Texas Tech University

Chatting with Charney

Mark Charney

May 5, 2020

Mark Charney

Let's be honest.

No one thought the semester would be ending with our new building empty, our students scattered, and our professors working from home. We planned to finish the year big. RROAPS and RRADS were celebrating new dance and theatre works, especially exciting this year, because the prompt was a very innovative set design by Shawn Ketchum-Johnson. Ryan Fay's Jungle Book was to be a devised revision of an old classic, in partnership with Lubbock Community Theatre. And we saved our big musical, Guys and Dolls, for the end of the year, directed by Ballet Lubbock's own Yvonne Racz-Key.

After exams, we'd be honoring our graduates in a commencement ceremony that was to feature our own Jaston Williams as speaker. We had a great WildWind Performance Lab scheduled with new Artistic Directors Jim Wren and Brian Quijada, guests all invited and flights paid for.

In the summer, one group of students were heading to Amsterdam to participate in a "crate" theatre festival, with other professors heading to take part in the International Theatre Institute World Congress and a massive theatre festival in Sibiu, Romania. Others were poised to travel to conferences and festivals, leading workshops and sharing research.

In other words, we were, as usual, ready to continue to do the work that we love, the work that has brought our school national and international acclaim.

If you think, however, that this is going to be a column that describes loss and overly sentimentalizes the past, you're wrong.

Sure, we lament losing opportunities that we worked hard to create, but I'm here to assure you that, in the process of adapting to new challenges, we've proven that we are flexible, resilient, and imaginative.

In other words, the School of Theatre and Dance has met adversity head on and come out the better for it.

Strong claim, right? The better for it?

I'm often accused of being overly optimistic, and I get that. But I am here to assure you that, while this is not the academic scenario we imagined (or wanted, for that matter), we are more than overcoming the threat of this pandemic, because we are using this time to take a dive into the deep structure of our program.

Allow me to explain. For the past eight years, we've been charging ahead. It's been exhilarating:

New programs.
New faculty.
New focus on experiential education.
New international partnerships.
New curricula.
New community and outreach activism.
New BFA in dance.
New MA in dance.
New season entirely in site-specific and found spaces.
Yep, and even a new building, with phase two in the works.

So, although we are as distressed about the fears associated with the virus as much as anyone, jumping first, like the rest of the country, into survival mode, we then began to examine the myriad possibilities that this time may, ironically, encourage. We have taken our time away to reflect, alone and together, and it's allowed us to truly examine our program from a more thoughtful perspective. It's like we were given the opportunity to step back for a moment and see our school from both the inside and outside, almost an out-of-body experience, if you will.

I'm losing you.

Maybe this will help. Sometimes, when you are in the thick of things—producing, acting, dancing, teaching, leading workshops, flying everywhere—you don't have the time truly to just stop.
We have worked hard to live in the present, not dwelling nostalgically in the past or speculating too often about the future.

So many articles, even well-meaning ones, either describe a world lost forever or a future rife with frightening changes. Rather than comforting us, today's rhetoric is bent on creating fear.

But I have to tell you, in these solitary times, I believe the world is realizing just how important art is.

Some artists are attempting digital platforms for performance, while others are streaming shows that were unavailable. I've seen zoom productions of King Lear, 24-hour ten- minute plays, and that 2-hour + Sondheim Birthday Celebration. And I'm in love with all of these efforts to continue our craft in any and all forms.

But universities are fortunate. They have the privilege of being able to just put on the brakes for a bit, truly consider the future by delving into a more complete understanding of the present, and figure out best means going forward. Since our school is first and foremost about our students, we are exploring best methods of building ensemble and sharing skill sets, even apart.

So we end this year with great hope. I've always loved and admired my community, but to be honest, the resilience and strength they've illustrated during these last few months have revealed brilliant faculty, staff, and students intent on success. Our foundation is sound, and we are using this time to make it even stronger.

So whatever happens in these next few months, we are not taking a step back; no, we will continue to overcome obstacles together, and when we return in the fall, in whatever format our university deems necessary, we will be all the stronger for it.