An Empty Stage: How DePaul’s Theatre School Commun...

An Empty Stage: How DePaul’s Theatre School Community Copes within a Pandemic

The Theatre School was designed to be a place to “rehearse, collaborate, and learn in a facility designed and developed specifically to meet the creative needs of theatre artists and experts,” according to its website. But since March, the facility, along with most of the DePaul campus, has been closed due to safety concerns with COVID-19. The students’ creative needs are met through virtual learning, in contrast to their “hands on” approach.

“Everybody’s working really hard to make the experience equitable across the board whether people are here or not. It is a moment where obviously we’re not able to provide the experience we usually provide,” Jon Culbert, dean of The Theatre School said. 

 The pandemic has forced the Theatre School into a stand-still, and according to the dean of the Theatre School, a theatre student and a non-theatre major, it has affected the curriculum and community.

John Culbert has worked for the Theatre School for 33 years. He was initially hired as the head of light design in 1988, advanced to associate dean in 1998 and later became dean in 2001.

When many of the spring productions were cancelled when DePaul went remote, Culbert said that the process  of postponing plays was “frustrating.” 

“We had shows in many different levels of production. That was an extremely frustrating thing to do. People have invested hundreds of hours and suddenly you had to not proceed,” Culbert said.

“It is really impactful on the creative journey. Of course there was grief about that, and we still feel the grief of not being able to do what we’d normally be able to do.” 

This quarter’s productions were pushed to Winter Quarter in hopes of in-person learning, but they’ll most likely take place online after DePaul announced its continuation of remote learning in an email sent Oct. 5. 

Culbert said how theatre students have persevered through online production is “amazingly creative,” but he’d rather it be in person. 

“We certainly miss the in-person aspect in terms of doing the work and of course present the work. Usually the way we define theatre is that you need one performer and one audience member, and right now we don’t get that direct connection,” Culbert said.   

According to a DePaul Newsline article, Culbert announced on November 17 that he will step down as dean at the end of the academic year. He said after he leaves The Theatre School it will have “a unique opportunity to redefine itself in new and exciting ways.” 

The shift to an online theatre arts curriculum has impacted more than just the administration of the Theatre School — the change has hit students the hardest. Gabriella Suarez is a sophomore stage management major. According to Suarez, stage managers attend production meetings and rehearsals to ensure everything is in order. 

In comparison to her freshman year, her current courses are drastically different. 

“My classes before the pandemic were very engaging and hands on. I feel that The Theatre School has always valued the work we do as collaborators in the space,” Suarez said. “Flash to the present, a lot of work has been put on hold. It’s unfortunate, but it is a decision the school has made in an effort to keep everyone safe, which is much appreciated. However, our classes have taken on entirely new forms, for the better and worse.”  

According to The Theatre School’s website, BFA stage management majors are required to be assistant managers on three productions during their freshman and sophomore year. Suarez’s production was one of many that were abruptly cancelled last March, and the production she was assigned this year, Maria Attoinette has been moved online. She decided to step down from this project and pursue another way to get a production practice credit. Personally, Suarez prefers in-person productions to virtual ones. 

“The pros to presenting theater online is the ability to reach a number of audience members that otherwise wouldn’t have the ability to watch a performance,” Suarez said. “The cons, however, seem pretty obvious in the sense that we aren’t able to collaborate in person in the spaces and use the skills we have cultivated for so many years.”

It’s been proven difficult for theatre majors to learn in a virtual environment, but they aren’t the only ones who’ve been affected by this pandemic. Students who aren’t theatre majors, but still have an interest for the performing arts have also been affected. 

 Ben Stumpe is a sophomore Communication and Media major with a theatre minor. Even though theatre isn’t his major, Stumpe has participated in the arts at DePaul.

Last year, Stumpe heard that DePaul Improv and Sketch Comedy were holding auditions for two new improv groups. Out of over 70  people who auditioned, Stumpe and eight other students were recruited into a new team, The Good Night Kiss. Stumpe said he and the other members became friends quickly. 

“We were really close. We would hang outside of rehearsal, go to the Stu and get food, go to each other’s apartments or just go to improv shows in the city. It was a lot fun, but COVID put a wrench in our plans,” Stumpe said. 

The Good Night Kiss only performed one show before the pandemic cut their season short. For him, it was “devastating.” Stumpe also said the relationship between himself and the other members had changed over time. “It’s proven difficult to keep that community going and alive like it was in January and February, because being remote is never going to be the same as in person. Improv is so based in intimacy with the audience and your scene partners and you can’t really replicate that in a screen setting.”

These three individuals all have one belief in common: virtual performances may allow artists to reach a larger audience, but in person is superior.

“When we’re able to have audiences then the theatre world will revive. The experience, in my point of view, of going to a live event is not matched by anything you can do on a screen. When we have that shared human experience, to me, that has a human value that you can’t get with anything on a screen,” Culbert said. 

Header image by Yusra Shah