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“The Show Must Go On” at Salem State University

How the Center for Performing Arts at SSU Faced COVID challenges to create a year full of creative programming

by Joey Phoenix

This past semester has been anything but “business as usual” as universities faced many challenges in determining how best to bring students back to campus, among which were the safety of programming that could be made available to students.

And while it might have been easy for some colleges to put arts programming lower down on the list of importance, Salem State University (SSU) decided to make the arts a priority. 

Navigating Safety in Performing Arts During COVID

The Center for the Arts at Salem State University has garnered a reputation over the years for its cornucopian offering of arts, theatre, music, and entertainment despite being a relatively small state school. And in planning for the fall, they too had their share of problems to solve. 

Questions of how performances could happen when dancers couldn’t touch, musicians couldn’t gather in the usual way to play their instruments, thespians couldn’t get anywhere near each other, and immersive art experiences were seemingly off the table were at the forefront of conversation.

But the Salem State arts faculty, in conjunction with the university’s COVID safety team, weighed the science, they determined the risks, they accounted for social distancing and testing requirements, and they figured it out.

“The dance department met in person and danced in person. The music department met in person and recorded both in person and remotely. Theatre was also a hybrid,” said Karen Gahagan (she/her), the Director of Center for Creative and Performing Arts at SSU. “And we didn’t have even one infection while doing this work. We got lucky.” 

Their efforts to both keep the students safe, and give them the best experience in the programs of study they came to the school to pursue, were by no means in vain. And, in fact, were rewarded, as the theatre program’s production of The Long Christmas Ride Home was selected for the Kennedy Center American College Theatre  Region 1 Virtual Festival as one of 10 shows to receive that honor.

They also were able to produce their first ever virtual arts speaker series, their second Veterans 10 Minute Play Festival, an online art and design faculty showcase, two dance concerts, multiple music ensemble recordings, and a Digital Art Drive-in with Creative Collective and Emerson Contemporary, among other things

“Everybody knew they had to be super diligent,” she said. “Because one break in this thread would have shut down anything we did for a period of time, impacting the work and possibly giving people room to say that clearly this wasn’t a good idea to begin with.”

It also helped that Salem State had the means and the structural capacities to guarantee their students safety this fall as both the theatre and the music department’s primary work space both had big loading dock doors allowing for sufficient air circulation. Dancers worked outside well into November. The school also established discipline specific safety guidelines and had extensive COVID sanitation protocols and universal on campus  access to regular testing. 

Producing The Long Christmas Ride Home

The SSU theatre department had  their work cut out for them this fall figuring out how best to put on their December production. They had to plan how to rehearse safely, maintain social distancing on stage, and record a show for a virtual audience. 

Their production of The Long Christmas Ride Home, a one act play written by American Playwright Paula Vogel and directed by Salem State Theatre Professor Peter Sampieri, included green screens, digital art, puppetry, innovative blocking, and multiple cameras with footage stitched together in one seamless video which was made available for streaming virtually. 

“It was just a really different way of being,” Karen described. “There was no crew, everybody did their own hair, their makeup, and the schedule was built so that there were lots of breaks to refresh the air and to keep as few people in the room as possible at any one time.  It’s amazing how it all came together and a testament to the crazy skills of our faculty and students.” 

Photo Credit: Michael Harvey

And while this production in particular came about in an unprecedented way, the fact that it was selected for the festival is not a new achievement for the school. 

“We have a very good track record of winning awards in acting, directing, tech and more at the regional level and we’ve won the national acting prize several times, which is significant for a small state school.” she said. “But the fact that this [show] required a whole new way of creating and presenting  and was still recognized is pretty exciting.” 

This year’s Kennedy Center Region 1 Virtual Festival will take place from January 24-31 and will feature workshops and programming spread out during the week. 

What’s Ahead for the Center for Performing Arts at Salem State 

While the spring semester programming will have different challenges including the inability to work outside until late in the semester, Karen is sure that the ingenuity that brought students and faculty through the fall will see them through the next few months. 

“Everyone is really tired,” she admitted, acknowledging the difficulty of perpetually solving these problems. “But more programming is coming:

“We’ll produce two theatre productions virtually, Machinal and The Laramie Project. Dance is working on a film festival for early May and a site-specific performance piece in that same window. Music will continue producing the work of its student ensembles and we currently have three online art exhibitions planned as well as our Writers Series.”

One of the more positive aspects of this forced transition to digital media is what it has meant in regards to access. While there will never be any substitute to seeing or experiencing music, art, dance, or theatre in person, opening up digital access to these experiences means that people who would not have otherwise had this opportunity will now get to. 

“We’re learning, building as we go, and there are so many things that are causing us to think differently. We will definitely carry some of these tools forward,” she added, “But at the end of the day I’m just in awe of the faculty and students and everything that got done this fall despite all of the challenges we faced.” 

You can see what the Center for Performing Arts at Salem State is up to this semester by following them on Facebook or Instagram or by checking out their website at www.salemstate.edu/arts


Joey Phoenix (they/them) is the Director of Brand Strategy and Innovation at Creative Collective. As the resident storyteller and town crier, they encourage you to send story ideas, inspiration, or pictures of adorable critters to joeyphoenix@creativecollectivema.com.


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