As a professor whose job it is to think about theater and performance (perhaps the most in-real-life of all media), Michelle Liu Carriger spent the past few months contemplating the effects of the pandemic in her field of expertise: theaters going dark, actors and other professionals being put out of work, her own “now-worthless theater tickets.”
But at the same time, Carriger, assistant professor of theater in the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, has been watching what she calls an “incredible explosion” of online activity in which everyone was thinking about what to do with the tools at hand to keep making performance. The questions she was pondering seemed like the perfect fodder for a class: How is performance and art continuing under new circumstances? How can we created meaning for ourselves and exert a sense of mindfulness so that we’re not just victims of what’s going on around us?
Fortuitously, around the final week winter quarter, when UCLA announced that classes would be transitioned to remote learning, the special seminar program called Fiat Lux made its own announcement: In spring quarter, there was to be a series of classes that looked at coronavirus through different lenses. A last-minute call for instructors went out, Carriger answered and the committee accepted her proposal. This gave her the opportunity to fulfill a key part UCLA’s mission of providing excellence in teaching by demonstrating academic alacrity on the fly that allowed faculty to develop curriculum in real time that reflected the shifting realities of the world.
This quarter she taught the Fiat Lux freshman seminar, “Art and Performance in the Time of Coronavirus,” which examined the sudden, great outpouring of alternative modes of art, performance and community engagement that have emerged in recent months.
This Q&A was conducted over two interviews prior to the end of classes.
How are students responding to the seminar?
It has been great so far. I have more artists than I have ever had in a Fiat Lux before so that’s really cool. It has been a really valuable exercise to check in with the same group every week to look at shared materials. We just met this morning and looked at precedence; we read from a journal written during the 1665 bubonic plague in London and a little bit about the philosopher Rousseau being in quarantine in the 18th century. We talked about what feels familiar and what resonates with us today and also what is totally different this time.
You’ve taught other Fiat Lux classes?
Yes, quite a few, on different topics: global fashion, drag performance, Japanese American issues in Los Angeles, feminism and then this one. I really love the program, because it’s one of the few chances in which I have one-on-one interactions with undergrad students. Because I teach such big classes and one of them is online, I don't really get to know my students in ways that I was able to at other institutions with a smaller student-to-professor ratio.
What was the goal for your class?
Our plan was to come out with either a zine or an online exhibition, or both, for the end of the course. Everyone in the class will contribute their best pieces that have come up over the 10 weeks; to mindfully create a record of this time and what it feels like. I also spoke with university archivist Heather Briston who is collecting on COVID-19 and we are planning to contribute a collection of materials, including our final creative products, to the archive at the end of the quarter. Nothing like this has ever happened to UCLA before. It will be cool to have a record both of journalistic accounts — my students are required to journal every day — and also curated artistic responses that have come out of this time.
Beside the journaling, what does student coursework look like?
We read about previous epidemics; later, everyone in the class interviewed one of their elders — parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles — about other crisis moments in their history. It didn’t need to be disease or epidemic, but it could also be things like the Vietnam War, living through the nuclear Cold War, or other sorts of crises. I interviewed my grandmother, who told me about rationing during World War II. Many of the students had stories from their relatives and elders as well, including escape from Armenian ethnic cleansing in the last days of the Soviet Union; the Mexico City earthquake in 1985; emigration to the U.S. from Central America and Mexico; polio; SARS and others.
I’m sure you also looked at how other artists are responding to this moment.
Yes. We looked at online performance forms and at other artists who are creating work in response to COVID-19 but also at those who were already making their art under constraint. Michelle Ellsworth is a choreographer and performance artist who has been doing online video archived art projects and dances for years and they are so perfect for this moment.
Can you give me an example of art under constraint?
By “under constraint” I’m thinking specifically of limitations like those art and performance are currently facing, especially low or no budget; lack of dedicated space; lack of time; lack of specialized tools and supplies. So, the arts under constraint that we’ve been focused on are generally very homemade, very small and/or focused on making every-day, domestic spaces visible in new ways.
In general, why would you say that Fiat Lux classes are important to the college freshman experience?
It’s a low-pressure way for students to add something unexpected to their education, something different than what they’re usually focused on. The Fiat Lux is a great opportunity to introduce big ideas and make students more critical thinkers.
On a different note, how has it been interacting with your students via Zoom?
Zoom isn’t the best for conversations, but it does have certain affordances that we don't have in an in-person classroom: The fact that some people can be speaking on camera and other people can be typing in the chat actually enables a larger number of students to be involved. Professors are discovering that some really quiet students who we might have suspected were tuned out or didn't care, are actually just quiet; they participate a lot more via the chat function in the classroom. I’m not ready to give up in-person discussion classes yet, but I’m thinking about ways that these multiple channels can be opened in our brick and mortar classes too, since it enables more, and a wider section, of the students to add their input!
What are you doing to entertain yourself these days?
I’ve been reading more plays and I wanted to make sure to take advantage of some of the amazing theater and performance that are being made available online. The very first things I watched were the Paris Opera’s production of “Swan Lake” and the British National Theatre’s production of “One Man, Two Guvnors” on YouTube.
I do feel that it’s important to do things differently right now — to do a thing that I believe in or that in the future I will feel was an accomplishment instead of just continuing with the status quo. It’s a way of not feeling like I’m just a victim of our circumstances but rather that I’m an agent in whatever is going on.