Online performances increases accessibility, pose new challenges for fine arts

Facing an unprecedented semester, the University of Iowa’s fine arts departments have planned virtual alternatives for their in-person events.


The Daily Iowan; Katina Zentz

The Voxman Building is seen on July 8, 2018.

Jenna Post, Arts Reporter

This fall, stages have been swapped for computer screens.

The performing arts at the University of Iowa have taken a particularly hard hit over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. As students start rehearsals for their first shows, recitals, and performances of the year, their departments have had to generate new approaches to continue sharing art and promoting artistic development.

The theatre and music programs in particular are tasked with balancing how to effectively educate their students while keeping them and the staff safe. Thousands of students have returned to the UI campus for fall classes, and subsequently, daily COVID-19 cases in Johnson County have skyrocketed.

Bryon Winn, the UI’s Director of Theatre, said that the virus has caused several changes to the department’s upcoming plans, including the postponement of their 100th season celebration. The event will now take place during their 101st season in the 2021-2022 academic year.

Winn said the delay gave the department the opportunity to engage guest artists, alums, graduate directors and playwrights, and students from other departments in this season’s development.

The department will take on the challenge of presenting its four mainstage performances in a different format this year. Small casts will gather virtually to rehearse the script before meeting — masked up — to learn socially-distanced blocking. The play will then be filmed.

For the first mainstage show of the season, the department commissioned African-American alums to write six 10-minute plays that will be performed in succession. For the second mainstage, art students will collaborate with the theatre department to create portraits of essential workers. The final mainstage will consist of a collaboration between guest puppeteer Margarita Blush and graduate students, who are in the process of creating the show.

Rather than gathering in the lobby before settling into rows of seats within a small theater, this year, audiences will view the performances by the glow of their laptops. Winn said all performances will be made available for free on YouTube. Plays of which the department has the publishing rights will remain online and the others will be on the department’s channel for six days.

Winn said they also plan to have a “live” premiere of each pre-recorded show, so YouTube’s livestream chat function can be used by viewers.

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“We see it as an asset,” Winn said. “Since we’ve pivoted towards broadcast, I think you’re going to see things like galleries and workshops broadcasted in the future… Not only can you reach family and friends, but now there’s an opportunity to see it later in the semester if you miss it.”

However, there are downsides to the changes as well.

“The biggest problem with broadcast is theater is usually a live event,” he said. “It’s a conversation between an actor and an audience, and that’s the biggest loss.”

Winn said the department is hoping that outdoor performances with small audiences will be possible in the spring, but it’s too early to make those decisions.

The School of Music is taking a similar approach to its upcoming virtual programs. Director  Tammie Walker said the department is still finalizing details, but has exciting plans for the semester.

“There’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction of any kind,” Walker said. “That doesn’t just apply to the arts. But one of the biggest advantages of the virtual things we’re doing is that they’re going to live on forever, for future generations and international audiences to enjoy.”

The Women’s Chorale — an entirely female choir — and the Camerata, an entirely male choir, will be hosting their classes and concerts online.

The Hawkeye Marching Band is in the process of recording socially distanced performances. Walker said they will be played at football games if the season begins this spring. The group will also team up with the department’s jazz bands and orchestra this October for a virtual concert featuring the music of Black composers. Walker said she isn’t certain of where this concert will be available yet, but said that YouTube is the most likely platform.

While the fine arts departments are optimistic about the academic year, Tim Havens, a media economics professor at the UI, is uncertain about arts events working well online.

“I think it’s really hard to tell,” Havens said. “You can see some trends going on, but everyone is feeling out how do you  — and can you — successfully move those experiences to an online platform?”

Like Winn and Walker, Havens acknowledged that accessibility is the online format’s advantage, but he suspects that funding will run dry.

“I think the issue fundamentally is that there isn’t really the audience there,” he said. “A lot of viewing is done in a philanthropic sense to support the arts, but you can’t make the same kind of money during a pandemic.”

Havens pointed to the postponement of several film releases as an example of the issue. At a movie theater, each individual is charged for a ticket. With streaming, 10 people could all watch the film for a flat rate, he said. Ultimately, profits are lost.

Between the departments’ free performances and Hancher’s funding reduction, there’s reason to question how long arts programs can continue on this way. But despite the challenges ahead, Walker said the music department is eager to return to school.

“I want to emphasize how excited we are to have our students back, be that just through computer screens or at a distance,” the director said. “We’re looking forward to the energy of a new school year and making some music together.”