The show must go on: How UA Theatre and Dance is ‘making a way out of no way’

COVID-19 has affected UA’s theatre and dance departments tremendously, but students and instructors are finding new ways to hone their crafts.

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Photo courtesy of Caroline McGrath

Aidan Nettles, a University of Alabama dance instructor, is passionate about the intense art of dance. But teaching through a pandemic has proven to be one of the biggest challenges of her career.

COVID-19 forced instructors like Nettles to teach virtually, and it turned students’ living rooms into stages and audition spaces for shows. Since August, The University of Alabama’s dance and theatre department has had to transition from rehearsing in big groups to small groups, and even virtually. 

Dancers are used to spinning, leaping and jumping gracefully without a mask, but Nettles said they have had to adapt to the University’s new COVID-19 guidelines and wear a mask while performing tricky dance elements. The dancers also go upside down at times, so it is important that the mask is fitted well so it does not distract them or the audience while performing a piece.

Nettles said although it has been a challenge to teach dance normally, there have been positives that have come out of the changes. She said now she can keep up with technology, be a positive life learner and “learn to navigate in uncharted territory.”

Nettles is glad she learned more about technology because a lot of certain technology techniques are needed for a yearly performance put on by the Alabama Repertory Dance Theatre, also known as ARDT. 

ARDT is virtual this year, which makes coordinating group dances difficult. Nettles said since the dancers cannot perform together because of COVID-19 restrictions. Instead, dancers have certain time blocks to come in to rehearse. 

To make the group dances possible, technology skills are required. Nettles said to record group dances, individual dancers have to do their part and then get edited into one frame to make it look like the dancers are in unison. Although that is a challenge, Nettles realizes how much she is learning and doing for the community.

“Community is an important aspect of what we do,” Nettles said. 

Nettles’ goal for ARDT is to make others happy and to show that the dance department can “make a way out of no way.”

Caroline McGrath, a sophomore majoring in dance and kinesiology, has also struggled to adapt to new restrictions. Most of her classes are online, and it has been hard to keep up with deadlines, she said. 

“COVID-19 has been really hard in terms of academic classes because of loss of personal interaction,” McGrath said.

McGrath is in ARDT and filmed her performance in her apartment, where she wasn’t able to meet new students or bond with her peers. Despite those obstacles, McGrath finds solace knowing that she is not alone.

“I know that I can get frustrated easily, but I am trying to be a sense of happiness and light in the lives of those around me,” McGrath said.

The dance department is not the only department being affected by COVID-19 restrictions. The theatre department has also had significant changes with rehearsals and performances.

Rachel Bagley, a stage manager, said acting and certain acting exercises can be challenging virtually.

“Acting classes, movement classes, even technical classes need physical training, and that has been a large adjustment for all,” Bagley said.

Since Bagley is a stage manager, she has to follow UA guidelines for COVID-19 and extra precautions from the theatre department. These safety measures include cleaning props after each show and making sure they are thoroughly sanitized. 

Bagley also said that shows have to be filmed using a green screen, and that has developed new ways of putting together a production that Bagley is thankful for. This documentary filming technique “shows the audiences how we have been faring during all of this,” she said. 

Emma Claire Dykes, a sophomore majoring in musical theatre, added that performers have to get tested for COVID-19 before being in a show. She said she has to be cautious of her exposure because “getting sick could throw off the whole show.”

“We have no live audiences to perform for at the moment, which is definitely weird,” she said.

The dance and theatre department clearly has some obstacles, but Dykes said that she has motivation every day because she knows that “so many people around the world are ready for the arts to return.”