Last spring, we bid a happy retirement to our much-beloved dean of arts and humanities, Debra Sequeira. Debra is herself a genuine appreciator of art, music, theatre, and poetry, as well as a staunch advocate for the humanities, having served the institution previously as professor of communication. With this vacancy, I’ve stepped out of the Department of Philosophy and into the dean role on an interim basis for the 2020–21 academic year.
And what a year it is. A renewed focus on racial injustice has paved the way for a new wave of civil rights activism. A contentious election season stretched beyond historical norms. A global pandemic has brought humanity to its knees, taking precious lives and ushering in economic and psychological pain.
Here at SPU, the coronavirus has challenged us to reimagine how we deliver our curriculum. These are circumstances in which creativity truly is a virtue. And how our faculty does shine in such moments! For as they introduce students to texts, ideas, musical compositions, visual and theatrical modes of expression, and as they orient students historically and culturally toward more effective and productive methods of interaction and communication, they also explore with students what it means to be a human person in this world: a world that is both wonderful and vexing.
When at last this pandemic no longer grips us — and that day will come — we will have learned so much. In my view, a particularly important lesson will have been that poetry and music, literature and honest journalism, intellectual curiosity and creativity, historical awareness, embodied artistic expression, and a well-developed ethical framework are not luxuries society can well do without. They are inextricably linked to the beating heart of humanity and essential to the success of our collective endeavors.
There is important work taking place. I’m so pleased to have you join us!
Rebekah Rice, Interim Dean
College of Arts and Sciences – Division of Arts and Humanities
Music, theatre, and art: Audition for scholarships online
Whatever form your creativity takes — music, theatre, or visual art — SPU wants to hear from you. SPU has more than $300,000 in fine and performing arts scholarships to award to qualifying students. And you don’t have to be majoring in the arts to audition!
This year, we invite all students to submit electronic auditions online. The deadline to submit is February 22, 2021. Register and access audition requirements.
Plus, we invite all prospective students and their families to attend the online Faculty Q&A Sessions on February 6, 2021. At these online events, you’ll meet our world-class faculty, meet future classmates, and learn what it’s like to be part of SPU’s nationally recognized artistic community. Learn more and register.
SPU theatre community creates devised theatre production, designed and produced collaboratively
What do you do when you want to produce a play, but current safety guidelines require everyone involved to wear masks and stand apart from each other?
You create a world and story on stage where that makes sense.
That’s just what the Seattle Pacific theatre department is doing during the 2020–21 year. As theatres around the nation remain closed or restricted to virtual performances due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the theatre department is using current restrictions to its advantage with the first devised mainstage theatre production at SPU.
According to Candace Vance, assistant professor of theatre who is spearheading the project, devised theatre is a longstanding tradition in which a play is created and produced collaboratively by a collective of artists.
Usually, a play is written by a playwright, then brought to life by actors and producers. But in a devised production, actors, writers, designers, choreographers, and dramaturgs work together from the very beginning. “Everyone is creating a new work together,” said Vance. “Devised plays also often engage with whatever is going on in the current time or place in the world, and this one will be no different.”
In SPU’s McKinley Theatre, students are required to wear masks and stand 17 feet apart for safety. “It was hard to imagine an existing play that justifies wearing masks and standing 17 feet apart from each other,” said Vance, who says the new plays genre falls under magical realism. “So we let our safety parameters spark instead of confine our imaginations. We've written characters with masks, but we've justified why they're wearing masks in the story.”
To begin the creative process this fall, Vance invited all faculty and students in the theatre department, along with guest artists, to anonymously respond to a series of prompts such as “What is something that brings you comfort these days?” and “Describe a moment of connection with somebody from the last two months,” and “What do you miss about pre-COVID life?” Participants could respond to the prompts online using words, pictures, drawings, or music.
Vance and Assistant Professor of Theatre Shelby Lunderman sorted through the responses, noting emerging themes, images, feelings, aesthetics, and characters that jumped out at them. “We quickly realized that everyone wanted to write something to serve the greater SPU community,” said Vance. “People are alone right now and need connection. We want to help fill that need a little bit.”
With a clear direction in place, Vance worked with a team of three student writers to develop a script, writing in opportunities for pre-recorded material so student actors unable to come to campus can still participate. Caleb Macduff, a senior double majoring in theatre production and performance, said the writing team relied upon the vision and ideas collected from the prompt responses submitted by the theatre community. “Then each of our writers took on separate characters to bring to life,” he said, “first through a series of monologues, and then merging those monologues into dialogue. This meant that we all approached with different ideas and inspiration. While initially our various parts of the script were incredibly disjointed, we also were able to achieve vastly different voices for our characters, and created a set of diverse, novel characters.”
Simultaneously, the costume designer brought in costuming suggestions that were worked into the script. In McKinley Hall, theatre design students are working in small, socially distanced crews to construct a set. The theatre department is hosting a series of virtual forums on devised theatre and its history. “We are all invested,” said Vance. “We are going big and producing this like we would for an opening night.”
Megan Merydith, a senior with a double major in theatre education and theatre production and design, is serving as stage manager, a role that typically includes attending planning meetings, coordinating communication, facilitating rehearsals, and overseeing the safety of those involved. This time, her role also includes that of a film production assistant and managing COVID-19 precuations. “I am always excited to find new projects and unique challenges working in theatre, and this project so far has certainly been just that,” she said. “But I am most excited that we are finding a way (non-traditional as it may be) to create theatre and art together as a community, and continue growing our skills.”
The play will be recorded in a three-camera film shoot in early May, with a late May release date online for audiences worldwide. In addition to the devised play, SPU Theatre will also produce Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the form of three episodes, released over three Sundays this spring. “Theatre is resilient, and our students are proving themselves to be resilient,” said Vance.
“Writing for this project has given me a platform to speak about issues that affect not only myself, but also my classmates who speak through me,” said Macduff, “and who I will speak through when this show is performed.”
Creation and contemplation: 2020 studio art graduate expresses faith through art
“Faith is very much attached to what I’m doing,” said Dominic Renz ’20, who graduated from SPU with a degree in studio art. “Praise and lament are always fighting within me. My work reflects the idea that it’s OK to not always understand, and it’s OK to have doubts.”
A California native, Renz transferred to SPU for the opportunity to learn and create in a small program. “I wanted close, one-on-one dialogues with professors. I also wanted to come to Seattle and experience the city, to see what the bigger art world was like. I wanted to live in a place full of creative people, where I could have conversations about making visual representations that reflect what’s going on within ourselves.”
Continue the story and view Renz’s art on SPU Stories
SPU online writing courses foster much-needed community for students
Every Wednesday night from 6:30–8:30 p.m. last Spring Quarter, Assistant Professor of English Jeffrey Overstreet met with 18 students over Zoom for the Advanced Fiction writing course. Class sessions brought laughter, serious conversations, free-writing sessions, and critiques of one another's work. Often after the scheduled class time ended, students and professor stayed on — many of them with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
During a time when an unexpected transition to online classes and the closure of many in-person activities changed college students’ daily lives, Overstreet’s writing courses proved a stable place of community and reflection. “This course provided me a sense of constancy, meeting each Wednesday as I had done with all of the previous writing courses,” said English literature major Hannah Hinsch ’20, who completed Overstreet’s Advanced Fiction course last spring. “It felt like stepping into something old and new.”
Beyond the introductory course Imaginative Writing, SPU offers three creative writing courses tracks: poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction. If a student wants to take one of these disciplines to the next level, they can take the advanced version. By the time students reach the advanced writing courses, they have already been in classes together, read each other’s writing, and formed a close creative community.
“While inevitably some sense of tangible community is lost over Zoom, it was nonetheless kept alive by the rapport among classmates who have been in writing classes together over the past couple of years, and by new faces, too,” said Hinsch.
Overstreet agreed. “This was an affirmation of what I hoped would be true: by developing a community, a class like Advanced Fiction Writing becomes a launching pad for students to take off on their own as writers.” In fact, three of Overstreet’s students who graduated in May have continued meeting together to read and critique one another’s writing.
Overstreet goes to extra lengths to keep students engaged over Zoom. Students take turns reading the materials for the day. He keeps action figure props on his desk and movies queued up so he can surprise students with something unexpected. Each week, students wrote a short flash fiction story — sometimes just around 400 words — that the class critiqued on the spot.
Particularly in those assignments, Overstreet noticed a change in the content his students wrote. “Stories, especially the ones written on the fly, often come from emotions that are happening right on the surface,” he said. “Many stories were about anxiety, depression, and social anxiety — more than usual. Writing is therapeutic, and oftentimes, an act of survival. In that way, these classes provide not just a future pathway to a career or job or calling, but a healing service right now.”
Students in the Advanced Fiction Course are assigned the task of writing every day for at least 15 minutes. “This helpful practice stimulated creativity, established good habits, and grounded me in a season of confusion and unrest,” said Abby Ayulo ’20, who completed the course last spring. “The class was a place to make mistakes and be creative without consequence. Creating something — anything — is an achievement. We were honored for showing up and having tried.”
“There's certainly something to be said about continuing to write even when it's hard, and even when distractions come up,” said Hinsch. “I've learned from Jeff that this is — more often than not — the condition of the writer's daily life. Leaning into writing as a spiritual practice and a way of seeing the world through God's eyes has been a journey for me this year, and much of that is thanks to Professor Overstreet's ongoing mentorship. Our daily free writes started to feel less and less like any other assignment, and more like an act of faith.
“In short, writing has been a gift I have clung to during the pandemic, and I know Professor Overstreet and so many members of the writing community are doing the same.”
Concert choir singers collaborate with local choirs in virtual performance
This year, SPU’s nationally recognized Concert Choir had to shift gears and adapt in order to continue creating music with rehearsals limited to smaller groups of students, or moved to virtual formats. Still, the choir has reached audiences worldwide, joining together virtually for several performances this year.
Students recorded themselves singing their individual part. Ellis compiled these recordings, blending them to create a virtual choir. “This technique has been around since the early YouTube days, but it became a mode of survival for us once the pandemic hit to continue engaging with music and working on our vocal instruments,” said Ellis.
The theme for the Concert Choir’s repertoire this year has been to engage with the works of black composers. In the fall, the choir published a virtual performance of 20th century African-Canadian composer Nathaniel Dett’s piece Ave Maria. Thirty-three student singers sent in recordings from their homes in South Carolina, Colorado, California, and Oregon, as well as students from their dorm rooms on SPU’s campus.
“When it’s just your voice, it can be challenging to feel like you have to do lots of takes to get it just right,” said Ellis, who reminded students that their individual voices would contribute to a whole sound. “But choir music is not about the individual, it’s about how the group can express the text, or worship, or create art together.”
When the final version was released, with all the voices combined, Ellis says everyone involved breathed a collective sight of relief. “While it doesn’t replace learning and singing together in person, we all realized, ‘Hey, we can do this.’”
Ellis decided the choir was ready for another challenge: performing Alleluia for this Day by composer Christopher Harris and lyricist Devondra Banks, a work of lush harmonies and deep theology that celebrates the coming of Christ as a newborn baby who will change the world. “I knew I wanted Concert Choir to perform it the first time I heard it,” he said. He also knew it would be a challenge. So he turned to find strength in numbers.
Connecting with SPU alumnus William Tollefson, now choir director at Bellevue Christian High School, Ellis recruited 10 singers from Bellevue Christian. He also recruited 35 singers from Choral Sounds Northwest, the local choir Ellis directs. Combined with SPU Concert Choir, Ellis had a full choir of 66 to bring Alleluia for this Day to life.
On November 16, Harris and Banks met with Concert Choir members and shared their creative processes as artists and African American composers creating innovative music in a traditional style. “It was exciting to see this experience break down invisible walls for many of our students,” said Ellis.
“Students caught on to the beauty of the piece, the lyricism, and Harris’s own signature style of melody and harmony,” said Ellis, “as well as the profound theology touching on the vulnerability in a newborn baby that’s about to transform everything for us.”
Alleluia for this Day
Music by Christopher Harris
Lyrics by Devondra Banks
Bleak and cold was the night that chilled,
ignited and warm were the souls filled
with expectancy for the Love to come,
Love to which hearts succumb.
Fragile shoulders will burdens bear,
small hands hold the world's despair,
tiny feet will print our journey's way,
Alleluia for this day!
SPU Latino club translates COVID-19 documents for health department
Last summer, Patrick McDonald, professor of philosophy, called the Yakima Health Department of Information to ask if they needed help. He had seen that the COVID-19 cases and deaths in the Yakima area were rising at much higher rates than in other parts of Washington state. And one of the challenges the department faced was distributing COVID-19 risk and safety information to residents in accessible ways.
The Yakima Health Department said, “Yes.”
As the faculty advisor for the SPU chapter of MEChA, SPU’s Spanish and Latino student club, McDonald knew a number of Spanish-speaking SPU students who could help with translating important COVID-19 information and safety guidelines into Spanish.
McDonald handed off the project to junior Alexandra Olmedo, student president of the SPU MEChA chapter. Olmedo led a group of fellow students in translating into Spanish two documents for use around the Yakima community: a guide for local churches and religious organizations about conducting services safely, and a county-wide press release announcing the impact of COVID-19 in the county and community responses.
“I learned that there are people out there who, with just a little bit of help from others, can benefit a lot,” said Gio Gonzalez, a junior who participated in the project. “Many who can’t read English benefit from a simple translation that took about an hour or two from my life. Something simple had a bigger impact.”
“Our students definitely are interested in helping out where there’s a need and maintaining connections with their communities,” said McDonald. “They are very capable. The team produced a clean, grammatically and stylistically solid version of the documents.”
Behold! It’s not too late to experience the magic.
For decades, Seattle Pacific University has packed concert halls in downtown Seattle and delighted sold-out audiences with the annual Sacred Sounds of Christmas concert.
This year, for the first time, we have brought the legendary magic to you through Behold! A Sacred Sounds of Christmas Virtual Experience. At this exciting multimedia event, you’ll see inspiring performances and compelling stories from some of SPU’s most gifted alumni, students, and faculty. Already the event has garnered more than 11,000 views.
Experience the magic again and again. Watch Behold:
The College of Arts and Sciences welcomed Sara Shaban as assistant professor of communication this year to teach journalism courses. Shaban recently completed her doctorate at the University of Missouri, where her research and teaching focused on journalism, media literacy and, overall, preparing future media practitioners to report on the world in effective and ethical ways.
“My goal is to educate and empower up-and-coming media practitioners,” said Shaban, “to equip them with the knowledge required for this age of globalization.” She often facilitates classroom discussions in which students relate class material to their own lives and brings in guest speakers from all over the world via Zoom. “This gives students the opportunity to practice thinking critically and learning from others' experiences,” she said.
Prior to life in academia, Shaban worked in U.S. local news as a producer before pursuing freelance journalism in Israel, the West Bank, and Sierra Leone. Shaban is fueled by her passion for social justice, specifically for immigrants and refugees. She was involved in initiatives to improve conditions for incoming refugees during the 2015 crisis and served as a volunteer and board member for the Immigrant and Refugee Women’s Program in St. Louis. Additionally, she served as the communications director for the St. Louis based NGO Project Peanut Butter — an organization committed to the eradication of child malnutrition throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
Currently, Shaban is also working on a book about the limitations of the current journalism framework, particularly when reporting on women's social movements in the Arab and Muslim world.
“I love the community at SPU and the students’ enthusiasm and eagerness to learn,” she said. “I also love that the school encourages us to use our vocation as our ministry. My favorite part about teaching journalism is watching the students grow as writers, getting out of their comfort zone and talking with people they might not have talked with before taking the class.”
What does it mean to know another person? How is that different from knowing about a person? What does it mean to know God? These are the questions Matt Benton, assistant professor of philosophy, is exploring, as part of research funded by a Templeton Grant.
Last year, Benton secured a $99,774 grant from the John Templeton Foundation. His grant project is based on the epistemology of knowing other persons, including what it means to know God. With funding from the grant, and in partnership with faculty from SPU’s philosophy, psychology, and theology departments, Benton will write several scholarly articles and eventually a book.
Benton’s research focuses primarily on issues in epistemology (the theory of knowledge), philosophy of language, and philosophy of religion, and especially at the intersection of these: how our language use communicates aspects of what we know, or believe, or how strong our evidence is; or, the epistemology of religious belief and religious experience, how to approach religious disagreements, and so on. He teaches courses on each of these areas, and some of them draw on several of these issues (particularly in UCOR 3000, Faith, Philosophy, and Science).
“I've always been fascinated by why people believe what they do, by the ‘ethics of belief,’ and how to think about rational versus irrational beliefs,” he said.
Grants of this size are rare among humanities disciplines. Since his project is interdisciplinary — drawing on issues of interest to empirical psychologists and theologians, as well as philosophers — Benton said a smaller liberal arts university like SPU is an ideal place for him to pursue this topic.
“I love that SPU represents a wide variety of Christian traditions in its faculty, but also that the students can come here from any background. It makes teaching my kinds of courses more exciting: We can treat those with differing views respectfully, and learn from each other, while also championing a big-tent Christian worldview.”
Online Art Exhibitions
The 2020 graduating class of Seattle Pacific art and design students produced incredible, professional-level work, much of which has already secured them jobs in the industry. Sadly, in-person exhibitions of the students’ work were cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak. However, you can still witness their incredible talent, skill, and creativity, and learn more about the student artists, below.
SPAC Gallery Online (all majors)
Studio Arts: waking/sleeping
Visual Communications: Off the grid
Online Music Performances
Junior recital: Lindsay Tambur, soprano, with Tim Cromeenes, piano
Click here to stream
Faculty Artist Series: Ryan Bede, baritone, with Asta Vaičekonis, piano
Click here to stream
Faculty Artist Series: Ryan Bede, baritone, with Asta Vaičekonis, piano
Click here to stream
Senior recital: Colin Hurkett, piano
Click here to stream
Junior recital: Amelia Powell, flute, and Megan Seibert, flute
Click here to stream