Principles and Practice: How MAAT Students and Faculty Adapted to the Pandemic

Zoom video call with graduating CUNY SPS MAAT students

Sarah Meister (‘20) and Michael Wilson (‘11)

Ten months into online teaching and learning during the Covid-19 pandemic, the MA in Applied Theatre has delivered eleven courses, graduated fifteen students, hosted a racial justice conference with 100+ attendees, and welcomed a new cohort of eighteen students into the program. We’ve led professional development programs on adapting to online facilitation and, through our student and alumni network, deepened the creativity and rigor in online learning for thousands of students and community members in New York City and around the world. In spite of ambiguity and loss, our community has found ways to thrive.

We adapted on the fly in the spring of 2020, as New York shuddered to a close. Students in Chris Vine’s Theatre in Education course moved their work to Zoom and presented original interactive theatre pieces to populations ranging from pre-K to college. Students in Helen White’s Playbuilding course and apprenticing with the Creative Arts Team Youth Theatre found innovative ways to devise original theatre over Zoom. Both Helen and Chris were forced to re-imagine techniques they had been practicing and teaching for decades.“It was exciting to see the high quality work created by students, and gratifying to witness the impact on the young people they worked with,” reflects Helen. “I would never have chosen to work on-line, but it has been revelatory to see that the work can transcend the technology.” Chris notes, “The students that I’ve worked with since March have been absolutely remarkable. They’ve been resilient and creative, and have managed to maintain or build a vibrant and supportive community with their peers in spite of the social distancing that has affected us all. Their commitment has been inspiring.”

Taifa Harris is a middle-year part-time student and a drama teacher in an elementary school. She reflects: “This past year during the pandemic has definitely been a challenge. Luckily, I was able to use a few techniques and exercises I learned this year and last year. It got to the point where [my students] really stretch their creativity in writing scenes and putting them into action.” Taifa continued to adapt exercises to meet the challenges of online teaching. Overall, she reflects, “I did find that the way we learned exercises in class...allowed a sense of freedom to adjust the games ‘socially distant’.”

Our final-year students had nearly all finished implementing their thesis projects before lockdown, leaving them to analyze their experiences, write their research papers, and present their work to their committees via Zoom. But not all of them. Thesis teams with work pending innovated to guide participants to meaningful endings, and in one case, ​moved their project completely online. Advisors and the cohort formed important bonds and worked to support each other through the challenges of the moment. Faculty advisor Amy Green was “impressed by how quickly and (relatively) easily folks adapted in typical can-do MAAT spirit.”

Jessica Cortez (‘20), reflects on the support she received from advisor Dana Edell. “​Throughout the pandemic, [Dana] checked in to see how we were doing em​otionally, she was honest and transparent with the thesis process, and she made herself available despite navigating many changes in her own life.” Cortez is also a recipient of the ​Graduate Apprenticeship Program for Diversity in Applied Theatre​, which continued to fund her studies and provide learning opportunities throughout the pandemic. “I am so grateful to continue my work with [the Creative Arts Team],” Cortez said. “CAT committed early on to all remote programming during the pandemic and even restructured their pay scale to increase pay for actor teachers. We also have weekly team training days to practice, reflect, and improve on our remote facilitation together.”

The summer gave us opportunities to reflect and regroup after much on-the-fly learning in the spring. Faculty member Daniel Banks led a summer elective course that met remotely. Students used the notion of monument as a jumping off point for devising original theatre. We also took time to gather and celebrate the successes of our graduating students, holding our usual thesis presentations and graduation celebrations slightly later than usual. The zoom presentations were packed and celebratory. We had many more attendees from many more places than usual, thanks to zoom. Family members and friends of graduates, program alums, current students, and faculty members joined us from across the country, and as far away as Sweden and Columbia.

We navigated plenty of uncertainty in preparing for the fall semester as we waited for guidance from the university. Would new students join us in the fall? We would have understood if they sat this year out​—​applied theatre is built around intimate collaboration in shared space, not videoconferences in a precarious arts economy. But they did join. In fact, interest this fall rivaled some of the strongest years for the program. This fall’s cohort came for the same core reasons that students have always joined the program​—​to develop their art and facilitation, to share in community, to name and deepen things they’d practiced intuitively for years, to better serve their students, and to get better at challenging injustice​—​but now there was a new inflection: to learn to adapt to this altered world.

“2020, with all its surprises and interruptions (coronavirus, unemployment, racial justice reckonings), presented a unique opportunity to pause, reconnect and recommit to what I want the future to look like,” says first-year full-time student Ania Upstill about their choice to apply. “It also removed all my excuses for not committing to the MAAT at CUNY, which I had been considering for a few years. Honestly, the program​—​despite the disadvantages of an online learning environment​—​has met and surpassed my expectations. A big portion of that has been the wonderful professors, program staff, and, more than anything, fellow students.”

Faculty member Dana Edell reflects on students in her course ​Community Acts​ rising to the challenge: “[they implemented] a glorious project where musicians performed outside the windows of residents in a nursing home, an awe-inspiring Zoom ritual creation with queer folx of faith, and a weekly series of online theater games for 5th graders missing their friends and yearning for a space to be silly. Our MAAT students embraced the chaos, never gave up, and deeply committed to engaging in work that acknowledged and satisfied our human need to connect with each other and use art and performance to heal, inspire and uplift.”

As 2021 begins, our final-year students are busy getting ready to implement their thesis projects. As is so often the case, MAAT students have found ways to find and build on the surprising strengths of this moment. For some students, that’s meant taking advantage of our new online world to implement applied theatre projects in faraway places. Meghan Grover (‘21) is working on a thesis project in her home community in the midwest. “​Distance has been an opportunity to virtually collaborate with my home communities. For my TIE Project, I collaborated with seniors at my public high school where ​fellow students and I implemented ​A New World, a​ n interactive Theatre in Education Piece based on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. For my thesis, I am working with classmates on devising original theater with a high school theater program in the midwest.”

For other students, this time has provided opportunities to integrate their applied theatre work into their professional lives. Alexis Jemal (‘21), has brought several MAAT projects to her Master’s of Social Work students. With classmates Tabatha Lopez (‘21) and Brennan O’Rourke (‘21), Jemal is “using our repertoire of applied theatre skills and tools to inform and transform social work education. The hope is that the best of both worlds (Applied Theatre and Social Work) will reiterate our shared humanity, develop transformative potential, and, most importantly, reinforce Social Work's core values: challenging social injustices, respecting the dignity of each individual, and valuing the importance of human relationships.” The team began this work in their Theatre in Education class last spring, and have developed a virtual elective course ​Applied Theatre & Social Work​ for their thesis project.

While so many elements of the work we do have changed, we have remained grounded in our central principles as we have responded to the current moment. At our ​6th Annual Racial Justice Conference​, for example, we explored content emerging from the summer’s racial justice reckonings and the recent presidential election results. At its core, the applied theatre work practiced in our courses and by our students is adaptive, participant-centered, and created in partnership with communities. We are still in a cycle of praxis, trying, failing, refIecting, and trying again.

Read how our M​A in Applied Theatre alumni have adapted and innovated​ in our special series counting down to the application deadline for the fall of 2021.