At Davidson College, a Virtual Salon Sustains Creative Community During a Crisis
At 10 minutes to showtime, performers gather backstage to receive final instructions. Poets, take a breath between readings. Artists, don’t rush from one piece to the next. Let audience eyes linger on your work.
“We really want to be able to enjoy it,” says Alan Michael Parker, English professor-turned-director.
But if you do go too fast, don't sweat it.
“It’s ‘Cold Open,’” adds Daniel Lynds, instructional designer-turned-stage manager. “If things fall apart, it’s no big deal.”
That reassurance is not perfunctory. The program that’s about to start has never been rehearsed. Its format is experimental. “Backstage” is a private Zoom room. “On stage” is an unlisted YouTube channel.
When these two virtual spaces connect, the performers—students and faculty at Davidson College—will use webcams to share their art with classmates and colleagues who are watching at home, or from wherever they go these days to get internet access.
The program, called Cold Open, is part literary salon, part open-mic night. It was born during the frantic early days of the coronavirus pandemic, as Davidson life shifted from its campus in the North Carolina Piedmont to the online realm of video calls and email inboxes.
Hosted every Tuesday night for the past six weeks, the salon begins with a land acknowledgement and a guest performance by a graduate or friend of Davidson. Previous opening acts have included alumnus Clint Smith, poet and co-host of the “Pod Save the People” podcast, and former visiting writing professor Victoria Redel.
This week, graduate Tian Yi steps up to the virtual mic first, to share a video of a grandmother singing while quarantined in Wuhan, China, and to offer three poems exploring themes of family and exile.
A deep breath, an introduction and the show is live.
Yi reads: “...no home can hold me.”
Closing a college campus threatens to dam the river of student creativity that flows through it. When Davidson went online in March, the spring spoken-word showcase was canceled. Seniors majoring in studio art could no longer exhibit their work.
It didn’t take long for Parker and Lynds to wonder what they might do to sustain the college’s artistic community during the crisis. The pair have collaborated previously on academic and creative endeavors, including an effort to organize a weeklong retreat for artists and writers.
“There’s precedent for us in working together and thinking about the ways in which getting together and sharing work, especially fresh work, where the paint is wet, opens people not only to their vulnerabilities but also to their sense of not being alone,” Parker says.
They dreamed up a virtual salon. Over four days, Parker and Lynds selected technology and “curatorial principals,” ultimately devising an hour-long program that operates via video call and livestreaming systems. After an invited headliner kicks off the show, students and faculty beam in and each spend a few minutes performing, in a medium of their choice.
The format of Cold Open is designed to establish a “low-fi vibe,” Parker explains. It’s slightly organized but mostly freeform. “We’re not publishing, there are no expectations, no one is evaluating.”
The digital security system Parker and Lynds created also helps to keep participants comfortable. Only people affiliated with Davison have access to the broadcast, to protect participants’ privacy and prevent the event from being “Zoombombed” by ill-intentioned hijackers.
“This is not meant to be a public event at all,” Lynds says.
The pair of artistic directors has been pleased with the turnout. Participants have called in from Greece, Guatemala, Montana and all over North Carolina. Davidson’s president promoted Cold Open before its first edition, and at least 350 viewers showed up for opening night (Davidson’s student body hovers just under 2,000 undergraduates). Since then, the event has drawn weekly audiences of about 50 people, some of whom have become regulars.
Parker and Lynds don’t mind if the crowd waxes and wanes. They’re not attempting to mimic an on-campus event or establish a new college custom. Nor is theirs an effort to offer a sense of normalcy.
“In this moment, tradition itself isn’t enough,” Parker says. “I don’t see Cold Open as bringing Davidson traditions into a digital universe where we can exercise our pedagogical and vision statement values.”
Rather, it’s an experiment in artistic collective action fit for a deeply discomforting time.
“The circumstances are so unimagined that, for me at least, the way the Cold Open functions is a kind of community by triage,” Parker says.
And that’s very much in keeping with the educational mission of a college, Lynds says: “The community is the curriculum.”
Shared Past, Shared Future
Time moves differently during Cold Open. Set against the backdrop of pandemic, a student’s essay about strained relationships might catch your breath, her spoken words suspended somewhere in the void of the internet. Yet the hour passes quickly.
“It’s remarkable, the feeling in the Zoom room,” Parker says.
After Yi’s poetry, the salon features a collaboration: a student’s painting of a ghostly guitarist fading into a mountain landscape, which inspired the director of the Davidson library to write a poem. A dancer shares a video of choreography she crafted, which ends with her crying in a field, her back to the camera. An artist shows her sketchbook renderings of flowers from the garden of her grandmother, who recently died.
After each performance, people on the Zoom call snap their fingers in appreciation. Those watching on YouTube post praise in the chat window.
If it were possible to bring down a virtual house, Durwin Striplin accomplishes it. The chemistry professor plays “Your Song” by Elton John on the piano, crooning, “I hope you don't mind that I put down in words, how wonderful life is while you're in the world.”
Like it does every week, this salon concludes with a highlight reel of last Tuesday’s event. It’s what Lynds calls a “mood board,” created by a Davidson digital media specialist to succinctly convey the themes that emerge from each Cold Open.
It’s a way for Parker, Lynds and their students to archive as they create, and to bind themselves together even as the crisis threatens to sever their ties. It’s a promise that the past they’ve shared at Davidson will carry them forward together, too.
“The remembering where we have come from that happens each week—there is this way in which the community extends both into the past and into the future,” Parker says. “I think we have lucked into something that manifests some really interesting values by way of community.”