Dedicated Devils: Rising to the Challenge During COVID-19

performers on stage


While the pandemic has changed the way Duke’s Theater Studies Department works, it hasn’t derailed the group’s creative spirit. Over three nights in November of last year, eight students – six of them actors - from Duke and North Carolina Central University joined with artists from the Durham community to produced “Citizen: An American Lyric” for an audience that watched online.

“The students really appreciated how incredible it was to be in person and working on something,” said Associate Professor of the Practice and Chair of the Theater Studies Department Torry Bend, who taught the main stage production course that spawned the show. “Especially in these times, the in-person classes are so valuable. And certainly as a faculty member working on the project, I feel so close to my students, even if we were really far away from each other and wearing masks.”

In the spring of 2020, preparations for the mainstage production of “Fefu and Her Friends” were well under way when in-person instruction was halted due to COVID-19. The play was eventually performed, albeit via Zoom with actors reading lines from different locations.

While some students would return to campus in the fall, producing a play would continue to face serious hurdles as safety precautions such as physical distancing and masking needed to be observed. But there was also an opportunity to create something especially relevant as the country was in the midst of a national conversation on racial injustice.

The department brought in acclaimed Triangle-based director JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell, who chose to produce “Citizen: An American Lyric,” which uses poetry to create a portrait of race relations in the United States.

Producing the play live and in person required a heavy dose of creativity, which got a boost when Rich Kless, associate director of theater operations, suggested the production take place in Page Auditorium instead of the department’s traditional home in the Bryan Center’s Schaefer Theatre. Page Auditorium’s sophisticated system of remote-controlled video cameras helped create a unique experience for viewers, whose perspective jumped between masked actors – who each performed in their own spaced-out cubicle – and the wider stage.

“Arts are essential, now more than ever, and the department is not backing away from creating theatre performances during a pandemic,” said Duke Theater Studies Communications Specialist Margo Lakin, who nominated her department.

As we face challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, Duke employees everywhere are keeping the important work of the university and health system going. If you know of a staff or faculty member who has risen to the challenge, tell us about them on our story idea form.

The article above originally appeared in Working@Duke Feb. 8, 2021