Newswise — The arts are an outlet, a safe place to try something new and push the limits. During the past year, performance arts programs at the CSU have provided students with that space: to wrestle with their identity, experiment with new technology and storytelling techniques or cope with life’s challenges. Here are a few examples.

A Question of Identity

“Art is so much more interesting when it's [by and about] real people," says Eric Kupers, California State University, East Bay theater and dance professor. “Every individual person is so unique and so different, and that's what's beautiful about humanity." It's that concept that led Kupers to organize the inaugural Inclusive Performance Festival at Cal State East Bay to celebrate all identities and art forms.

“By inclusion, I mean everybody's included: all bodies, abilities, disabilities, identities, ethnicities. But also all art forms and all aspects of our life," Kupers says. “Arts aren't something you do on the side as a nice thing; everything is woven into everything else: cooking and building and security and financial concerns. All of that is interwoven with the arts. And so, one side of the Inclusive Performance Festival aims to explore what is possible."

The month-long festival brought together artists from across the campus and the local community for virtual and outdoor events. It included annual shows like the Spectrum Showcase that supports autistic artists and their collaborators, lectures like a talk by dancer and author Emmaly Wiederholt on her book project “Discussing Disability in Dance," workshops like the introduction to the south Indian dance form Mohiniyattam and other performances like a drag show featuring underground drag artists.

The campus's cultural organizations were also invited to participate. As part of the festival, the Pilipinx American Student Association (PASA) put on its annual Pilipinx Consciousness Night, titled KAI, to raise awareness around the Pilipinx community.

“We had the chance to learn and talk about history and stories that aren't taught in school and show our communities why they are valued and important to society," says Lorenzo Miro San Diego, a CSUEB computer science senior, PCN co-director and PASA student representative. “Having an Inclusive Performance Festival is important because we can show communities and people from all walks of life that their stories can be told no matter what barriers might come their way … Especially in today's political and social climate, it is important everyone's stories are seen, respected and heard so their stories are passed on to and understood by future generations."

The schedule also featured this year's spring dance concert, “Wandering in the Wilderness."

“With everything that happened [in 2020], we needed to break free and heal, and that is what we did together," says Ina Gonzalez-Valenzuela, a CSUEB senior double-majoring in theater and dance and psychology and a “Wandering in the Wilderness" collaborator. “This is what 'Wandering in the Wilderness' is about. All of us were realizing we needed change. But how do we do that? Our first step was leaving behind old ways and saying goodbye to our past traumas and traditions that no longer serve us."

Technological Experimentation

As the curtain lifts on the opera “Gianni Schicchi," performed by the California State University, Northridge opera and orchestra, the online audience views not a typical stage, but rather a drawn 14th-century mansion.

Directed by Professor Maurice Godin, the animated opera, in which a greedy family seeks to inherit wealth after the death of a relative, grew from a months-long partnership between the CSUN opera, theatre department, CSUN Symphony Orchestra and animation department. “There was a need to keep the opera alive and find ways of performing virtually [during the pandemic]," says opera executive director, music director and professor Mercedes Juan Musotto.

While the musicians rehearsed and recorded their music over Zoom and the singers applied their own makeup and filmed their parts in front of green screens, the animation students designed the set. The animated scenes were then overlaid with the footage of the live performers and​ paired with the recorded music and singing.

“This decentralized, unconventional approach showed me how important it is to be flexible and self-reliant—able to be one's own makeup and tech person, and willing to dig deep to help with any aspects of a production," says Adam McCrory, Master of Music, Performance student. “It taught me the importance of preparation and learning the material thoroughly in order to be able to adapt. I also think it illustrates how the mix of drama, action, music and visuals in opera makes it an art form that's easily adapted into modern media."

A key challenge was funding the monumental project, which the opera did through a series of fundraising concerts and campaigns.

“The students had to learn about writing for a culture grant application, about self-advertisement and technology, how to sing in front of the computer with an accompaniment track, how to adjust to having an accompaniment instead of a live pianist and so many other things," Juan Musotto says.

For the next virtual production, Juan Musotto and the opera experimented with another technology: augmented reality (AR) video filters, again designed with the help of the animation department.

“We picked an opera that was very fantastical with all these fun characters," she says. “It's called 'L'Enfant et les Sortilèges,' The Child and the Enchantments, so basically the characters are furniture and animals. It was super easy and fun for the animation students to design chairs, couches, different sorts of animals. And then if you put all those designs through Zoom together, it looks silly and fun, and [the students] didn't have to worry about costumes or makeup. Everything was designed for them, and they just had to click on it and wear it."

The students adapted the opera, directed by Professor Hugo Vera and originally about a young child being reprimanded by objects and animals he's injured, to the virtual era and recorded it using Zoom.

“The AR element allowed for so much more creativity with the production!" says Gabriella Bluvband, Master of Music, Performance student. “Since I played the character of L'enfant, I didn't get a chance to use any of the filters myself, but seeing my castmates in their filters and having the AR character analogues in front of me allowed me to get more into character." 

The Face of Resilience

In the midst of the isolation, loss and racial and political unrest experienced recently, Heather Castillo, assistant professor of performing arts, dance at California State University Channel Islands, taught dance as a means to make sense of those circumstances.

Castillo—who is also the founder of the CSU Dance Collective—took the opportunity of being virtual to create the multi-campus CSU Virtual Arts Concert with the theme, “What is resilience?" It featured student teams from six campuses who choreographed dances, wrote spoken word and composed music (all but one performance featured original music) to address that question.

“The arts are the most central thing that our foundation of communication and community is built upon as humans," Castillo says. “And as the arts have become commoditized in Western culture, we've lost how essential they are to who we are as people. It's essential we dance, that we watch, perform or participate in theater, whether you're going to see 'Hamilton' or you're going to see your kindergartner's play."

With a grant from Adobe and the CSU, Castillo provided each group with a GoPro camera, a microphone, costumes and props. All team members filmed and recorded their respective parts, which were then edited together.

“This is where we're headed in the performing arts," Castillo says. “There will be the moment when we work together in person, but the pre-production is going to increasingly consist of virtual communication. And even though it was a lot [of work], I think it was probably one of the most valuable life experiences the students have had in working across disciplines and working across the Cloud."

Some of the performances addressed the thematic question by centering on environmentalism, isolation during the pandemic and oppression and racial discrimination.

“We managed to produce this show at a time when most of us had not been attending college in person, so this was our chance to actually put on a show," says Maddy Hitchcock, a CSUCI performance arts, dance junior who was a dancer and writer for a piece on the Earth's resilience titled, “A Letter to You."

“The majority of us had not been able to do that for over a year, and I, for one, missed that feeling. As contributors, we were able to demonstrate our own resilience through this production."

However, this was not the first show Castillo has produced at CSUCI to help students understand the world. For example, the annual Arts Under the Stars show takes research from across the campus and translates it into dance, music theater, graphic design, film and other art forms.

“We performed several pieces on environmental issues and research in nursing and social issues—and we've even danced math equations, trying to explain them through theatrical spectacle," she says.

Start From Scratch

A group of theater students from across the CSU—actors, stage managers, writers, designers—are put in a room together and have two weeks to create a new performance, with the length and deadline as their only guidelines. That's what happens during the Collaboration and Devised Theatre​ session of CSU Summer Arts, a summer arts program of masterclasses and an arts festival.

“It asks the artist to have ideas and put them to work," says Jessica Hanna, theater maker and guest artist for the session. “It opens up the possibility for the artist and creator in a way that automatically takes them outside the system or gives them tools [to make work outside the system] … giving the artists more autonomy in terms of how they create work and what kind of work they're creating."

In devised theater, the ensemble generates the art without a starting script, and in this session all artists must perform. “This allows for new stories to be told and for people to understand that new stories can be told in different ways," says Amy King, California State University, Long Beach MFA Theatre Arts student and session aid.

To spark ideas for the session, the instructors asked the students to write about dreams. But they also taught skills to help the students work together, generate new ideas and experiment with technology.

“Within the course, there's a fantastic atmosphere that initiates the practice and application of collaborative and devised theatre," says Joy Lodico, CSULB Bachelor of Theatre Arts graduate, '21, and session participant. “We're learning to share space and creative control, and that's the first step to becoming well-rounded artists. It's inspiring to have so much freedom in creating."

Because Summer Arts is virtual this year, students are also learning how to create theater in the digital space, using technology to enhance the performance. For example, students must film their performances and can control the audience's perspective using the camera lens.

“There are skills, techniques and ways of working the students are using in this medium that are completely unique to this medium in terms of what they can do with the camera," says CSULB Theatre Arts Professor Jeff Janisheski.

Guest artist Bruce A. Lemon, Jr. adds: “There are a lot of tools we can glean from the past year and a half that we can use: devising online, workshopping online and conversing online. We can bring what we are able to generate here into the physical space. ... I think part of this workshop is reminding these artists and ourselves how complete artists we all already are, how [many skills] we already have and how we can reactivate those to stay in the practice of creating."

The six participating students collectively acted, wrote, directed, designed and filmed the final performance​, which explored the “boxes” people put themselves in—whether Zoom screens or limitations imposed by society or self—and how to break free of those constraints.

Explore CSU campuses’ performing arts, dance, music and theater programs.