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Tar Heels find unity, connection through student groups

As student groups adapt their missions for a remote semester, they're finding creative and innovative ways to stay connected and build community.

Students hold signs up for a student group.
(Left to right) UNC senior Gayathri Raghavendra and sophomore Rebekah Glover recruit students for The Tarpeggios, a coed a cappella singing group, on August 13, 2020, in the Pit on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

As the business manager for the all-female a cappella group the Loreleis, junior Everette Oxrider would typically be spending her free time at the start of the semester lining up fall gigs for Carolina group.

Instead, Oxrider has spent the past several days watching pre-recorded performances of potential new group members and working through the technical struggles that come with auditioning singers over Zoom.

But for Oxrider, the challenges are worth it as long as the Loreleis are still singing.

“We’re all shifting around our roles in the group so that we can still be there for each other, have our group as a support network, be with each other virtually, be as safe as possible and continue making music because that’s our passion,” she said.

Oxrider and the Loreleis are among the more than 800 student groups at Carolina adapting their fall plans to find ways to stay connected and continue their groups’ missions while they spend the semester away from campus because of the COVID-19 pandemic. From virtual theater to a cappella rehearsal on Zoom to digital game nights, students are finding ways to strengthen their community and build bonds with their classmates.

Creating space

The initial challenge for many groups was simply finding the space to pursue their passions. While Zoom works great for meetings, catch-ups and the occasional dinner “together,” performing theater, rehearsing a new a cappella set or playing a board game don’t naturally translate into a video chat.

Instead of turning to their typical lineup of fall activities, student group leaders had to simplify and re-think their events to tailor them to a remote environment — even when being live and in-person is usually at the core of the group.

“Being in a room full of people, the electric magic of that art creation, you can’t beat it,” said Anish Pinnamaraju, an executive director of Lab! Theatre, Carolina’s oldest student-run theater group. “But I think that in a time where all of that is taken from us, we can find a new electricity in building community online. It’ll be different, but it’s what we need.”

While the stages aren’t an option for Lab! Theatre this fall, the group has embraced a new approach to allow students to follow their acting, writing, and directing interests. Last weekend, the group held its first Virtual Theatre event called “Viral Monologues.” The 24-hour event began with student-writers creating monologues for student-actors to perform and record. At the end of the event, the monologues were premiered in the new virtual theater.

Even if the approach feels closer to film and removes a significant theater element from the performances, Pinnamaraju knows the creative outlet is needed and the group hopes to host similar events throughout the semester.

“It’s a fun, innovative solution to our current situation. It’s still an opportunity to express themselves artistically through writing or acting,” he said. “This pandemic has made it really hard for all of us because, as a community, we really depend on each other for the art we make and for our happiness. It’s really a need for a lot of us to create this art.”

Seeking a way for his own group to pursue their interests remotely, Fun Tabletop Gaming Network President John Fulghieri turned to online gaming platforms to continue the fun. The group, which typically revolves around Saturday night game nights on campus, now meets on Discord to virtually play games and connect with friends from afar.

“It’s either a distraction or coping or just something to do to take your mind off the stress of the situation,” Fulghieri said.

Cross-group collaboration

The successes of moving to remote events so quickly, Pinnamaraju said, have come from a close collaboration between student groups. Working with multiple theater groups, including the Black Arts Theatre Company, Company Carolina and the Pauper Players, has been critical for bringing ideas to life.

“Innovation is the only solution,” he said. “The way we get to do that is through collaborating with each other. Otherwise, it’d be almost impossible.”

Oxrider has found the same support within the a cappella community as all the groups face similar challenges — from ways to hold rehearsals virtually to tips for successful remote auditions.

“It’s been putting more brains together, and it’s been really important to have the support of the larger a cappella community,” she said. “There’s a lot of shared Google Docs and a lot of picking each other’s brains. It’s been very important to have that.”

As the Loreleis prepare for a semester of virtual practices and all the challenges that brings, they’re relying on that collaboration to keep moving toward their goal of a virtual concert.

“It’s very trial and error, but we’re excited,” Oxrider said. “We’re excited to continue to have something to unify us.”