for limited performances but we need to wait and see what the policies will be required for public gatherings as we move forward,” Kilroy said. “If we aren't able to invite the public into our space, we will create virtual presentations and even have a plan for site specific theater at various outdoor locations around campus if allowed.”
A potential long-term effect on society of the highly contagious COVID-19 virus could impact the availability of acting and other related jobs for students. However, Kilroy is confident the skillset learned through NMSU’s theater program will give his students a head start in the job market.
“You may have witnessed professional actors, as with some pro sports, talking about working on a ‘closed’ set, on location, where everyone needs to quarantine for a time and then remain within the closed environment,” Kilroy said. “Certainly our students will have employment opportunities in that environment of television and films.”
“It is clear that the pandemic has halted most opportunities for employment in creative occupations,” Ivey said. “I think the best thing we can do as artists is to continue to make art, despite the circumstances, and rise to the challenge.”
However, Kilroy understands first hand the importance of the “live stage experience” for his students.
“The special aspect of theatre is that an audience is seeing first-hand the performers work their craft before their very eyes,” Kilroy said. “There is no chance for a re-take, or editing and it makes it quite exhilarating to be swept up into a story unfolding in ‘real’ time right in front of you. I'm sure in time we will get back to this but we will be creative in the meantime in order to give our students opportunities to share their talents with the community at large.”
Although it was short-lived, the cast will always remember “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
“The last performance was a bit surreal,” Ivey recalled. “We all knew that this was the last show in our short run, yet our bodies, minds, and hearts were eager for more. The audience made the night wonderful though, and I could feel all the warmth and the energy they sent our way. It made the tears a bit easier to get through.”
“I am incredibly thankful for the entire journey of the show,” he said. “The journey through the rehearsal process and performances taught me more about theatre than any other play I have performed in. I grew more confident, more disciplined, and my voice improved by leaps and bounds. Performing in front of a live audience was vital, to showcase our work, and our journey.”
Ivey grew up in Tornillo, Texas just east of El Paso, on her family’s pecan farm. She and her brother planned to attend NMSU together. “NMSU was the most affordable choice, as well as having a strong theatre program and film program. That, and we have always loved the Organ Mountains.”
Merrit, who grew up in Aztec, New Mexico, chose NMSU because of his experiences during theater competitions at the university when he was in high school but his attachment has only grown stronger.
“Since coming to the school, I have realized NMSU was certainly the best choice,” Merritt said. “The campus is beautiful, I’ve made amazing friends, and the theatre department has helped me grow and feel comfortable in my craft.”
“The most memorable part (of the show) was the sense of connection between all the cast members,” Ivey said. “The show is meant as an ensemble piece where each character is unique and equally important, and that special bond made it feel so magical.”