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Art and theater students are getting creative in the face of coronavirus shutdowns

With student performances and exhibitions canceled, here’s what teachers and students at the University of Utah are doing to keep the arts going while campus is shut down.

The cast of “Tartuffe,” which was scheduled to run at the University of Utah starting March 27 but has been postponed due to the coronavirus.
Todd Collins

SALT LAKE CITY — Student performers from the University of Utah had been involved in rehearsals for almost five weeks when they got the announcement that has shuttered much of the art world across both the state and the country.

Due to the spread of COVID-19, the university announced it would be postponing or canceling public events, as well as transferring classes online to follow state guidelines.

Junior Shelice Warr was a member of the student cast, playing the role of Elmire in “Tartuffe,” which had been scheduled to premiere on March 27.

“I emailed everyone I could think of, begging to postpone it rather than cancel it,” Warr said in an interview with the Deseret News.

The cast of “Tartuffe,” which was scheduled to run at the University of Utah starting March 27 but has been postponed due to the coronavirus.
Todd Collins

For now, the play has been tentatively rescheduled for August, though a firm date has not yet been set. As the country continues to grapple with preventing the spread of the coronavirus, arts and theater organizations throughout the United States have had to close their doors for the time being.

But university arts and theater departments face some unique challenges when it comes to postponing performances or art exhibitions. However, many universities are also coming up with creative solutions to meet these challenges while also still doing their part to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Art galleries and museums have definitely taken a hit while social distancing measures are in place. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is projected to lose $100 million this year due to closures.

For university museums, the spring and end of the school year is a traditional time to display student artwork in special exhibitions. However, social distancing measures have made exhibitions more of a challenge.

Paul Stout, chair of the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Utah, said the school has had to make some “big adjustments” to its annual student shows in order to maintain social distancing requirements.

“With campus being closed for the most part, we’re going to have to do it entirely online,” Stout told the Deseret News.

The annual BFA exhibition, this year entitled “Social Distance,” will showcase student artwork virtually rather than in a physical gallery.

“It’s a major logistical difference all of the sudden of not having the work present in our gallery and having an opening and doing scholarships and all those sorts of things that we did in the public,” Stout said.

Meanwhile, for theater performances like “Tartuffe,” other accommodations had to be made.

For instance, the student in the title role of the play is a graduating senior. However, he has agreed to return for the postponed performance in August.

Warr told the Deseret News that at this point, she is mostly concerned about returning to the production in August and losing the “magic” she experienced in rehearsals.

“The final rehearsal we had, I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, magic is just overflowing,’” Warr said. “And I want everyone to see and feel that magic because it’s nothing like I’ve ever felt.”

Many universities around the country have moved to online classes for the remainder of the school year. But art classes that require special equipment face an extra challenge when making the move to an online format.

“Take ceramics — you can’t really throw a pot at home if you don’t have a potter’s wheel,” said Stout, pointing out that disciplines like photography, printmaking and sculpture face similar difficulties.

However, professors and students have worked to come up with creative solutions.

One University of Utah art student created an Instagram account, @coronaartcollective, for students to stay connected while social distancing by sharing their art with each other.

Since the account was started on March 15, it has shared nearly 150 posts featuring artwork from the university community.

Theater classes have had to get creative as well. Teachers and students have gotten involved in creating radio plays, video readings of Shakespeare, and even directing short films in order to continue connecting virtually, according to University of Utah Department of Theatre chairman Harris Smith.

Smith emphasized in an emailed statement to the Deseret News that he believes this sort of out-of-the-box thinking will be beneficial for students in the future.

“As we move forward and recover from this necessary period of social distancing, I am confident this experience is something our students will take with them for the rest of their lives,” Smith said in the statement. “As they navigate their professional careers, we want them to continue to learn and push the boundaries of how theater is experienced in the future.”

When “Tartuffe” returns to the stage in August, Warr believes it will be timely.

“It’s a really relevant show,” Warr said. “While it deals with some really serious things, it does so with brightness and humor to it. And I think the world needs that right now.”

With so many challenges currently facing the world, Warr said art and theater will be an important part of healing communities.

“The world feels so broken,” Warr said. “But I think that the more cracks there are, the more opportunity there is for light to get in. And I think that art is a lot of that light. I’m excited to share that with everybody once this all passes.”