On Oct. 24, the first day of Family Weekend 2021 at Whitman College, moms, dads and siblings eagerly waited to see their students on stage at Cordiner Hall in what, for some, would be their first performance in almost two years. A warm introduction peppered with jokes from Gary Gemberling eased the socially distanced audience into the Whitman Sampler, an exhilarating taste of jazz, orchestra and chorale music from several of the college’s ensembles flowed through the evening.
The families weren’t the only ones excited about the evening’s event. “Performing live makes such a huge difference and it’s a really special part of being a musician,” says sophomore saxophonist Jonah Panzer.
Live performances have resumed at Whitman for Fall 2021 semester thanks to the college’s strict adherence to safety precautions. In accordance with Washington state guidelines, fully vaccinated and masked audiences can, once again, find their seats as the curtain rises on a variety of highly anticipated productions.
“I'm super thankful for how vigilant the community has been about getting vaccinated,” says sophomore Jed Matthias, a trumpeter who performed in the Whitman Music Sampler. “Getting to play for my parents and peers was an experience I totally forgot about, and I'm grateful for its return.”
Performing arts faculty are also thankful that live productions are back on campus. “The absence was a reminder of how lucky we are when we can have those experiences as artists and audience members,” says Laura Hope, associate professor of theater.
The Department of Theater and Dance’s Fall 2021 season launched with “The Revolutionists,” a wry comedy about the striking women of the French Revolution, in late September. The next production, “The Penelopiad,” a stirring retelling of Homer’s “The Odyssey” penned by Margaret Atwood (author of “The Handmaid’s Tale”), will run Dec. 9–12, 2021 at Harper Joy Theatre.
Hope, who will direct the upcoming play, believes live shows offer something that screened performances can’t. “The energy generated between performers, with each other and the audience, is a connection that goes beyond our ability to communicate with mere words,” she says.
Peter de Grasse, senior lecturer of dance, shares similar views on the relationship between performers and the audience. “Actors and dancers embody an imaginary world, and transmit that world to the audience through action and gesture,” he says.
It’s the somewhat unpredictable nature of live performances that gives Associate Professor of Dance Renée Archibald a rush. “Live performance is exciting to me because it's a temporary situation of pure potential—so many things could happen,” she says.
“Ghost Pixcells,” brought to the stage in late October, broke free from the pixelated world of Zoom into a vibrant series of live dance performances, including pieces choreographed by de Grasse and Archibald. Masked rehearsals for the show moved to unmasked run-throughs for the final two weeks. Full faces emerged, revealing a new element of performative expression that used to be ordinary. The exuberant performance encouraged reflection on being alive as dancers interacted in carefully directed sound and color on the stage. Once again, the audience could be close to the action.
The Show Goes On
COVID-19 precautions differ slightly for performers. Like audience members, they must adhere to appropriate vaccination requirements, but Washington’s mask mandate offers an exception that allows musicians, actors and dancers to be unmasked while actively engaged in the performance. Although additional coronavirus testing isn’t required by the state, the college offers pre-performance testing for student performers and staff at their request.
The “Ghost Pixcells” choreographers had conversations with dancers about how they felt about space and touch in light of COVID-19 and created flexible rehearsal schedules to accommodate for quarantining.
The additional safety measures haven't dampened the performers’ enthusiasm for interacting in person, says de Grasse.
“The physical work has been very demanding, and at the same time there has been a lot of joking and laughter. I think perhaps that is due to the chemistry of this group, but also due to the deep need for working on something together as a social unit,” he says. “It's a relief and a revelation after a year of dark stages.”