When Eric Eidson began researching online theater in higher education, he had no idea how important that research would become during the COVID-19 outbreak.
When Eric Eidson first started searching for schools offering an online theater-based graduate degree, he wanted a program that would allow him to continue teaching high school theater in his Denver, Colorado, suburb while completing his degree. He soon found that online degree programs in theater were few and far between.
Instead, Eidson completed a one-year, online master's degree in educational leadership at the Concordia University-Portland. That was followed by a four-year, summer residency playwriting intensive program at Hollins University in Virginia, completed during his summer breaks from teaching. It was during the latter that he began researching online theater with a desire to develop a degree program for undergraduate students.
"As a teacher, I had the luxury of having summers off, but what about theater artists who didn't have this luxury?" said Eidson, now a Texas Tech University fine arts doctoral student. "I began researching online theater and, though it exists, online theater is not available as a degree at the undergraduate level. I wanted to develop an online theater degree."
In 2017, that goal led him to Texas Tech's School of Theatre & Dance, where he has continued his research into all aspects of online theater. What he didn't know when he arrived was how important his research would become just three short years later, when the global coronavirus pandemic would force school closures in Lubbock and around the world.
"Before COVID-19, I was one of few people actively developing online theater material," said Eidson, who currently lives in Chicago. "Now, the entire field of theater is creatively addressing ways to parallel traditional theater classrooms through online learning. My research just got a lot easier or a lot harder, depending on how you look at it."
Becoming a Red Raider
When Eidson began considering doctoral programs, he spoke with Mark Charney, director of the School of Theatre & Dance, about his research interests and asked if he would be able to continue his work at Texas Tech in the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts.
"Dr. Charney said Texas Tech had the resources and faculty to help me study and research whatever I wanted," Eidson recalled. "That's what ultimately sold me on coming to Texas Tech. As a student, I can personally attest to his statement. From faculty members willing to guide my research to my fellow students eager to help me work through the tough issues and ideas, Texas Tech truly is a place where I've been able to conduct my research freely. Fortunately, the curricular and extracurricular opportunities at Texas Tech allow me to address all aspects of online theater."
Eidson has stayed busy during his time at Texas Tech, leading introductory classes in acting and theater in the community and serving as president of the new play development organization, the Script Raiders, and as director of the school's annual Raider Red's One-Act Play Spectacular. He said the interdisciplinary model of Texas Tech's Fine Arts Doctoral Program has allowed him to pursue his research and education in online theater in every setting.
"In research methods, taught by Professor Andrew Gibb, I constructed my first conference paper, an impetus for my dissertation," Eidson said. "In advanced directing with Professor Jesse Jou, I developed and rehearsed an original scene written for online performance. In theater management, taught by Professor Linda Donahue, I developed an administrative model for implementing an online theater degree at a university or college. In continental philosophy with Professor Heather Warren-Crow, I researched the philosophy behind theater and how that philosophy translates to online theater.
"Through Script Raiders, I was able to workshop and stage a reading of my online play, 'Your Call,' directed by fellow student Jennifer Ezell. No other institution would allow for such interdisciplinary collaboration and support. At Texas Tech, I'm truly able to explore and address every major concern and aspect regarding online theater."
Eidson also has directed multiple performances for the school, including "Almost, Maine" for the BurkTech Players, has served as Charney's research assistant for two years and helped coordinate student work entered into the annual Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.
"Impressed by his myriad skills as a performer, director and playwright, I encouraged him to apply to Texas Tech," Charney said. "I can honestly say that I've rarely met a student so cognizant of how his research impacts the world around him. His research, strongly related to online pedagogy, was prescient, considering where we find ourselves now. Eric thinks imaginatively, always finding the methods to deliver information to students in ways that are ground breaking and, during this crisis, has generously offered his research to anyone needing help, especially transitioning performance training to the classroom through technology."
Sharing his research and knowledge
Not everyone was initially on board with Eidson's research. On March 6-7, just before universities across the country began announcing transitions to virtual and distance learning, Eidson faced some of his biggest critics while presenting his research at the Mid-America Theatre Conference (MATC) in Chicago.
"While at MATC, I had a number of theater faculty members express their concerns about online theater," he said. "I anticipated many of their responses. Theater scholars and practitioners are rightfully worried about the practice-based foundation of theater disciplines. How can online classes possibly replicate traditional face-to-face classes or show experiences? My research is geared around answering this very important question.
"I don't want online theater education to replace traditional learning models, but rather I want online theater to be viewed as an extension or enhancement of traditional learning models. After all, the success of an online theater degree is determined by the success of a face-to-face theater program."
Eidson said the main point of his research is to prepare the field for the increasingly popular model of online learning.
"Whether we like it or not, online classes and degrees are seeing a rise in enrollment," he said. "I don't want theater degrees to diminish because they didn't offer online opportunities for students. Online theater presents new challenges, ideas and possibilities for theater practitioners and scholars. Ultimately, my research is meant to serve as a resource for theater educators and advocate not only for online theater, but theater in general."
Online theater and COVID-19
While at MATC, Edison said one faculty member disagreed that certain theater courses could be offered online.
"If someone told you that you had to make your class an online class, I bet you could do it," Eidson replied.
Sooner than expected, instructors were doing just that.
"Within the past few weeks," Eidson said, "I've received messages from nearly 120 theater educators across the country asking for help transitioning their classes online or asking to use the scenes and plays I developed for online performance, including people who attended my 'controversial' presentations at MATC."
To help, Eidson has created a website, Live-Stream Theatre, as a resource for theater students and educators. The website includes information on live-streaming performances with actors and audiences in separate locations, free scene study scripts and production script samples and a guide for teachers who are transitioning from traditional classrooms to online learning.
While COVID-19 has necessitated online educational offerings now, Eidson said online options for theater should continue once campuses begin offering face-to-face classes again.
"Online theater should be available at all times, not just in times of crisis," he said. "Online degrees are growing in popularity, yet it's still nearly impossible to find an online degree for undergraduate theater students. Online degrees are perfect for attracting atypical students, like people working full-time, people with families, people with illnesses or disabilities, international students. Many schools that offer online degrees allow their 'traditional' students to enroll in online classes. If a student has a conflict in his/her schedule, online courses allow for that flexibility. These students make up such a large part of learners today, so theater is missing out by not providing opportunities to this large base of learners."
Eidson said as unfortunate as the global pandemic is, it has made educators approach their curriculum in new ways. That may have been the push many needed to seriously consider the feasibility and merit of online theater in education.
"I wouldn't say that COVID-19 is going to result in a sweeping acceptance of online theater, but I think people will be less intimidated by the idea," Eidson said. "After all, fear of the unknown is real. Since COVID-19 has forced theater educators to face the fear of online theater, I don't think it'll be such a daunting concept to grasp."