Moving as the World Stopped

Artists in the UNT community find ways to produce their work even during a pandemic.
Written by: 
Jessica DeLeón
The Diary of Anne Frank staged through Zoom
The Diary of Anne Frank staged through Zoom

During this past year, artists have had to change the way they work during the COVID pandemic.

They've changed how they kiss.

They've changed how they spend their Saturday nights.

They've changed how they see the world, gaining new inspiration from subjects such as women's nails to the faces of the homeless.

Although the adjustments have been drastic and tough, the innovative spirit of these faculty, student and alumni creators remains the same. As a result, they've found new ways to share their work with audiences.

The Department of Dance and Theatre staged The Diary of Anne Frank through Zoom, requiring the director to reimagine Anne's first kiss and the cast to take on technical roles.

For the Vandoliers, their band members are missing time spent with friends, inspiring them to create new music about their favorite time of the week.

And Don Thomas II ('15) found a new creative outlet with a film camera.

A New Stage

Theatre professor Andy Harris still hasn't met some of the actors he worked with in the production of The Diary of Anne Frank.

The auditions took place via Zoom in March 2020 -- just as the lockdown began. The play was slated for the fall, and social distancing guidelines made it impossible to perform on stage. So the Department of Dance and Theatre put on the play via Zoom.

"It's been an experience," Harris says. "The changes all started with the script, but it also affected the set and the costuming and the makeup."

The actors took their own measurements, and the costumers delivered the wardrobe to students. The cast also put on their own makeup and set up the background for their scenes -- pictures of Anne Frank's house -- that were put on stands behind them in their dorms or apartments. And they served as their own lighting and sound technicians.

To prevent actors from speaking at the same time, the department purchased Open Broadcast Software in which students uploaded to it what was recorded on their computers and the post-production editor addressed any glitches. Rachel Lanik Whelan, a doctoral student in the College of Music, composed music timed specifically for the production. They generated a "shooting script" so that those working remotely would know how the various pieces of the puzzle were to come together.

Harris also had to adjust the script. Since the actors playing Anne and Peter couldn't kiss, Harris consulted Frank's diary and added a monologue about her first kiss.

Filming took 10 to 12 hours a day for two days, but it drew viewers from 30 states when the production was made free to honor Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg after her death.

"In terms of production I've been involved in, this was perhaps the most complicated," Harris says. "It became a film through Zoom. It was extremely gratifying. We had a good ending to a very difficult time."

A New Song

The cowpunk band Vandoliers was about to play at SXSW and tour Europe when COVID-19 derailed their gigs.

"Honestly, it was nice to have some time off," says Travis Curry, the band's violinist who attended UNT in the 2000s. "Then, after a while, it's like, 'When is this ever going to end?'"

The band -- which also includes guitarist Dustin Fleming, a jazz studies major from 1999 to 2000 who also works as an electrician at UNT, and trumpeter/pianist Cory Graves ('09 M.S.), a library science major -- had released three albums and were signed to Bloodshot Records. In 2019, they played 140 performances in 44 states and Canada.

Their fourth album, The Vandoliers, was slated to be released in 2020, but has been delayed since touring brings stronger sales and word of mouth.

But they got to work with singer-songwriter Bruce Robison on the song "Waiting on a Train" that will be released in April. They also collaborated with Grammy Award-winning producer Eric Delegard ('91) on the tune "Every Saturday Night," which was inspired by how the band members miss interacting with people, although it doesn't specifically mention COVID-19.

"It's been a productive year, but we haven't been able to play," Curry says.

However, in February, they were able to perform at the Granada Theater in Dallas -- with socially distanced guidelines such as 25% capacity and audience members wearing masks.

"It was so nice to be back in front of people," Curry says. "Playing on the stage has always been the ultimate experience. It is the highest of the highs. You feel that. It's really awesome for everybody, not just us, but the audience, too. It feels like a party up there."

A New Focus
Don Thomas II ('15)
Don Thomas II ('15)

Don Thomas II ('15) lost his job as a direct impact from COVID 19 when he found himself with a lot of down time.

"I needed something to channel my energy into," he says.

Thomas, who graduated with a degree in criminal justice, picked up a film camera. He liked the process of snapping an image and turning it into an intimate moment.

"I wasn't good at first," he says. "It made me want to keep working and be good at it."

He soon was documenting events, such as food drives organized by For Oak Cliff, a nonprofit organization run by Xavier Henderson ('14) and Taylor Toynes ('12). One of the photos appeared in Land and People Magazine published by the nonprofit organization Trust for Public Land.

"After that, I wanted to offer more of my photography to the world," he says. "I thought, 'What is something that is underappreciated in a society?'"

At a doctor's appointment, he drew inspiration from a doctor wearing blue scrubs and a white coat -- donning blue-and-silver crystallized nails to match her outfit.

He went on to collect enough photographs of women's nails for an exhibition called "Klawz," which was displayed in December 2020 at the Wright Art Twins Gallery in Dallas. He calls it a salute to nail technicians and those who wear them.

"They are beauty specialists that deserve their creative respect," Thomas says. "They're not really appreciated, but they hold so much value to women's appearances and self-esteem."

During the holiday season, Thomas was invited by a friend to donate his time by passing out clothing and food to the homeless and ended up staying longer than the others. He had the opportunity to engage in fellowship and hear the different stories of how people became homeless. Thus he was inspired to create a space for the homeless to share their stories, to provide context and to conceptualize the homeless epidemic in Dallas.

"Faces of Dallas" was created with the notion to humanize the homeless by allowing them to consensually tell their stories.

"When I walk the streets of downtown Dallas and see a lot of homeless people, I see them as human beings with a story, good or bad. I feel it should be told without judgment," he says. "I hope to inspire others to treat those who are less fortunate with dignity and respect and to never look down on anyone who has less than them."

Thomas, who uses the name Tortellini Photography for his photographic work, says the pandemic gave him time to unlock the creativity he always had inside.

"The world stopped," he says, "but I was able to keep moving."

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