Last year, Penn students crowded into Iron Gate Theater on the weekends to watch comedy sketches or a capella performances. But this semester, Penn’s performing arts groups were forced to leave Iron Gate behind and instead perform in Zoom rooms.
In August, the Performing Arts Council and the Platt Performing Arts House told Penn’s a capella, dance, comedy, and theater groups that students are not permitted to congregate in-person to produce content this semester because students were not invited back to campus.
Despite restrictions on in-person gatherings, many performing arts groups are continuing to produce and distribute content on virtual platforms. While these groups were forced to completely alter their practice schedule, social events, and semester performances, many are still creating shows over Zoom.
The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke with some of the performing arts groups to see how they are adjusting to the virtual semester.
Members of Dischord, one of Penn’s a capella groups, typically participate in gigs around campus, social events, and an end-of-semester performance. This year, however, Dischord president and College senior Aaron Kahane said the group is not doing any gigs but plans on releasing a music video that features several of the group's cover songs at the end of the semester. The group's singers will send in individual clips for the music video, which will then be edited together.
Kahane said that Dischord accepted five new members into the group this fall via virtual auditions and has prioritized holding social events on Zoom. He said that while navigating members’ different time zones has been difficult, the group is excited to begin weekly practices for the music video this Sunday.
“I think overall people are really good about making things work, especially last minute,” Kahane said. “I’m especially impressed by the newbies because we’ve never met them, but they already feel like part of the family.”
West Philly Swingers
For students in West Philly Swingers, this semester is especially different because the group is unable to engage in its main form of performance — social dancing. West Philly Swingers captain and College junior Yuwen Wong said that social dancing is the practice of going into a community and performing dances with strangers, which is incompatible with social distancing guidelines.
Although members cannot participate in social dancing, West Philly Swingers is working on recording a virtual performance that will be made available online on Dec. 5. Although the dancers won't be physically together, the moves they'll be performing virtually are similar to ones they would be doing if they were social dancing.
While the group typically accepts new members every semester regardless of their prior dance experience, Wong said that West Philly Swingers decided not to hold auditions this fall. The club is also making participation in online workshops and its virtual semester performance optional for current members.
“We discovered that performing over Zoom really doesn’t work especially when you have multiple people in multiple places,” Wong said. “The way that we’re trying to do it is have everyone record their parts beforehand and then we’ll combine it into one show.”
Following their tradition, Penn Singers plans to hold a show at the end of the semester, albeit in a new virtual format. Singers President and College junior Kate McNamara-Marsland said that group members will record audio and video individually for the show, titled “Now. Here. This." The show will be released online in early December and features songs that McNamara-Marsland said are easier to do in a virtual format, since they require less collaboration between singers and are easier for the orchestra to learn.
Penn Singers accepted seven new members into its group, and 35 students will be involved in the cast, tech crew, or band for the show. McNamara-Marsland said that members of Penn Singers have adapted well to the virtual semester and that they are using new editing and tech skills to create the production.
“I think right now we’re trying to maintain a positive spirit about what we can do and what we are doing,” McNamara-Marsland said. “We’re still excited to be putting our creative energy into a production.”
Penn’s troupe for underrepresented gender identities in comedy, Bloomers, began producing weekly 90-second comedy videos in August and posting them on social media rather than creating their typical two-hour sketch comedy show. They will continue to do so throughout the semester. The group meets virtually twice a week to write the sketches and assign roles. Sometimes they film videos while socially distancing and wearing masks, and actors also send in clips to be edited together.
Bloomers chairwoman and College senior Reagan Bracknell said that these videos have been well received, but the club is currently trying to make sure more of the Penn community knows about them.
This fall, Bloomers accepted 17 new members, only four of whom are freshmen. For some members of Bloomers, such as the cast, the workload has decreased, but the group’s digital chair has more work due to the club’s increased social media presence.
Bracknell hopes that the University will prioritize performing arts groups as it considers its plans for the spring semester.
“Everybody knows athletes are struggling right now,” Bracknell said. “I’ve heard nothing about trying to get performing arts to perform in a safe manner. It’s a part of campus like that I think really needs to be prioritized because it is such a serotonin boost for people that attend and people who are participating.”
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