Pictured above: HPU students perform a rendition of “Oedipus the King” adapted by Ken Elston, the interim dean of the David R. Hayworth College of Arts and Sciences, under the stars of Cottrell Amphitheater.
Nine minutes of dancing in a mask nearly spent Cheyse Lattie.
She stood onstage at High Point University’s Pauline Theater, breathing hard, her mask puffing in and out and sweat darkening the collar of her periwinkle blue outfit.
But she did it. In the HPU production, “Fall Dance II,” she and four other HPU dancers had just finished an athletically beautiful performance in front of a virtual audience and a handful of people.
Lattie and her fellow dancers couldn’t be happier.
At a time when a global pandemic has canceled theater and dance performances nationwide, HPU has worked hard to find ways for students to dance, act, film and create this semester and last semester.
Following its new motto, “Adapt, Create, Connect,” HPU’s Department of Theater and Dance produced this fall a dozen stark, poignant performances. Professors followed campus safety protocols and used tailor-made masks, platforms and the Cottrell Amphitheater to produce outdoors a play that is 2,500 years old.
It was all to keep students safe and their education vibrant and alive.
Students say they needed it. Professors, too.
“What do you do when calamity strikes?” asks Doug Brown, associate professor and chair of HPU’s Theater and Dance Department. “You don’t shut down. You present art that is important and meaningful for a world that is struggling. We want our students to learn that process.”
Learning A Life Skill
Last fall, in “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later,” Emma Russell played a hunter mom, a university professor, a grandmother and a Texas legislator. All in a mask, all six feet apart, all on a platform or in a chair at the Pauline Theater inside the Hayworth Fine Arts Center.
After a month of rehearsals, Russell and a cast of 15 other students depicted onstage the judicial fallout of a 1998 torture and murder of a gay man in Laramie, Wyoming.
Brown directed the play’s two acts. On different weekends in October, during performances that ran no more than an hour, Russell and the other actors played characters who raised thorny questions about tolerance, bigotry and hate.
Russell needed the performances for her education. As a senior theater major from Dayton, Ohio, she wants to become a professional actor. She’s applying to various graduate schools that are incredibly competitive, and she knows stage experience will give her an important edge.
But she also needed the performances for her. Ever since she came to HPU as a freshman, she knew she wanted to act. Now, she is.
A virtual meeting re-energized her passion for performing a few weeks ago. The professors set up a question-and-answer session with actors from the hugely popular Broadway musical, “Hamilton,” and Russell along with other HPU students had a conversation that resonated with all involved.
“It was like being in the same room with them,” Russell says. “I had been out of ‘Laramie’ since October 17, and I kept thinking, ‘Man, I miss theater. I’m ready!’”
HPU, she says, has helped her get ready.
“Our motto, ‘Adapt, Create and Connect’ gives me goosebumps,” Russell says. “That is what we’ve been doing. It shows the resiliency and ingenuity of our school. We are a Life Skills University, and to create under these circumstances is a life skill.”
Lattie, a junior psychology major from Durham, North Carolina, wants to be a forensic pathologist.
She’s on the pre-med track at HPU, and the only time she doesn’t study is when she dances. She’s been dancing since she was 2. She needs dance, she says, because it helps her handle the stress of her frenetic college schedule.
She joined Samantha Bridge, Madison Faggart, Grace Ann Letzinger and Quinn Van-Popering to create the nine-minute performance known as “One Eye and A Twisted Smile” and choreographed by adjunct dance professor Christine Bowen Stevens.
Twice a week two hours at a time last fall in McInnis Hall, Lattie and the others stood at least 10 feet apart, in a square marked by white tape. They danced in a mask and practiced making sure the intensely aerobic routine became second nature and muscle memorized.
During breaks, they walked outside, unmasked and downed copious amounts of water. After a few minutes, they started again.
When they finished, they mopped the floors and sprayed disinfectant in their white-tape square to follow COVID-19 protocols and keep each other safe.
For two months, Lattie and her other dancers did that.
In late October, they performed for three nights in the Pauline Theater for two audiences, one for a virtual audience and the other with an in-person audience spaced out in the theater.
The nearly empty room felt, as they said, “weird.” They’re used to performing in front of a few hundred people. Inside the Pauline Theater sat no more than two dozen people –– if that –– because of COVID-19.
“Just pretend your favorite people in the world are watching you right now,” Letzinger kept telling herself.
When they concluded “One Eye” on opening night, the sparse crowd erupted in applause. Stevens sat in the very back row on the edge of her seat. She had spent months on “One Eye.” She constantly saw it in her mind. On opening night, she saw it onstage.
“They did it,” Stevens said a few days later. “They performed during a time of COVID, a time when a lot of places aren’t dancing because of the pandemic. And in that back row, I felt like a parent. A proud moment.”
Her dancers were proud, too.
“Because of COVID, so many things had to change, but this makes us feel normal again,” Lattie says. “We wanted to find a way to hold onto that sense of normalcy, and we went for it.”
“Honestly, it was a blessing,” says Bridge, a junior dance major from High Point. “That is what most of us grew up doing, and without it, there would be an emptiness, a missing piece of us.”
The dancers gave props to their professors. They also gave props to HPU. Together, the professors and HPU made it work.
“It shows how determined they are and how dedicated they are to us as students,” says Letzinger, a senior from Suffolk, Virginia, a double major in dance and business administration. “They have given us the experience we need to help us grow as people and as dancers. They did a great job.”
‘I Felt Safe’
Getting ready for “Oedipus the King,” Sam McGlone wore sweatpants and three layers of clothes. She needed them to stay warm.
She and 14 other actors rehearsed outside for 10 nights straight last fall at the Cottrell Amphitheater. They bundled up and went over scenes in Sophocles’ Greek tragedy adapted by Ken Elston, interim dean of the David R. Hayworth College of Arts and Sciences and director of performing arts.
Elston, the play’s director, quickly turned “Oedipus” into a performance. After 10 days of rehearsal, McGlone and the other actors performed the play three nights in early November at the amphitheater with their faces in a mask.
McGlone wore a black mask that glittered. She played Creon, Oedipus’ brother-in-law, in a play that felt incredibly relevant in the year 2020 – with timely political and social justice themes shining through the 2,500-year-old play.
The play told the story of how the Greek city of Thebes reacted to a plague and an arrogant ruler. In adapting the ancient play, Elston inserted phrases like “I can’t breathe” and dialogue such as, “I keep my mouth shut! You should try it.”
McGlone said that to James Sandoval, the freshman from Severn, Maryland, who wore a gold mask and played Oedipus.
McGlone liked the contemporary feel of the play. She also liked that she felt safe.
McGlone lives on Long Island, one of the pandemic’s epicenters. She lost her maternal grandmother to COVID-19 on Easter Sunday. Her grandmother, Elsie Butler, was 94.
When she heard HPU was going back to in-person classes this fall, she sent an email to HPU President Dr. Nido Qubein about her concern.
Qubein emailed her that day. Qubein had someone from the university follow up with her and explain the specific plan HPU put into place.
That made all the difference.
“I didn’t expect that response at all,” says McGlone, a senior pop culture and media production major. “It wasn’t just some standard documented response to COVID. It was personal. Dr. Qubein addressed me by name, and he wanted to make sure I felt safe.”
Theater and dance professors made sure as well. This past summer, they talked to their colleagues at universities nationwide, reviewed national studies and gathered for three retreats to figure out how to make performances happen safely on campus.
They wanted it for the students –– and them.
“This is exactly what art is supposed to do,” Elston says. “It’s to create these moments of common breath, of common understanding. We share something in common, and we’re better in this world because of it.”
The Emotion of a Return
On a Thursday night during “Fall Dance II” in October, Faggart watched her fellow dancers perform a routine to Tim Buckley’s song “Hallelujah.” As Buckley’s mournful voice echoed inside the Pauline Theater, Faggart thought about loss and need.
When the pandemic came to Concord, North Carolina, she couldn’t dance, compete or follow what had consumed her life since seventh grade.
This fall, when she came to HPU as a freshman, she auditioned for a spot in “Fall Dance II.” She got it, and on opening night in October, as she stood backstage waiting to perform “One Eye and a Twisted Smile,” it hit her.
She hadn’t performed since March. She started to cry.
Dancing, she realized, is who she is. And she’s back.