Re-purposing the Essential; a profile of another Worker among us.

This Program Chair of a theater arts program was in the running for Optimist of the Year before all this.  At first glance, you feel their outlook can’t possibly be genuine, but after you engage in an impossible task with them and see it through to completion, any doubt about their authenticity vanishes.   Their positivity is not born in a weekend seminar with a guy with a spray tan and white capped teeth and his trademark ten steps to success, but in decades of grit and tireless positive action, pulling off the everyday miracle of actually making shit in this mad world.

“…In early March we were on spring break when the serious rumblings began to sort of surface.  In terms of significantly reshaping life for all of us.  We were in the office, but our students fortunately and unfortunately were not with us; fortunately near family, but unfortunately, many of them were spread around the world, which posed a bunch of problems we got to solve.”  

“Mid-March, maybe, I think…?  The mandates were quickly stumbling down from state, right?  California was ahead of the curve in terms of closing up shop.  I remember Monday or Tuesday we began to social distance in meetings, and by Friday, we moved to not being on campus at all.” 

“A real quick shift.  Monday, social distance.  Tuesday,  we cut in half, into two shifts, and then Friday, we were grabbing our stuff and going home.  Looking back, it was like, wow, that was a short amount of time.  Feeling the pressure of communicating with students remotely who were set to come back that Monday.  That was a pressure-filled week of decision making; none of which were real good choices, disappointing somebody, scaring somebody else…”

“So, Friday night at 7.00, just a few days before our students were set to come back, we finally got word from above.  See, ours is part of a college group spread all over the country.  We have sister schools in the Midwest, and the East, and coordinating those moves (to represent) all of us in that amount of time was… like lightening; though, at the time, it felt like molasses.” 

“We made the decision to extend spring break.  That bought time for us to move online.  As we waited to get word from the federal government, and accreditors from above, it was decided to extend spring break another week, which allowed three weeks to train all our faculty to move their classes from in person to on line.  Stress filled, for sure, packed with innovation, positivity… what I realized really quickly, us being a new school, we had a lot of micro-problems as a new organization in a growth period, so, I’m used to experiencing chaos and solving problems, but this problem was also fairly unique, because it was literally, by definition, universal.” 

“But what I found was, surprisingly, a relatively workable, optimistic, positive, forward-moving group that met the moment together and offered up more solutions than road blocks, which was a pleasant surprise.  I was stressing about what would be delivering more work for my faculty – ‘under stress’, our motto was ‘we progress,’  

“So, our team met the moment with that attitude and real quickly shifted all gears and ultimately delivered a ‘good-as-could-be-mini-session’ that rounded out our semester together.  One thing I took on was calling every one of our students every day. To check in, find out if they were healthy, if they had any tech issues, and abundantly, to a person, were fully engaged, trying to squeeze out as much as they could in this altered reality.”  

“What was a unique problem was that we had just gone through a major change.  A shifting of ownership.  All new online learning systems, brand new; the way that we track students, we communicate, e-mails, and everything… had just switched.   No one was an expert on campus.  We were all learning and mastering the new system, then enter Covid, and now this shift requires total mastery.”  

“So, it meant everybody had to put the pedal to the metal… These new tools we were only handed a few months ago were now essential.  Normally, you would have training modules, and all that, but now, all of a sudden, you can’t get your work done, unless you master these online tools.  Which meant that students and faculty had to go to work to master the online modules, and I was surprised at how quickly teachers were able to transition performance based classes completely online…”

“The folks I hire, are by definition, creative.  And now they proved themselves through this by adopting creative solutions.  And the students met that on their end.  Which created a as-good-as-could-be-scenario.  Not perfect, nor could it be, given all the challenges we were facing as a community…”

“One of the things that stuck out to me was we had a stage combat course and I was like, ‘boy, how do you take stage combat to your bedroom by yourself,’   The good news, we had fundamental skills delivered from the previous semester.  So, the instructor turned them all into combat choreographers,  instead of leading class, he chose to make it a process-backed learning module.   Each student had to engage others as teachers and execute the choreography they originated.”  

“A big problem we had was our graduating seniors were set to do their showcase, which is a big budget forward facing event,  the culmination of their four years.  A lot of pressure.  And since we are a career school with certain accreditation we have to fulfill data-wise, it becomes real pivotal, pressure, pressure, pressure.  We had to quickly rimagine what a showcase would look like.  Did a real quick research project of what other colleges are doing and identify what the industry innovation trends were.  Doing so, we engaged with our tech team, all hands, and created a thirty, forty page website.  We taught them (the students) to edit together sizzle reels, collected a ton of content and blasted out a collective online showcase.  And it was a team effort.  We had fifteen adult sets of hands wrapped around this and thirty three graduating students, meeting on zoom twice a week, checking all the boxes.  We partnered through Actors Access (an industry work portal) and ended up with as many calls and interest as our in-person showcases.  An exciting, scary, uphill battle that really landed where we wanted to.  The moment forces you to adapt.  And we pride ourselves on graduating well-rounded, capable story-tellers, who are producers and creatives, and this experience really showed that.”

“Our curriculum was built to answer this call.  When I talked to them,  I said, ‘please, help me, because I’m not that smart.’  It was unbelievable to watch the students step up, and all those days they spent building the skills, not just the hard skills, but the soft skills, which we put a lot of lead on, to graduate people that are great to work with; it solidified my hope that these guys and gals are different than most, because they were a delight to work with during that transition.”

“That allowed them to capture their credits and stay on track toward graduation; that was our first goal, we didn’t want the semester to run off the cliff, and we all acknowledge there were missing pieces.  So, then, the next question: how do we go back and how do we go back to doing it.  And we have been knee deep in that conversation for a couple months.  My job is to come up with creative ways to deliver curriculum and make opportunities for application.  And there are a lot of problems to solve, and what this experience is worth (for students going forward) is above my pay grade. I do know that question is being explored in endless sessions with our president and students, and parents, and we gather intel on intentions, and scenarios one, two, three, four, or five; hybrid on line, or in person, on online again in the spring, not being able to do large group performances, and so on…”  

“We are monitoring the industry, the state and city, and going at this idea of running a college as if it is its first year— which is the best way of looking at it.   Take the opportunity to clean out, identify the fat and elements that live ritualistically, or traditionally, and ask yourself the important questions—  is it necessary, can we do something different?  Reevaluate everything.  Is it worth keeping- after pandemic?   What can we create that is not a band aid?  Is this, can this be an opportunity to create something better and lasting?   And we are at a place where all of us need to ask that question; what do we want to lean into?  The stuff that is meaningful and jettison the waste.  We are defining that word essential, and what we are discovering, there are things we never deemed essential before that are now essential.  Like quiet space, extra time with family, spending less money on things that don’t matter, things that are less essential. So, that is the part that can become quite rich, is to cut out things that are frivolous and replace them with things that we are discovering as essential, at our school, our company, and my life.  To find what matters, and fight for it.”

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