Mason professors host emergency conference to help theater faculty nationwide

Sherrice Mojgani

Sherrice Mojgani, an assistant professor of theater at George Mason University, was troubled by how she was going to teach her classes this fall, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Theater, said Mojgani, is a discipline that “thrives on being together.” As she thought about her lighting design classes, she struggled with how to teach them in a way that encouraged community, creativity and engagement.

Mojgani decided to create an “emergency virtual conference on undergraduate theater education” for faculty to commiserate and discuss ways to teach during the pandemic. With help from fellow theater faculty within Mason’s College of Visual and Performing Arts, Mojgani hosted the virtual conference in mid-July, with 50 attendees from universities and colleges nationwide.

“I thought, ‘I need to rethink how I teach. I need to pivot, and I need help,’ ” said Mojgani. “It felt like an emergency to me. I knew how much our students crave connection to each other, so teaching in an intentional way that centered on our students seemed important.”

Mimsi Janis and Debra Sivigny, assistant professors in Mason’s School of Theater, helped plan the conference, including inviting fellow professors and determining the schedule. The conference included working groups on different areas of theater studies, a keynote speaker and a discussion on diversity initiatives.

“We had a day where the theme was on teaching in trauma,” Mojgani said. “We talked about how to create an anti-racist classroom and foster diversity.”

Much of the conference focused on ideas for encouraging community and teaching aspects of theater that normally rely on a hands-on approach.

“It was important to talk about how we teach theater and build relationships when we are online or socially distanced and can’t stand in front of each other and breathe and look into each other’s eyes,” Janis said. “We ended up getting a lot of ideas from each other. My main take away was not to fight the medium, like Zoom, but to use it, and it will still be theater. It will be different, but it will be theater.”

All of Mason’s theater classes will be online in the fall. The attendees, said Mojgani, were planning classes under a variety of circumstances, from all online to in-person but socially distanced.

Samuel Ray Gates, a theater professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said he got “community and camaraderie” from the conference.

“It was soothing, actually, to talk to people about the challenges we face this year,” said Gates. “We talked about how important it is to think about our students’ mental health and well-being during the year, as well as our own, as we plan our courses.”

Janis said that they used both Zoom and Blackboard Collaborate Ultra for the virtual conference. She said they discussed learning to “embrace the moment” and how they were training their students to be adaptable, which would help them in their careers.

“We all left the conference feeling more inspired about ways to do new art and less worried about how we were going to do it,” Janis said.