Lighting the way

Amid the pandemic, Arts Department Chair Alan Michaels is virtually connecting students with alumni artists.

The arts were hard-hit. We had to change everything.” 

Arts Department Chair Alan Michaels remembers recalibrating arts programming from the ground up from mid-March to the end of spring term 2020. In an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, Peddie switched to 100% online learning. 

But physical distancing isn’t exactly in the visual and performing arts playbook. Rehearsing, painting, making music — these hands-on activities are usually performed (and enjoyed) in person. Suddenly, screens alone connected teachers with young Peddie artists across the globe. 

For fall, Peddie planned to offer classes both on campus and online. Keeping students engaged and learning in a new hybrid curriculum, especially after a touch-and-go spring term, was a tall order. Luckily, Michaels is in the creativity business.

“I started thinking, ‘There are other things we can teach our kids. What are those things, and how can we do them?’"

Michaels typically brings in several visual artists every year to share and discuss their work with students and began his adjustments there. 

“We could still have the artist come to campus and hang their work, so the kids who were on campus could see it,” said Michaels. “Then they’d do a Zoom Q&A from wherever they were, with a student panel of all the visual arts classes.” 

In September 2020, visual artist Zara Fina Stasi ’08 launched “grounded” at Peddie's Mariboe Gallery. It was the first gallery show of the school year and Peddie’s first-ever virtual art show. 

Zara Stassi '08

Zara Fina Stasi ’08 launched Peddie's first-ever virtual art show in September.

Stasi’s show and Q&A were well received, adding a fresh burst of excitement to fall arts programming. Next, Michaels pushed the envelope further by inviting artists from other disciplines to connect with students virtually.

“I thought, ‘This seems like a pretty simple thing. We don’t have to fly anybody in or drive anybody in. I figured if I reach out to some artists and they’re willing to give up an hour of their time, if they’re former Peddie students, most of them would say yes.”

On to something

First on the Zoom docket: “My Truck” singer-songwriter Daniel Breland ’13. 

During his session with Peddie students, Breland opened up about his career’s rocky start and how Peddie had supported him.

“When he got on the Peddie stage during Community Meeting and performed his original work, it went terribly. They had all these technical issues. But Dan remembers that the Peddie community picked him up and told him, ‘What you did was fantastic.’ He said he knew after that day, his music could be something, for real.”

Breland also mentioned meeting Vampire Weekend drummer Chris Tomson ’02, who visited campus when Breland was a student. “He said, ‘It blew my mind — he was a former Peddie student,’” said Michaels. “‘Right there and then it hit me. I said to myself, “Wow. If he can do it, I can do it too.’” 

As soon as the session ended, Damian Juth ’21 contacted Michaels. 

“That was incredible,” Juth told him. “I compose music. When I heard Dan, I thought, ‘That’s my story. Now I know what I’m doing. I’ve been fighting myself for years. Now I know I can just go for it.’” 

That sounded familiar. “I thought, ‘We just struck gold. We’re on to something,” Michaels said.

Daniel Breland '13

Daniel Breland ’13 spoke with Peddie students about his career, including a recent collaboration with country superstar Keith Urban, earlier this year.

Next, he invited Coral Peña ’11. The film and TV actor fielded questions about performing and Peddie’s influence on her career, and offered advice to students interested in arts careers. 

Tomson followed Peña, gamely answering students’ questions about everything from growing up playing music to his favorite Peddie dining hall foods. 

“I’ve heard from various students,” said Michaels. “The takeaway was, ‘Trust your gut. If you’re good at something and it’s something you really want to do, just try it.’”

After Tomson’s session, Michaels put him in touch with Mike Coiro ’17. Both men are percussionists and call Columbia University (as well as Peddie) their alma mater. The two hit it off from the first downbeat.

Michaels improved his Zoom session moderating skills with every guest. “I learned how to do this better as we went along,” he said. 

It’s not a perfect system; some asynchronous students have been unable to attend the sessions due to incompatible time zones. Michaels records sessions so they’re available to watch at any time. He also learned effective ways to help asynchronous students connect with each session, even from a distance.

“If I had a question from a student who couldn’t be at the meeting, I’d ask it for them,” said Michaels.

Coral Peña ’11

Film and TV actor Coral Peña ’11 fielded questions about performing and Peddie’s influence on her career, and offered advice to students interested in arts careers.

An infinite amount of careers

At the start of fall term, Santa Barbara International Film Festival Executive Director and Peddie arts benefactor Roger Durling ’82 emailed Michaels with an extraordinary idea. 

“He said, ‘We do viewings of films; I have guests in, and I moderate a Q&A with them. Would you be interested? I can hold 500 people on my Zoom telecast, and I can offer it to the Peddie kids.’” 

Michaels leaped at the offer. In November, after Peddie students viewed Rosamund Pike’s new film “Radioactive” (2019), Durling led a Q&A with the actor. Next was a viewing of “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (2020) and a Q&A with Durling and “Trial” screenwriter-director Aaron Sorkin … who had invited along cast members Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne and others.

I can hold 500 people on my Zoom telecast, and I can offer it to Peddie kids."

“Roger has been fantastic,” said Michaels. “I tell the students, ‘You may not know this, but all those Broadway trips we took, pre-pandemic? He’s the guy who pays for the bus every time we go. Because he wants you to experience the arts and culture.” 

“I’m blown away by the advanced level of education, particularly in the arts, that Peddie provides,” said Durling. “But careerwise, it becomes kind of daunting for students. They think, ‘I’m not really good at acting, but I want to be in theater.’ But there are other aspects to theater. There is an infinite amount of different careers.” 

Look at Sorkin, he said, who started as an actor in school, then began writing, then directing. “And students were able to hear that. I think that exposure is illuminating to students.” 

The path ahead

Most recently, Michaels has welcomed recent Peddie alumni musicians to the Zoom mix. 

“The kids put themselves in these people’s shoes,” he said. “They ask how they navigated Peddie as an artist, what their college experience was like, did Peddie prepare them properly. That’s what resonates with them.”

In December, Northwestern University music and psychology major Mia Huang ’20 and Princeton University Orchestra and Chamber Music member Binglun Shao ’18 joined Peddie students via Zoom.

“The takeaway from the students has been overwhelmingly positive,” Michaels said. “I tell them, ‘You see what these people are doing; I’m going to expect you to come back and do the same thing. To pay it forward.’ 

Michaels looks back — and forward — on this new programming with a single focus.

“We wanted to give them something different, so the students leave this year or this term with ‘Wow, I had a great experience in the arts. I learned so much,’” he said.