online theater student graphic

The coronavirus pandemic altered life for everyone at the University of Montana, and online classes for arts students have come with a lengthy set of challenges, according to musical theater majors.

“When you’re meeting in a two-hour acting class twice a week, losing that feels significant,” freshman Luke Cusomato said. 

Since the University shifted to remote learning after spring break, Cusomato and others have seen classes cut short, performances canceled and experienced anxiety over their continuing education in a field that Cusomato calls “very interpersonal.”

Cusomato starred in six performances of UM Theatre and Dance’s production of “Spring Awakening” before the rest were canceled in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was really difficult,” Cusomato said. “You have this feeling of working on something for so long, you get a taste of it, and we knew what was still to come. Losing that was the hardest part.”

Cusomato’s acting class, normally an in-person course involving “scene work” in pairs and small groups, is now learning how to perform and submit remote auditions. He said professional castings often require them before in-person auditions are considered.

But that still left voice lessons, violin and more to adapt to the internet. Cusomato said he’s only had one voice lesson so far, and the lack of clear scheduling has left him in limbo.

“I’m maximizing my time in my days and trying to set up structure to keep myself within my practices,” Cusomato said. “Otherwise, I’m screwed.”

The transition hasn’t been easy for theater professors, either. Pamyla Stiehl is an associate professor in the School of Theatre and Dance, where she teaches musical theater auditioning, theater history and musical theater dance.

She said going online was difficult, but the cancellation of spring productions hit the hardest.

“There were a lot of tears,” Stiehl said. “It was sort of a breakdown — an emotional support group happened in class that day.”

Stiehl said her history class was the easiest to adapt, but noted her dance class would’ve been nearly impossible to recreate online. Instead, since she had already covered most of the standards, her students will write two papers to finish the course.

Among fellow arts professors, she said despite production cancellations and no box office revenue, the mood has been positive.

“It’s surprising we haven’t been all doom and gloom,” she said.

Nicole Cukale is a junior musical theater major who described a similarly difficult time adjusting to the change. Since she completed all her generals, even more of her theater classes have hit roadblocks following the switch. 

“Most of my classes are performance-based,” she said. “Doing that at a distance just isn’t possible.”

Cukale said her keyboard classes have already listed final grades, since not many people have a keyboard at home. Her dance class, taught by Stiehl, no longer has any choreography to learn or perform — just those two papers left to write. 

But her greatest concern is over the canceled “Pride and Prejudice” performances she and others had been working on to debut in April. Cukale said she’s not sure she’ll get her practicum credit now that the show has been canceled.

“It’s given me a lot of anxiety,” Cukale said. “It feels like I’m just having a whole semester wasted and I’m not going to be able to make it up.”

John DeBoer, interim dean of the College of Arts and Media, said the college has been working to transition courses online, but acknowledged there have been difficulties.

“We’ve all been working hard, and we’re going to show what’s possible when this sort of challenge is put to us,” he said. “A lot of great art is made under constrained circumstances.”

DeBoer said professors were told to assess course work up to the end of in-person classes and assign practicum credit from there.

Additionally, Stiehl said the dean had charged professors with the task of brainstorming curriculum tweaks in the event classes remain online for the upcoming fall semester. 

One possibility she said they’ve discussed is grouping more “academic” classes in the fall and pushing production classes to the spring with the hope things will have returned to normal.

For now, Cukale remains in Missoula — she said she feared going home and bringing COVID-19 back to her parents. Facing the possibility of indefinite online classes, she expressed frustration.

“I can’t afford to go to school for another year, so I hope they figure this out.”