Over a dozen students sit in front of their cameras, some sweeping brushes across their cheekbones to apply face paint, others tediously applying coffee beans in the shape of a mask or using chocolate syrup to ooze out of a gruesome wound.
Occasionally, a student will glance at the camera and ask their professor for advice on how to apply the next portion of their makeup look.
Professor Gayle Baizer leans in close, the same way she would to examine a student’s work if they were in person.
This goes on for another hour, tiny square boxes of students in an upper division class in the theater department working from home, practicing and building upon skills so that when the return of live shows and productions is deemed safe, technical theater students will have not missed a beat.
Because the performers that take the stage are not the only ones who lost out due to the coronavirus pandemic. So did everyone part of lighting crews, costume design, set design, choreographers—the list goes on, but these are just some of the roles in technical theater, who help transform ideas into productions.
Bazier said that she adapted so that her class would still be doing the same work had they been in person, one-on-one in a classroom. She has created experimental projects, including having students develop a character, create a moodboard and present the finished concept all via Zoom.
“It was extremely successful, they did a great job and that tells me that that’s gonna work fine, that we are able to make that transfer, because with a fine art and a three-dimensional, studio-type class, you want to make sure that you can do those projects, it’s really important,” Baizer said. “So, so far, no glitches. And if we have a glitch we laugh at it and move on. You know, it’s not worth it. They’re extremely creative and it’s just a lot of fun with them.”
One of Baizer’s students is Marissa Sellers, a fifth-year technical theater major. Sellers is a costume design teacher at the Huntington Beach Academy for Performing Arts, having a dual perspective of both what it is like to work within and teach technical theater amid the closures of venues and cancelations of performances due to safety concerns.
In her classroom, Sellers has felt the limitations of what can and can’t be done in order to protect against the spread of the virus. Sewing machines, Sellers pointed out, were not to be used due to it being a shared tool. Without shows, students don’t have the opportunity to dress actors either.
But Sellers is keeping her students busy learning, the students now having time to try their hand at skills like embroidery, as well as creating mock designs and renderings of makeup looks.
And when Sellers logs into her classes at CSULB as a student, she gets the same experience of working with what you can do.
In Baizer’s class, Sellers said she gets all the hands-on experience she would have received even if it was in person.
In a stagecraft class last year, Sellers said that while students couldn’t use the on-campus shop, one of the many studios and labs accessible for technical theater students to work in, they got the opportunity to better understand how to design a production and tell a story through those designs.
“This is the first time a lot of my friends in theater, including myself, have had a break, and have had the opportunity to learn these skills…It doesn’t feel like I’m lacking in experience,” Sellers said. “It feels like I’m gaining a new skill set, though it might not be what I expected.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Sellers was involved in about 20 shows a year, 12 of them from her work at the performing arts school.
This breather from the “gig to gig” life, Sellers said, has allowed her to learn how to relax. While it may not be the traditional lesson to have learned, it’s one that is necessary in the field.
While the quantity of opportunities may have diminished during this time, Sellers still had work, including a shoot for a dance that was filmed in the summer. For Seller, having two to three months to create costumes was a welcomed reprieve from the tight deadlines of pulling together costumes for shows.
For Ashbrooke Hinkle, a fourth-year technical theater major with an emphasis in stage management, her role is key in the world of technical theater. As a stage manager, Hinkle coordinates between the various departments working together on a production, making sure everyone is informed and on the same page.
It’s a lot of communication, but whereas Hinkle could once hold people accountable at a rehearsal or in-person meeting, it’s trickier when the entire crew of a production will only ever meet through their laptop screens.
Hinkle transferred to CSULB in fall 2019, adjusting to the new change and like everyone else, under no impression that her college experience would change so drastically in the coming months.
Part of her responsibilities means that Hinkle is constantly emailing different faculty members within the department. But, establishing a relationship with people Hinkle has never met in person before comes with the added challenge of making a good impression via email, which like text, can be ripe for miscommunication.
Hinkle, who is friends with Sellers, said that the two of them and some of their peers were going to be part of the same production in the spring 2020 semester, before the coronavirus pandemic. She was also lined up to be an assistant stage manager.
In the fall semester, Hinkle still participated productions, including two Theatre Threshold shows and the department’s main show, where Hinkle spent almost 16 weeks communicating and coordinating with the cast.
Although Hinkle was dependent on people seeing her messages and responding to her, she and her co-stage manager made it work. And when students like Hinkle graduate, she said she hopes future employers take this time into consideration.
“I hope they want new people in the profession, and I hope that they take chances on us college kids who didn’t really get the chance to totally refine our skills in college, and so I hope that they just…are understanding that we didn’t get the chance.”
Back inside Baizer’s virtual classroom, Sellers is applying Post-it notes to her face to achieve a checkerboard effect. It’s part of Baizer’s lesson, which was for students to use nontraditional makeup items to create a look.
While virtual learning may not be ideal, it doesn’t mean that the students don’t find success during this experience.
“I think we would all much rather be on campus together and in that learning environment,” Baizer said. “However, rules are meant to be broken. There are ways to get around missed opportunities and make them opportunities, and that’s what we’ve done. We’ve taken dirt and spun it into gold.”