Fine Arts goes all out to improvise for students

A stage will be constructed outside the Fine Arts Building and will be used for many productions.

Second of a nine-part series spotlighting each GCU college as the fall semester begins.

By Ashlee Larrison
GCU News Bureau

The arts figure to be an escape for people as the world takes cautious steps toward a post-pandemic era, and Grand Canyon University’s College of Fine Arts and Production plans to ease that transition.

In a year of so many changes, COFAP is taking the necessary precautions and following the guidelines set in place to protect students and faculty. But it's also an opportunity to try new things and offer students and audiences different experiences, something COFAP Dean Claude Pensis calls a “creative challenge.”

Through Zoom, multiple COFAP departments will offer master classes with industry professionals. Here are a few of the other new things students can expect in the 2020-21 academic year:


If ever there were a year to "think outside the box," it's this one. But, in this case, the “box” is the typical indoor theatre environment.

With large indoor gatherings banned because of COVID, the Theatre Department had to find a new way to stage plays. The answer is an outdoor stage on the lawn outside the Fine Arts Building. 

William Symington

COFAP Assistant Dean and Theatre Chair William Symington said he's looking forward to the new atmosphere the outdoor stage will offer.

“It’s going to be almost like a concert or festival kind of setting,” he said. “I’m actually excited having it out where folks are going to be walking around seeing the set being built, seeing the stage appear, and even walking around at night we might have people stop to watch that are just walking by.”

In addition to the roughly 40-foot-wide outdoor stage, café style lights will illuminate the area and create the atmosphere. The audience sections will be divided to allow for social distancing, and guests can bring their own lawn chairs if they choose.

For those who would feel more comfortable watching the performances from home, each show will be streamed on YouTube.

Although it will be a far different experience, Symington believes the productions will brighten the mood.

“I’m looking forward to the fact that in a year where people have had to give up so much that we’re still going to be able to provide not only the opportunity for our students who are performing and participating in the production but for students on campus,” he said. “We’re part of the entertainment and activities that they’ll be able to enjoy in the evenings as part of the life of the campus.”


Much like theatre, the Dance Department had to change the stage plans used for past performances. Its winter and spring concerts also will be on the outdoor stage, and the Student Spotlight concerts likely will be on the east side of the Education Building.

Susannah Keita

Dance Director Susannah Keita hopes to use the building's video board to showcase the dancers’ performances, and the Winter Dance Concert will be streamed on YouTube. Plans also are in the works to make GCU’s Elementary Dance Tour virtual.

Dance and film students will have lots of opportunities to work together, from launching a vision to editing the footage. This  year will be all about collaboration.

“Our faculty will work very intentionally with our student leaders in the Student Dance Education Organization to plan programs that can reach everyone,” Keita said. “Because we all want to keep our community together, thinking our way out of the problem will bring us together.”

Much like Symington, Keita believes the unique set of circumstances this year will help students grow. 

“I think the requirement for us to shift to new technologies and creative formats is going to correlate directly with the new types of opportunities that are coming along," she said. "At the present time, dancers of diverse backgrounds are growing their audiences. It’s just a different world. Now we can reach people beyond Phoenix because … why wouldn’t we try? If your grandma lives in Tucson and she doesn’t want to travel, she can watch it on YouTube. Problem solved!”

In fact, it might be the start of a new era.

“I think the post-COVID world is going to be a world with multiple access points to the art of dance,” she said. “It’s about time for that. Art in public spaces is still important because it helps us begin to bridge the digital divide.”


“Obviously, with this whole COVID and the blended model, things are going to be a little different than they have been in previous years,” COFAP Assistant Dean Dr. Juan Hernandez said.

Juan Hernandez

But for the Music Department, those differences are viewed as an opportunity for their music to reach more people. Performances for both band and choir will be online, giving families and friends around the world a chance to listen.

“I think it will be a really great year for the students,” Hernandez said. “They will have products that they can work toward, which will be those recordings, they will be safe and they can be confident that we’ve taken every precaution to make the experience both safe and also enjoyable.”

Choir concerts and student and faculty recitals likely will take place in the GCU Recording Studio but without a physical audience present. 

“It really, in many ways, will help us to broaden our audience as well because it won’t be limited to a physical location,” he said. “Once it is on the internet, it can be shared with anybody.”

Band productions will contain smaller groups of musicians utilizing the stage outside the Fine Arts Building. Band Director Dr. Paul Koch hopes that a chamber music and wind ensemble performance will be feasible by late October or early November.

“It’s going to be interesting,” Koch said. “It’s kind of hard to paint a picture on that and what it’s going to look like, but we’re going to set a goal of that.”

As for the Thundering Heard Pep Band, Koch is working with other Spirit programs -- Cheer, Dance and the Havocs -- to figure out the safest ways to bring the campus culture to life.

“All of us look back at college as ‘our time,’ and there are things that you remember,” Koch said. “Well, this is their time. Even though we’re in the middle of a pandemic, this is the only time that they are going to be in college, so it’s very important to safely provide some type of culture, some type of experience while they’re here.”

Free weekly instrument-specific master classes will be offered via Zoom for GCU students and interested instrumentalists who want to interact with the music faculty. 


The movie industry is nothing like it was six months ago, and that is what Director of the Film Department Lisa Tervo wants to address. Whether it be through Zoom master classes with industry professionals or through the growing interest in virtual and augmented reality, students will be introduced to some of the changes rapidly taking place.

Lisa Tervo

“I think the biggest thing will be the amount of virtual activities that we have planned,” Tervo said. “More leaders in the industry are taking to Zoom to talk about how the pandemic is impacting the industry and just sharing their thoughts about the industry in general."

The new comfort level with Zoom will be notable in events such as Pitch Fest, which coaches students in the idea-pitching process. Tervo plans to have a film professional from Los Angeles as a judge.

In the realms of virtual and augmented reality, Tervo is in the process of pursuing an academic partnership with Unreal Engines, the company responsible for creating the sets on the hit Disney show “The Mandalorian.”

“It’s pretty exciting,” Tervo said. “They kind of do a 360-degree projection as opposed to just a normal image replacing the green screen. So then the actors can actually see what they’re acting in, as opposed to just acting to a green wall and it being layered in later.”

Digital Design

The Digital Design program isn’t as impacted by the pandemic and, as a result, is growing even more.

Sheila Schumacher

In recent months, Digital Design Director Sheila Schumacher has promoted two adjunct instructors, Sophia Zaft and Jared Trask, to full-time teaching roles. Alongside current COFAP staff member Alison King, they will be part of the development of a new Social Media degree program expected to start enrolling students in fall of 2021.

“We really were happy that we were able to keep people in the GCU family and bring them along with us as we grow,” Schumacher said. “It’s pretty exciting for us because it’s another avenue for creative students to get a degree and gainful employment in this upside-down economy right now.”

Like the Film Department, digital design students can expect a growth in popularity in virtual reality within the program.

“We have shown some virtual reality and some projection mapping to people around the campus, and we want to connect those tools more to the performing arts,” she said. “So, because we’re going to have that outdoor stage, we are going to try to do some projection mapping in combination with the performances that are out there.”

Contact Ashlee Larrison at (602) 639-8488 or [email protected].


Also in the series:

GCU Today: GCU pledges its allegiance with teachers

GCU Today: New degree boosts GCU's Public Health program

GCU Today: Like good businesses, CCOB is learning, thriving

GCU Today: CSET programs earn prestigious accreditation

GCU Today: Initiative writes new chapter for doctoral learners

GCU Today: Social work educators master lessons in diversity

GCU Today: Honors College expands Student Advisory Board

GCU Today: New Theology website proves uncommonly valuable


Related content:

GCU Today: Costume department assists in mask production

GCU Today: Dance alumni find support in Zoom meet-ups

GCU Today: Music Department finds right online note for recitals


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