To say that I am getting used to this "new normal" is a bit of an understatement. I have been suiting up with my cloth mask every time I go outside; if I hear what sounds like a cough, I powerwalk to the next aisle in the grocery store. Grocery shopping used to be enjoyable, but has now turned into my husband and me declaring that "we do not volunteer as tribute" to procure necessities. This is my first year on Tech's campus and this spring, I am finishing my first year of my MFA online in a completely different state. At this weird and challenging time, we are all trying to find a sense of normalcy in whatever circumstance we have been given due to COVID-19. As our students at the School of Theatre and Dance wrap up their spring semester of 2020, it is encouraging to hear that our artists are still learning, still creating and still sharing with the community through No Shame Theatre: Zoom Edition.
I was first introduced to No Shame Theatre last November where I was overcome by the amount of talent that originated from an "open-mic night," but for theatre. When on campus, No Shame Theatre, sponsored by student playwriting organization Script Raiders, was a scheduled night of original work written by artists, such as scenes, monologues, dancing, comedy, magic tricks, poetry, performance art, crafting, rants, group therapy sessions, and songs. Artists who choose to participate have five minutes to present anything material they would like as long as it upholds the three rules: Work must be original, it must be under five minutes, and it cannot break anything including the law. Being in what's considered a "low-stakes environment," artists can share their work in a supportive and encouraging environment while gaining confidence.
No Shame Theatre was started nationally at the University of Iowa in 1986 by Todd Ristau and Stan Ruth. Interdisciplinary Fine Arts Ph.D. student Shane Strawbridge shared with me that he and Eric Eidson (TTU Ph.D.) started No Shame Theatre at the School of Theatre and Dance in the Fall of 2018. They both were fortunate to learn the format by attending No Shame in Roanoke, Virginia where Todd Ristau still writes and performs as the head of playwriting at Hollins University.
Our social distancing guidelines are growing and artists (myself included) are finding it more difficult to share their work or express their creativity in front of an audience. I was delighted to hear that No Shame Theatre not only is thriving in its online platform but has merged with Program Director & Assistant Professor of Theatre, Christie Connolly (Texas Tech University Alum), and Union College.
With the power of technology, I reached out to host Shane Strawbridge. He explained to me that Christie Connolly contacted him, looking for an opportunity for her students to continue to perform. Strawbridge and Connolly both agreed that it was a wonderful idea to join forces and expose students from other universities to theatre. Strawbridge and Connolly both have been participants for No Shame Theatre, and both believe that it is more important now than ever.
"This online platform allows a modicum of social interaction and expression," said Strawbridge. "It pushes artists and audiences to think outside the box about how theatre is presented and how it may be presented even after the current circumstances are lifted. Some artists present their work at No Shame in a fashion similar to theatre that has a traditional audience. Some have started to write and perform pieces that are geared specifically for the Zoom format, taking advantage of camera angles, virtual backgrounds, and the muting process in hearing secret conversations. It's exciting to see how people adapt to new technology at this time."
Currently, the group is presenting No Shame Theatre every other Wednesday night. However, the frequency may grow given the response from students on both campuses.
"The most difficult part about being online (and so abruptly) is the lack of connection with my students and the emotional toll that this pandemic is taking on everyone," said Connolly. "We are grieving. My students started saying, 'Bring back No Shame!' It is a nonjudgmental space where you can pour your heart out, joke and laugh, try something new, and simply assemble as a group. These are all desperately needed right now."
I spoke with one student Charles "Chaz" Kennedy, an undergraduate transfer student who has participated in the online platform. Chaz had just recently been cast in the Burktech Players' first musical when classes switched to online and the show was canceled. He misses the sense of community that the theatre provides, but No Shame provides a similar outlet.
"No Shame is impacting lives by allowing artists to not only practice their performing skills but also allowing them to gain newfound confidence in a supportive environment," said Kennedy. "While COVID-19 has kept most artists from meeting in person, it does not stop the progress of No Shame Theatre and has encouraged us to be more creative as artists by using Zoom to allocate our skills digitally."
Kennedy shared with me that he is excited to see what the future "digital world" holds, and he plans to continue his involvement with No Shame Theatre where he hopes to write an original scene or rap song.
No Shame Theatre is not only affecting the stage but the classroom setting. Artists thrive on collaboration with other artists and that sense of community, at least in person, has been taken away for a while but hopefully not forever.
One thing that will never shift for artists is their love and desire for the craft. Whether it be in person or online, I am inspired by our students from Texas Tech and Union College who continue to share their gifts while having a safe place to create and be vulnerable. Strawbridge expressed he would encourage anyone, even if they don't consider themselves writers or performers, to take a chance.
"With No Shame Theatre, anything can happen, and it usually does."