Jasmine Johnson, Kennedy Gaskins, and Cam Mauer, students in UNR's new musical theater program, recorded some parts of their virtual show in masks and other parts from home. Screenshot courtesy of UNR's School of the Arts.

Imagine that you were recently recruited into a new and promising degree program in college, but just as you declare this new major and begin enrolling in your first classes, professionals working in this field around the world are forced to stop working. That’s what incoming students faced in the University of Nevada, Reno’s new Bachelor of Arts in Musical Theatre program, which welcomed its first recruited class of degree candidates in fall 2020. 

Kasey Graham, assistant professor and area head for the B.A.-Musical Theatre program (under the Department of Theatre and Dance), was in the same boat as he assumed his current role in August, helming the new program just as the idea of bringing students together to sing — the entire point of musical theater — was viewed as something akin to playing with fire. 

Kasey Graham is the director of UNR’s musical theater program, which launched in mid-pandemic in fall 2020. So far he’s taught for a semester and directed a virtual revue. But he still hasn’t met some of his colleagues in person. Photo – Kris Vagner

“The profession came to a screeching halt,” said Graham, who recently moved to Nevada from New York, where he’d spent six years performing in Broadway productions and leading workshops until the pandemic hit. His work was cut out for him as he approached the start of the fall semester with a roster of classes forced to start online. Nonetheless, he strove to make lemonade out of lemons. “Teaching musical theater online is not ideal, but we found ways to make it work, and the classes I taught ended up being a lot more successful and rewarding that I anticipated.”

The program, as Graham explained, features a balance of dance studies ranging from ballet to modern, tap and other styles; a wide range of theater themes and styles; voice lessons; and music. Its wide-ranging scope is sufficiently demanding that students are not required to complete an additional minor.

“We started with solos because that’s easier to do than interactions,” Graham explained. “And then the second project we did was something called action work, going line by line to analyze what you’re trying to get from the other person and how will you get it, and how does that change as you move through the text or song.”

Students also got their first performance opportunity with Bruised and Brave, a virtual musical revue of songs from the genre that focus on issues of mental health, for which rehearsals took place live in socially distanced fashion. Graham said there will be one production in spring — a festival they’re called The Power of One for which students are writing and workshopping pieces of eight to ten minutes each, performing them live for one person each, and sharing filmed versions for the full production that will be streamed online.

Students each recorded their parts separately at home for the finale of Bruised and Brave, a musical revue that addressed mental health. Top row: Cam Mauer, Adelynn Tourondel, Natalie Gonzalez, Adam Walmsley. Middle row: Kennedy Gaskins, Abby Rosen. Bottom row: Jacklynn Haughn, Georgia McKnight, Alyssa Granger, Jasmine Johnson. Screenshot courtesy of UNR’s School of the Arts.

Such activities not only incorporate performance skills but also technical skills that are sure to be useful in their future careers. “I think this virtual theater stuff is going to be with us for a while during the pandemic,” Graham said, “but even after that, I think people will use it as a way to collaborate with people who aren’t in the same cities or time zones.”

He was surprised to discover that, contrary to his expectations, his students were actually more attentive than usual, and he was able to cover more ground than he’d expected. Additionally, he said, students developed stronger listening skills and benefited from being forced to watch themselves on camera — a painful exercise many performers avoid but which heightens their self-awareness and reveals opportunities for improvement.

So are students questioning their degree choice in light of the pandemic? Not necessarily, Graham said. In fact, he’s seeing an increase of interest in both auditioning for shows and in the major itself. He suspects pent-up demand may be fueling it. 

“I think students are fairly positive in general,” he said. “And in a way, it might be a good thing for them to be in college, rather than the workforce, during this experience. It does reveal to them that they might want to diversify, perhaps to look at being educators or producers, rather than simply focusing on acting. Because even in the best of times, you may not always be working in this business, so it’s a good idea to have something in their back pockets.”

This article was funded by a City of Reno CARES Act grant and produced by Double Scoop and the Sierra Nevada Ally. Together, these news outlets are working to increase the amount of quality local arts and culture journalism.