A few weeks ago, Professor Jeff Dintaman wrote about the creative ways Luther’s theater classes have been adapting, actively finding new paths forward in spite of obstacles presented by the pandemic. That piece had special resonance for me. My background as an actor and director leads me to frame just about everything in theatrical and storytelling terms, even now in my role as director of campus programming.
Challenges with Gathering
Campus Programming is at the heart of how we gather at Luther College, from Center Stage Series performances and the Distinguished Lecturer Series, to panels, pop-ups, and campus-wide celebrations like Convocation and Commencement.
But when gathering itself is the obstacle, how do we move forward? And once we’ve made peace with the idea of virtual gatherings, how do we find meaning in an event when the elements we value most are gone? Sitting shoulder to shoulder with friends and strangers, realizing you’re breathing in tandem with a musician on stage, feeling a laugh build and ripple across the hall—all the things that remind us, in real time, that we are in this together.
In late March, when we realized that Commencement would need to be virtual, there was a period of flailing. (Wasn’t there everywhere?) Commencement is one of our most cherished and anticipated gatherings. How could we honor our graduates, fortify and send them off, without our familiar rituals of processions, handshakes, and hugs?
I found myself returning to what I know from theater.
An actor understands a scene by asking questions: What do I want? What’s in my way? What am I going to do about it? A director understands a play by asking bigger questions: What is this story about? Why are we telling it? Both the actor and the director know that a story moves forward through actions. If we dwell on the obstacles, it stagnates.
Creating Meaningful Virtual Experiences
The obstacles seemed enormous, but, after a bit of uncertainty and with a steady eye on the objective, a path forward came into focus. We would create a meaningful Commencement experience by acting on our values. (“What is this story about?”)
We filmed a beautiful procession of flags from our international students’ home countries to express Luther’s commitment to inclusion. We invited an award-winning speaker, not chosen from a roster of famous guests but from the graduating class of 2020, to inspire us with the power and possibility of a Luther education. And, my personal favorite, we created a virtual version of the beloved “sending off” by faculty and staff, to fortify us all with the collective strength that comes from being in community.
A Common Purpose
Since creating Luther’s first virtual Commencement, we’ve celebrated the start of the academic year with Opening Convocation, welcomed faculty and staff in a new version of our traditional Service of Dedication, presented an internationally acclaimed epidemiologist as our Farwell Distinguished Lecturer, and more. None of the events in person, shoulder to shoulder, but drawing us together in a common purpose nevertheless.
Through the spring, summer, fall, and now, heading into winter of this pandemic, there have been many times I’ve wanted to just sit down when the obstacles loomed too large. But I remember that in the face of an obstacle, any movement is forward movement. The blocked path isn’t the whole story. The bigger story is told in the actions we take to move ahead with meaning. Pandemic or no, there are always obstacles. Maybe this time is just a super-charged reminder to keep asking the questions that move us through them.