Silver linings can be found among the upheaval created by the COVID-19 pandemic. One of them is the connections made during prescribed social distancing.
The world of in-person arts and entertainment dried like a flower petal in a scorching wind. Suddenly those making their incomes onstage, behind the stage or promoting the stage were at home without a job. Students looking for careers in those positions were in the same situation as classes throughout the country were halted and switched to an online format.
That was the topic of conversation when 2015 theater alumna Jessica Simons was chatting with Billy Wilburn, associate professor of theater.
Simons had been working as the wardrobe supervisor for the off-Broadway production of “Rock of Ages” in New York City when she got her furlough. Wilburn knew others were in the same situation, however, those alumni generally weren’t in connect with one another and they certainly were in contact with current students.
Wilburn decided to use his connections to create connections between costume shop alumni and current students via a Zoom meeting.
A 90-minute social call
Thanks to active Facebook alumni groups for both State University Theatre and Prairie Repertory Theatre, SDSU's school year and summer productions, Wilburn is able to invite 85 alumni to the Zoom chat as well as the 40-plus theater majors. A group of 25 (five students and 20 alumni) spent 1 ½ hours learning about one another.
The alumni graduated between 2008 and 2019, lived in metropolitan areas like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles as well as in South Dakota, and were working in theater, event management, film and education.
In addition to introductions, the participants shared funny stories and how impactful their SDSU experience had been, Wilburn said.
There was topical conversation on subjects like, “How are people dealing with quarantine? How are you dealing with the boredom? How you are dealing with being at home? We laughed a lot about crazy memories in the past. ‘I remember this show, so-so missed their entrance, so-so ripped her dress and we needed to sew her in.’ The backstage stories that the general public never hears. It was wonderful.
“I hope it leads to more connection with our alumni and our students. So many of our alumni are working in the field, but they don’t know each other. In our field, jobs are gained by having connections. I’m hoping the connections we are now making will lead to stronger alumni ties and we don’t lose contact with each other,” Wilburn said.
Positive feedback from alumni, students
Since the March 30 Zoom call, he has gotten thank yous from alumni for putting the event together. “‘I’m now having contact with people I’ve not connected with in years,’” alumni told Wilburn. He added, “People get busy and you lose connections with people you knew in college. They’re still out there and they still care about each other.”
Wiburn said the interaction was motivational for the students.
“They said, ‘It was so cool to see what all the people are working on.’ In theater, it doesn’t matter what generation you are from, there are commonalities. My students got to see me in a different way and hear different stories about me. They heard it through rumor, now they’ve heard it from the source,” laughed Wilburn, who has been teaching at State since 2007.
As the school year continues online, more Zoom meetings may be organized with other groups of alumni, Wilburn said.
Every spring he teaches a costume construction class, which is primarily a laboratory class. When that was no longer possible, Wilburn found numerous resources online. “Last week I mailed packages of projects to their houses. It’s a lot of hand sewing, including a surgical mask.” Students have been excited to get their packages, he said.
It’s another way to maintain interaction between one another and their instructor.
“Students are spending 40 to 60 hours a week together when they’re working on a show and now they’re at home. It’s important to still provide that social contact,” Wilburn said.