A virtual semester pushed Morgan State’s Fine Arts Department to get creative


Ta’Fari Simpson

Grace (Whitley Paige Cargill) sits on the Charles’ family couch during the March 2020 production of August Wilson’s “Piano Lesson.”

Ashlyn J. Wilson, Contributing Writer

With the help from students on the technical production crew, cast members of Morgan State’s on-campus productions traditionally prepare for live performances at the Murphy Fine Arts Center.

But when Morgan decided to transition online for the fall, five classes within the university’s Fine Arts Department were cut including university theatre, stagecraft, scene, theatre stage management and lighting design. So without help from a technical crew and a looming virus, the department put on a virtual performance of Jose Rivera’s “Marisol.”

With help from technical director John-Robert Schroyer, cast members individually recorded their lines, created their costumes, props, sets and secured good lighting for the production. The play, which was streamed on Oct. 29 through Oct. 31 and Nov. 6th through Nov. 7th, was accessed with a purchased ticket.

In Rivera’s 1991 “Marisol,” viewers are introduced to an unrecognizable world of revolt, urban chaos and personal struggle as they follow a young woman living in an inner-city wasteland. 

“The director conveyed his vision of each character and the cast members presented what they had that fit that vision,” he said “We ultimately had to supplement some items, but a lot of what is seen belongs to the actors.” 

Schroyer normally teaches stagecraft, one of the five classes cut fall semester. But he used his experience to create digital elements that complemented a recorded format. 

For the opening scene of the play, Schroyer used real footage and pictures to set the scene rather than a conventional set.

“Everyone gets the opportunity to build sets and props, make costumes, hang lights, assist with marketing and be a crew member for performances,” Schroyer said. “Since we didn’t need most of that, there were not that many opportunities.”

The absence of several theatre courses has left professors in the Fine Arts Department to wonder how they will adjust in the spring semester if the university decides to continue online, including Dwight R.B Cook, an adjunct professor for theatre. Cook is also among the professors whose classes were cut.

Traditionally, Cook teaches his students in the Murphy Fine Arts Center. Today, he’s home preparing for the return of a course he’s not certain will translate well online.

“Part of the course, the way it’s structured, students are supposed to work with the director,” Cook said. “So, they have certain things as a stage manager that they have to do to assist the director.” 

Students who participate in Cook’s class are taught the technical logistics of stage managing production and participate in live productions. But this semester was different as educators were forced to figure out an alternative way to teach their students and produce a play. 

“One of the shortcomings this semester is that because faculty and staff are trying to figure out exactly how to do it, they’re doing it themselves and not necessarily integrating students the way they should,” Cook said. 

But despite the challenges the semester has brought, students are still very much locked into their majors including music major Aliyah Nowlin. She said especially in today’s climate, music is her motivation.

“Out of everything that’s going on, music is still my therapy and it’s a safe place for me to continue to express myself,” she said.