There’s this feeling when sitting in a theatre with a performance just about to begin. The lights dim, the loud chattering lessens until all that’s left is that slight hum of silence as it bounces across the room. You wait, with bated breath, for the first actor to step out on stage, excited for the chance to have their voice carry to your ear.
Yet, the first time I met Lynn Porter, the resident designer of Theatre Fairfield, it wasn’t standing on that stage next to each other. It was over Zoom, with me in my kitchen and her at a desk.
I was a few minutes late, throwing my laundry in and dashing up the stairs two at a time. I’m in an old Fairfield University sweatshirt with last night’s mascara still clumped to my lashes, and I’m horrifically out of breath, and she’s an image of excitement and plain zest. She sat across from me, or as “across” as you can get through a screen, in a vibrant green shirt and Hawaiian floral blazer.
“Everyone assumes that the online environment cannot be an important, impactful experience… we don’t agree with that,” said Porter.
Theatre, as she tells me, is a people-focused performance. They wrestle across the ground when blocking, the actors stand nose-to-nose nearly spitting in each other’s faces.
Where mask-wearing and social distancing proves the only solution, the visual arts have had to scale down to a 12 inch silver stage. Nothing about the theatre is safe in this COVID-19 world. Their voices, instead of bouncing through the walls of the Regina A. Quick Center for The Arts, are shoved through one of my tiny computer speakers.
Porter says they planned for this. They canceled their spring production of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” before Fairfield canceled in-class instruction for the rest of the semester. Well, it wasn’t canceled, but molded it into a more accessible performance in the form of “Titus Online.”
“Titus Online” was arguably more than “Titus Andronicus” would’ve been. Instead of just Fairfields students’ performance of Shakespeare’s words, the online version was multidimensional. It was a video collection of interviews, stage rehearsals, stage combats, voice trainings and all the things that provide an in-depth look behind a Theatre Fairfield performance.
All of this content was for a production which was close enough to the actual performance that the actors could taste it. The sets and costumes were mostly done; all the energy and excitement for this performance was already stewing. So the goal, Porter tells me, was to take all that energy and transfer it to a virtual space.
For the fall, Theatre Fairfield has chosen a production made for the virtual space. “Love & Imagination,” which will premiere on Oct. 23-25, is a collection of short performances and monologues written by David Ives and Barrie Cole.
This was a choice made with much thought from Porter and her fellow faculty. “Love & Imagination” is a lighter performance. It’s more fun and charming than anything Shakespearean or otherwise. Porter realizes that there’s a danger here of ignoring what’s happening in the world, but as she told me, “We can put more good in the world by using our love and imagination. We can’t eradicate fear, but we can counterbalance what’s happening in the world right now.”
Yet, as “Love & Imagination” premieres just at the end of October, Theatre Fairfield is introducing one of their crowd favorite performances, “Director’s Cut.” Premiering on Dec. 4-6, “Director’s Cut” is completely student-run. Advanced theatre students put on these one-act plays, which Porter tells me is an “easy peasy way to get involved,” especially for the students new to the world of theatre. The shorter pieces don’t require hours and hours of rehearsal time, nor do evenings need to be dedicated to memorizing lines. All theatre this semester will be done virtually, over Zoom. If you haven’t performed since high school, or even middle school, and have been worried about joining the college theatre program, here’s your chance.
Our call ends just as my phone alarm goes off for my laundry. Porter ends by emphasizing that Theatre Fairfield is “working hard to bring some good stuff into the world.”
The Regina A. Quick Center is attempting to do the same. Their usual season can fill every seat in their auditorium, as a mix of Fairfield students and Fairfield community members are endlessly entertained by whoever takes the stage on a given night.
This semester, the stage is doing double duty. Each Tuesday, known as “Testing Tuesday,” 5-10 percent of the campus population will line up on the stage to be tested for COVID-19.
Though maybe this wasn’t in the plans for the fall, like Theatre Fairfield, the Quick was able to use the spring to test out this new virtual world. Lori Jones, director of programming and audience development, told me, “with that experience under our belt, we chose to program an all new fall 2020 season combining some of the programs we had already intended to present, with new programs that best fit the online platform.”
The Quick will be offering an incredible 55 events for their fall season. As always, they dazzle within the performance category. Ann Hampton Callaway is set to perform on Nov. 13, and Orin Grossman, Ph.D., an emeritus professor of visual and performing arts at Fairfield, is set to perform George Gershwin songs on piano on Dec. 8.
However, it appears that their catalog seems to contain more speaker-based events than years previous. Whether it’s in the Open Vision, Open Vision: Expresso or Open Minds category, the Quick has this magnetic pull to larger than life figures. Micheal Lewis, Khazir Khan, Jane Fonda and Spike Lee are just some of the big-name speakers that have spoken in my time at Fairfield.
Despite the virtual part of this semester, the Quick has managed to score many phenomenal speakers to speak to a newly discovered international audience. The issue with the stationary theatres is accessibility.
The location and size of the Quick Center is perfect for students receiving the opportunity to attend these once in a lifetime lectures for free. All Open Vision lectures are free for Fairfield University students to attend. It’s a good opportunity for the Fairfield area residents and students to attend the same lecture and sit side by side. Yet, in this new virtual world, accessibility has changed for the Quick Center. Now, anyone from across the nation can simply buy tickets and attend the event virtually from their computers. In March and April, when Jones and the Quick were planning for, and pivoting to, an online platform, they discovered that more people than ever were tuning in. “In addition, with the online platform, we were able to notice that folks were watching from all over the country versus just from within Fairfield County which was very exciting.”
This new understanding of the capabilities of the virtual space for events led to a further understanding of the many missing partnership opportunities. There’s usually a great partnership created with local businesses of the Fairfield community. Sponsorships with local businesses pay for many of the great lectures, and the opportunity to partner with new businesses was an unforeseen opportunity this year. Jones reiterates, “it’s been incredible to be able to collaborate with so many folks in a way that hadn’t seemed possible in the past, and we hope it continues long past the times of COVID-19. Partners include the Humanities Institute, the Frederickson Family Innovation Lab, the Fairfield University Art Museum, the GLLG Leadership Summit, #UNLOAD Foundation, Barnum Museum, the CT Dance Alliance and University Dance programs from throughout the state, and more.”
These new partnerships have allowed for such depth in the content at the Quick. The virtual capability, though it removes the glamour of throwing on a nice pair of slacks and sitting in the theatre, opens so many new doors. I can now sit in my dorm room in sweatpants, with a cup of tea and listen to some phenomenal lectures in bed. “The reality is,” Jones tells me, “we love having people come together and enjoy the live performing arts and cultural experiences as a community in our theatres, but in this extraordinary moment, our team is eager to take on this new challenge, and we appreciate the support from the University to still continue to serve thousands of patrons both from our community and campus.”
The Fairfield University Art Museum has also benefited from the accessibility seen through a fully virtual platform. Similar to both Theatre Fairfield and the Quick Center, they had to quickly pivot and switch their in-person exhibit to something Fairfield students could consume while distance-learning. Yet, unlike Theatre Fairfield, the Fairfield University Art Museum was limited in their ability to simply drop an exhibit and pick up something more virtually consumable. They plan exhibits two or three years in advance, meaning the plans for exhibits are already planned for years after I graduate!
Over the summer, the museum did discover new technologies available for displaying gallery spaces virtually, and from this discovery, “Howard Skrill: Monumental Follies” was born. It opened on June 4, and it is an opportunity for students and others interested to take a virtual tour of Skrill’s collection. I speak biasedly as an art history major in saying that looking at art through a screen doesn’t hold the same awe-factor that standing inches away from a painting does. However, this new platform does increase accessibility.
Carey Weber, executive director of the Fairfield University Art Museum, further states that this new virtual world has created attendance numbers never before seen, and they want to carry that interest into the new semester. “There’s a great potential for these virtual exhibitions going forward.”
For the fall, Weber has more flexibility with attendance, as the museum is open for students to visit without making an appointment. The museum is closed to outside visitors, so only students or professors with classes are allowed to attend.
There is, of course, a capacity limit with social distancing in place, but even if a class plans to attend, Weber assured me that they’ve planned to have wiggle room for one or two extra students who just want to wander in.
All of this planning is in preparation for their stunning new exhibition, “Ruby Sky Stiler – Group Relief.” Curated by Ian Berry, Dayton Director of the Tang Teaching Museum, this exhibition stands out in a number of ways. Firstly, it features a female artist, just in time for this year’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of women being allowed to attend Fairfield as undergraduate students, which is incredibly lovely.
There’s also something exciting about sculpture-based pieces, and thus Stiler’s “viewing bench” allows students to sit and reflect on the exhibit, while enveloped in it, sitting on top of it.
This exhibition will be available for students to view at The Thomas J. Walsh Art Gallery until Dec. 20. Weber mentioned that students should keep in mind, however, that as this gallery is inside the Quick Center, it will also be affected by the “Testing Tuesdays” and will be closed on Tuesdays to make room for COVID-19 testing inside.
If a student is desperate to get into the museum on Tuesday, the Bellarmine Gallery in the basement of Bellarmine Hall will be open with a new exhibit opening on Sept. 25. “Andrew Forge: The Limits of Sight” is curated by Karen Wilkin, and showcases 20 paintings and drawings of the dean and professor of the Yale University School of Art emeritus from 1975-1994, Andrew Forge.
As always, the Fairfield University Art Museum doesn’t simply stop at displaying art for students to view. They also createed a three-dimensional realm for students to enjoy lectures or events that complement each exhibit. Though you can view all upcoming lectures from their Eventbrite page, some highlights are the events they collaborate with the Quick Center on, including “Peggy Guggenheim: Visionary Woman Collector” and “Monumental Controversies: The Quest for National Identity.” The Peggy Guggenheim lecture will bring former co-host of ‘Art Detectives’, Jacky Klein, to discuss the life and art collection of Guggenheim. “Monumental Controversies” will have Harriet Senie, Ph.D., director of the M.A. program in art history and art museum studies at City College and CUNY Graduate Center, discuss the history of Mount Rushmore and how monument’s affect our lives overall.
Weber ends by mentioning that the museum is always looking for feedback or suggestions on content students would like to see. She offers her email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, to any student looking to give feedback.
In total, I’m not at all worried about the vitality of the arts at Fairfield. If there’s any section of campus life that can pivot to fully embrace this new digital world, it’s those that think creatively and champion the discovery of a “new way of doing things.” It will be a spectacular experience.
Theatre Fairfield: https://www.theatre-fairfield.org/
Quick Center Fall 2020 Season Calendar: http://quickcenter.fairfield.edu/fall-2020-season-calendar/index.html
Quick Center Online Box Office: https://quickcenterforthearts.secure.force.com/ticket/patronticket__publicticketapp#/
Fairfield University Art Museum Website: https://www.fairfield.edu/museum/
Fairfield University Art Museum Event Sign-Up: https://www.eventbrite.com/o/fairfield-university-art-museum-8204781229