Morales is excited to be a first-year student at Cornell, but she’s experiencing her first semester online from her apartment in the Bronx. Her parents have lost their jobs, so she and her sister are working part-time to support the family. And she’s tired of hearing other students say “we’re all in the same boat,” because, frankly, her boat seems a lot less seaworthy than many of her classmates.’
The story of Morales and how she’s dealing with the pandemic is one of nine short films that students have created in collaboration with faculty and staff in the Department of Performing & Media Arts. The nine stories came together in the PMA mainstage fall production, “Off-Campus/On Screen,” a collage of short films exploring Cornell life in the time of COVID-19. First shown Dec. 18-20, the production will have an encore presentation Jan. 24, from 2-4 p.m. including a discussion afterward. Reserve your free ticket at schwartztickets.com.
The stories open a window into the lives of Cornell students who are now scattered across the globe from Ithaca, to Iowa City, to Beijing, London, and Novosibirsk, Russia.
Students proposed ideas for their shorts in the fall and have worked with PMA faculty and staff throughout the semester to realize these initial sketches.
“Our theatres have been closed for the last eight months, but we felt a deep need to continue telling dramatic stories,” said Rebekah Maggor, assistant professor of theatre in PMA and the project initiator. Maggor led the project in collaboration with Jeffrey Palmer, assistant professor of film and Youngsun Palmer, a filmmaker and communications & events coordinator in PMA. They sought to explore the ways the pandemic has affected the Cornell community in unequal ways – whether economically, emotionally, physically or spatially. The creative team also includes PMA faculty and acting specialists Carolyn Goelzer and Panagiotis Angelopoulos.
Ana Carmona-Pereda ’24, who wrote the script for the story of Morales, relates to her character in many ways. Although she’s on campus now, she did spend the summer of 2020 in her family’s Bronx apartment, completing Cornell’s Pre-freshman Summer Program online.
“Morales’ story is my story too,” she said. “I took inspiration from my friends and my family to write this and was scared to put me and my family out there. But telling my story through this project helped me to process my feelings and thoughts about this time.”
Students started with an idea, which they transformed into a screenplay through theatre devising sessions led by Maggor, developing dramatic structure, creating compelling characters and outlining the obstacles and stakes their characters faced.
“Using devising, or scene improvisation, to create dramatic screenplays was a totally unique experience for all of us,” Maggor said. “It’s one of many ways this project has brought the film and theatre faculty together to work creatively under difficult circumstances. We’ve gained so much through this collaboration and I imagine we’ll be using these ground-breaking techniques far into the future.”
Linshuang (Lynn) Wu ’21 contributed to writing “Lifting Pas,” about an international student from China who must return home and complete her senior year remotely from Beijing. She feels alienated from both her American and Chinese communities during the pandemic. The story is told as an experimental dance-on-film piece and includes a mixture of contemporary Western and Chinese dance. The Amber Dance Troupe, a Cornell student group that practices traditional Chinese dance, choreographed and produced the film, with advising from Jumay Chu, PMA senior lecturer in dance, and direction by Wesleyan student Bruce Mi. Most of Amber’s members are studying remotely in Beijing this semester, so they were able to come together to create the group choreography in the film.
“This film is about the solitude, the misconceptions and the constraints,” Wu said. “Others might impose them on us, but it could also come from ourselves deep inside. So we seek connection, understanding and freedom through our artistic expressions.”
Throughout the semester, PMA faculty and staff mentored and collaborated with students, on every aspect from devising, screenwriting, acting, cinematography and editing, as well as the design elements of the shorts. “This project involves the entire theatre production faculty and staff – set design, sound design, lighting, props, stage management and costumes.” Maggor said. “We took the fundamental building blocks of what we teach in person and applied them in virtual sessions.”
“Since I filmed my piece in my room, the Schwartz Center staff sent me lighting kits and the set pieces needed,” said Duoer Jia ‘21, whose story focuses on a student studying abroad in London who needs to get back to Ithaca in the next 24 hours, as the pandemic triggers lockdowns. “I also met with Sarah Bernstein and Lisa Boquist, who are the costume designers, to discuss clothing choices.”
Some of the student teams visited the Schwartz Center in person to work, socially distanced, with faculty and staff. Jason Simms, PMA assistant professor of scenography, designed a set of a Bronx apartment for Carmona-Pereda’s film, which technical director Fritz Bernstein and props coordinator Tim Ostrander built and dressed.
They transformed the same set into an Ithaca apartment room for Euna Park’s ’21 film “GREAT.” Sound design senior lecturer Warren Cross and master electrician and virtual capture expert Steven Blasberg created “tech kits” for several of the off-campus student teams in order to augment the filming and audio equipment they needed to shoot shorts off-campus.
Park’s film tells the story of a student whose mental health is sinking during the semester, although she tells her mother she’s doing fine.
“I think this semester has been overwhelming for a lot of Cornellians, as so much of our normal has been radically changed, but there's still a pressure to be successful and show the world that we're not only doing just fine, but we're also thriving,” Park said. “I've heard people tell me that my personal testimony has been encouraging for them to hear. If you've felt mentally and emotionally overwhelmed this semester but your instinct is to retreat instead of asking for help, I hope my character’s story helps you feel that your silent struggle is heard and encourage you to open up and keep trying.”
Some of the shorts also use humor to deal with the new reality under COVID-19. The Cornell student comedy sketch group, The Skits, devised “Razor Scooter” about an undergraduate who volunteers to enforce the behavioral compact on campus. The student, played by TJ Sheppard ‘22, takes his job a little too seriously, abusing his power and unleashing his wrath on Collegetown. “There are a lot of dark inside jokes about Cornell campus life under Corona, but ultimately the film is a testament to a community coming together to try and salvage some sort of collective life during the pandemic,” Maggor said.
Jeffrey Palmer said he’s enjoyed watching the process of story development. “The great thing about this is that we realize we speak the same language,” he said about theater devisers and filmmakers. “Watching Rebekah teach them how to get ready for their scenes has taught me how to be a better director.”
Theatre students are learning a diverse set of skills in the production class, said Youngsun Palmer. “Usually they are the subjects for us and we are holding the camera, but in this project, they are holding the camera and setting the scene,” she said.
Jia said she’s had lots of acting experience, but no filmmaking or script devising and writing before this course. “I learned so much about creating storyboards, camera placement, filming from different angles and had the chance to execute it all myself,” she said.
Park said she gained a new perspective on what it takes to make a film. “After an over four-hour shoot for just a page and a half of script, I emerged with not only some tips to use in potential future passion projects, but also a lot of admiration for everyone involved on set when it comes to making cinema,” she said.
To weave the different shorts together into a whole, Maggor wrote three episodes, devised with students and acting faculty, entitled “Introduction to Acting,” which feature Goelzer teaching the protagonists from each short film in a class together.
“We thought it was important to bring in the experience of people working at Cornell, not only the students,” Maggor said. “The story is about how we as faculty are struggling to connect with our students through new technology and under immensely stressful circumstances. It’s been a challenge for all of us.”
Though the stories are varied, Jeffrey Palmer said there’s a sense of loss that permeates all of them and a realization of the importance of relationships in real life. “This is a difficult moment and time for all of us,” he said. “We’ve taken so many things for granted, such as our experience in certain spaces. Now, we want nothing more than to go back and be there.”