When the University of Nebraska–Lincoln moved classes online in response to the spread of COVID-19, students and faculty had to come up with new ways to finish out the semester. In Dr. Julia Schleck’s Intro to Shakespeare course, students Bailee Gunnerson, Grace O’Keefe, Hannah Shields, and Olivia Appleget decided to take a creative approach to their final project.
The March 12 announcement came in the middle of Dr. Schleck’s class: the next week of classes were cancelled, and when they resumed after spring break, they would no longer be in person. With COVID-19 spreading rapidly and institutions across the nation moving to online instruction, many students expected a similar change at UNL. Still, says Shields, it felt surreal. Like many of her fellow students, O’Keefe saw the email notification pop up on her computer. “I remember looking around the class trying to figure out who had seen the email and trying to figure out what I was going to do.”
Performance is an integral part of studying and experiencing the works of William Shakespeare, who wrote his plays for the stage; not so much for reading. Dr. Schleck includes a performance component in every Intro to Shakespeare class she teaches. “The humor and the pathos of his works are best felt through live performance,” she says. “Considering how a scene is staged or a line is spoken can also bring up fascinating interpretative questions to discuss.”
In this semester’s section of ENGL 230A, students were split into “troupes” and assigned a scene to perform from one of the four plays they read as a class: The Rape of Lucrece, Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, and As You Like It. This meant assigning roles to each member (producer/director, props manager, costumer designer, etc.) and working together to craft their own interpretation of the scene, rehearse it, and then perform it for their classmates.
Since troupes wouldn’t be able to perform in class after the transition, Dr. Schleck shifted the assignment. Students could compare two online performances and talk about what they would have done as a group. Or, she said, they could come up with their own creative interpretation of the assignment.
Gunnerson, a broadcast major with a background in theater (who has been involved in nearly a dozen shows, one of which she designed and directed), proposed an alternative approach: they could create a director’s portfolio for their assigned scene and share it with their classmates as a website. Her group jumped at the idea, and with Dr. Schleck’s approval they got to work, communicating via text and video calls and collaborating through Google docs.
“When Bailee told use her idea to create a website, it had the potential to be a really fun and unique take on the subject,” says Shields, “but the outcome of our hard work was even better than I expected.”
The resulting online portfolio showcases their ideas for staging Act 4, Scene 1 of As You Like It, exploring all aspects of the production, from costuming, props and characterization to sound, lighting, and set design. O’Keefe, who was an actress in high school stage productions, said that both the website and the technical aspects they covered helped her see theater in a new light. The finished product wowed their classmates, and Dr. Schleck praised their creativity and execution. “It’s quite sleek and very fun,” she said.
“Having a positive user experience on a product you have created feels amazing,” says Gunnerson. She hopes it will inspire others to be inventive in the face of changing circumstances and show that “in a difficult time, we can make the most of it.”