Distance learning creates new hurdles for senior projects, theses

Juliette Pope/The Miscellany News

Classes, office hours, group projects, dorm rooms, lectures, parties, commencement, the Deece––in the wake of the virus, these are all parts of college life that have been canceled or modified radically. For seniors who don’t expect to return to Vassar’s campus, these cancellations bear a particularly heavy blow. Unfortunately, the tirade of changes also affects some of the most serious aspects of their academic worlds. Senior theses and projects—core components and long-standing traditions of many departments—are undergoing substantial adjustments. 

At a time when a live performance is a public safety risk, the Drama Department has been forced to implement some of the most drastic changes. While many senior projects had fortunately taken place earlier in the year, the play “H.B. Floating Palace,” written by and starring Rahul Makwana ’20, has been canceled. “One of the best things about theater is that it is ‘live’ and takes place in the present,” said Makwana. “This is why it is more exciting to me as a form, as compared to filmmaking or anything else. The fact that there won’t be any audience and we won’t get to perform it on our feet is very disheartening.” 

The play, which was the first Makwana wrote in a writing workshop during his study abroad program at National Theater Institute (NTI) in Waterford, Connecticut, is a surrealist memory play that centers the life of an aging Indian couple. It explores themes such as the India-Pakistan Partition, violence in Kashmir, bipolar disorder, immigration and intergenerational conflicts. The play made its debut in the Mug during the fall semester. Makwana commented, “Last time when we did it, we received an unanticipated response from the audience. The Mug was packed on all three nights.” He explained that the play will now take the form of a radio play or a podcast and that the department will then upload it to a streaming platform. However, even with this new route, many aspects of this  senior project had to be put on hold or scrapped. “We were doing a lot of research for design ideas and organizing meetings for lighting, costumes, set, props, etc., but these departments won’t be required anymore.”

On top of a formatting shift that will throw a wrench in the work of everyone involved in the production, the play misses an opportunity to highlight diversity that is often lacking in the Drama Department. Makwana said, “Most plays that are produced here are either European or American plays. In my four years here, I have struggled to get three-dimensional roles here. It’s a weird problem—most actors/drama majors are white and then most things that get produced naturally cater to this population.” In writing and producing the play, Makwana knew that he wanted to shed light on a non-Western storyline and put together an entirely South Asian cast. He expressed, “I wanted to write a complex character for myself and I wanted to prove to myself that I do a good job portraying this character … As a POC actor in America, this is extremely important.”

When the Drama Department told Makwana they would be producing his play, he was delighted that his voice would finally be heard. It was also the first time that the department chose to extend auditions to non-drama majors, as Makwana is currently the only South Asian student in the department. This made him reflect on another point––the accessibility of theater: “It really sucks that it won’t be produced in the way that it is supposed to be produced. Because if the department had seen the play in the theaters, they would have realized that having non-actors or non-drama majors is actually a good thing. Theater should be accessible to everyone and a lack of experience/major requirements shouldnt be a deterrent.”

 The Drama Department isn’t alone in the struggle to support senior projects that require collaboration or Vassar facilities. The Film Department and Media Studies Department are currently deliberating on which policies they will employ. Petch Kingchatchaval ’20 sees many senior theses in Media Studies as in flux: “A lot of people in the major had planned to create installations for their theses and it seems really unfair that, on top of the disappointment of not getting to do that anymore, they have to scramble to put something else together.” 

Kingchatchaval felt that it would make the most sense to make the senior projects optional, explaining, “With the emotional upheaval of everything, including losing the last months of college, not getting to say goodbye to friends, having to move back across the world and rethink my plans for the future and the constant anxiety I feel about coronavirus, I just feel like I’m struggling to even keep up with normal classwork, let alone the deep thought and rigorous work required to write a thesis.”

While the collaborative nature of work is one thing that seems difficult to continue during the quarantine, another compromised aspect of academics is lab work. Many STEM theses are halted because of the lack of student access to facilities. Physics major Ellis Thompson ’20, who is working on a thesis project that uses a high powered laser to create sound waves, explained, “Luckily, I was able to get most of my main data before quarantine, but I left most of my data analysis on a computer in my lab. I not only lost the opportunity to do more experimental work, but also lost hours of work that I spent interpreting data. As a result, I’ll have to reformulate my thesis and work with the data I have.” Despite her losses, Thompson described the support her advisor and peers have offered her, commenting, “My advisor has been so unbelievably supportive and understanding, and has assured me that my thesis will still turn out well regardless of my lost data and effort. I’ve talked to other students who are doing experimental theses, and most of us have been affected in some way, but everyone has given me words of sympathy and encouragement.” 

Without a traditional approach to enacting his vision—a live audience or in-person rehearsal time—Makwana’s attention has turned inward: “Right now, I am questioning myself: Who do I really perform for? Do I do it for the craft or do I do it to impress other people and just for validation? I think most theater people start performing because they feel validated and it feels good. But it should go beyond that. Why should it matter now I am doing a radio play? Yes, I won’t be able to perform in the theater. But through this new audio platform, I can also be really specific about the words and focus on my writing.”

The pandemic has shown the resourcefulness and understanding of students. As Makwana reflected, “The silver lining is that this will be a great learning experience and contribute a lot to my growth as an artist.”

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