Conservatory exercises creativity with online learning

Written By Rosalie Anthony and Jordyn Hronec

As the entire university continues the rest of the Spring 2020 semester via remote online learning, both students and faculty in the Conservatory of Performing Arts (COPA) are having to adapt to an online-only world while still engaging in the arts.

Steven Breese, the Artistic Director and Dean of COPA, said that he is particularly impressed with the response to the change from the COPA faculty. 

“The COPA faculty have been outstanding,” Breese said. “I am in awe of all that they have done and are doing to activate and facilitate this important change…They care deeply about the students and have taken on this important and necessary task with energy, ingenuity and creativity.”

The dance program, specifically, has had to undergo significant changes to move in-person classes to an online format. In a letter to dance students, Breese expressed his optimism that the dance program would be able to continue to operate to the best of its ability.

“The Dance Faculty and Staff have been outstanding, working closely with you to discover and/or invent new ways to teach and learn,” Breese wrote. “I encourage you to continue to rely on your faculty and mentors. They are well-equipped to support you and, as you know, they care deeply about you and your success. This is a unique time to be a student of dance and of the arts, and I continue to be impressed by your energy, ingenuity and creative drive.”

However, students in the dance program have faced their own challenges and upsets with the transition.

“Some of my classes have not changed greatly,” Cecilia Alves, a sophomore dance major said. “Academics and certain dance classes, like composition, are both manageable and easy to transition to an online format. Other classes, like ballet, modern and jazz have not been easy to adjust to. [Due to] the video assignments, I don’t feel I have the time to dance everyday like I normally would, because I am consumed with online work. Also, there is an issue of space. I was slightly disappointed to receive emails from the COPA department, including themes and responses that our classes ‘still exemplified the standard of excellence we pay to receive at Point Park.’ I feel not only robbed of my money, but of my training, because I am missing out on critical in-studio time that cannot be replaced.” 

A lack of access to suitable facilities is also causing concern amongst COPA theater students.

“Like every student here, the pandemic has impacted the fact that I am not able to use the facilities at the school any longer, which is detrimental to the training that we are all receiving,” Gill Vaughn-Spencer, a senior musical theater major, said. “Try as we might, there is simply no way to fully recreate the same training.”

Vaughn-Spencer also described what his COPA-related classes now consist of.

“Every dance class has had to move to much more of a strength building and conditioning class because of the limited amount of space,” Vaughn-Spencer said. “Instead of across the floors and combinations, many teachers have had to do workout regimes and technique specific exercises to have us film and send to them. All of my acting/musical theatre classes have switched over to “self-tapes,” a crucial, but very different, aspect to our careers. Instead of connecting with a real, physical scene partner who can alter the scene at any moment, we are purely working solo with our own imaginary partners.”

Catie Newell, a freshman performance and practices major, is taking the time spent at home to focus on her art.

“I really like many aspects of art, so I’ve been trying to be more in touch with other art forms that I haven’t been able to spend time on in a while,” Newell said. “Like drawing, guitar, painting, etc. It is really fulfilling and something I’m happy to spend time on.”

Newell, like others, says that while the current situation is unlike any that the university has seen before, there are some areas where the response could be better.

“I believe that the school handled the situation in the way that any one of us would have handled it, with a lack of protocol and communication,” Newell said. “This is a situation that could not have been predicted in regards to how fast it happened. However, Point Park is not a new university which means that in my opinion, there should have been protocol in place to take care of situations like this. That being said, I found that through my experience, none of the departments had clear communication with each other at all. It seemed like they were all reading different instructions on how to talk to the students about what is going on and what they were doing.”

“I wish that there was a more beneficial way for us to create instead of having to do all of these assignments that I don’t have time or storage for,” Alves said. “Part of me feels like we should just call the semester, or be given a personal assignment that we can work on and present at the end of the semester instead of all of these separate projects. I think if we were given the freedom to delve into our art and the things that interest us during this time, it could be a way for us to take things to another level.”

Cara Friez, the Chair of the Cinema Arts Department in COPA, said that her department is also working hard to transition to online courses. 

“The Cinema Arts faculty have been incredible [in] coming up with flexible and creative solutions to move our courses online at the last minute,” Friez said. “None of us want to be operating our courses in this fashion, as we love the face-to-face interactions we have with our students, but we understand the situation and want to do the best we can right now. Many companies have stepped up to provide the software our students need at home. We also created multiple streaming accounts for our students to access the films they need to watch for their classes.”

According to Friez, the Cinema Arts Department is specifically using a service called “” to allow students to view and give feedback on each other’s films. She also described the importance of online forums and Facebook groups, such as “Shifting Film, Media, Screenwriting & Production Online for COVID-19,” that cinema faculty across the world have been using to communicate and share ideas.

“COPA’s responsibility has not changed,” Breese said. “Our mission and responsibility is to do all that we can to teach, mentor and prepare our students so they can become their artistic best, and to help them successfully enter the creative economy. Going online does not change our focus or our responsibility. Yes, the current environment has forced us to use different tools to better manage time and distance, but we are moving forward and continue to challenge and support our students every day.”