A Conversation with Brian Kite

The interim dean talks about 2020-21, how things will be different and favorite Zoom moments

By Noela Hueso

When Brian Kite assumed the role of interim dean at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television (UCLA TFT) in January 2020, there was no way to know that he would be leading the school during a worldwide pandemic as well a long-overdue racial reckoning. He credits his background as a theater director with his ability to be nimble in fluid situations but as we head into the Fall Quarter, more than anything, he points to his hardworking staff and faculty, praising their summer-long preparations for classes that will be taught remotely. “As things change, we're responding but our focus is always on excellence, same as it has always been at UCLA,” he says. Kite is excited for the coming year and, despite perceived limitations, determined to provide a stellar performing arts education for the next generation of artists and scholars. “If, perhaps, we are not first responders as artists, we’re certainly second responders,” he asserts. “Artists have to be there to explore the right questions about how to remain connected in extraordinary times.” In anticipation of the new term, he recently sat down for a socially distant chat.

Besides the obvious — almost everyone is working remotely and on Zoom — how are things going to be different at TFT this fall?

Things are going to be very different and very much the same. In preparing for this quarter, every faculty member looked at their curriculum and thought, “What knowledge do our students need to have when they leave this course and how can I do it totally differently than I’ve done it in the past?” There are benefits to doing this: Even if they’ve been teaching their class for a long time, they’ve now had the opportunity to reengage with the material in a way that they might not have before. What we do is generally in person and collaborative and we're having to rethink that, of course, but that’s not necessarily bad. This is an opportunity that is forcing us to reimagine ourselves as scholars and artists — what we want to do, say and be. We need to be thought leaders, thinking through what the current state of the world means to the work that we do.

What are you looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to seeing our students! That means digitally, too, getting in the room with them at orientation, having conversations with them, meeting with them in office hours. I miss the TFT community, the day-to-day. I’m looking forward to seeing everybody in whatever way we can.

What are your expectations for our students?

I want them to have a successful year; they should get everything that they want, need and deserve out of UCLA. My goal is to do everything we can to make sure that happens. I also have goals focused around racial equity and on conversations we had this past spring on the subject — turning those conversations into action, which will change the future of how we do things at TFT.

Is there anything specific that you can mention in that regard?

We're reimagining curriculum, what things look like in the classroom and how students are able to communicate their concerns without being negatively impacted by power structures. We’re also thinking about having a Student Life suite at TFT with services that speak directly to our TFT students in a way that perhaps some of the campus services don't. We’d also like to create more peer counseling opportunities to more directly support our students.

Are students excited about the new academic year or are they worried about perceived limitations?

They’re worried but they're also excited. They're glad that faculty and staff haven’t given up and they’re grateful that we’re working hard to get this right. Every time we communicate with students, they realize there's a lot of stuff being planned and that there will be benefits in our new learning arrangement, such as getting more guest scholars and artists who can easily come into our virtual classrooms.

What is their biggest fear?

A lot of students are struggling financially and trying to figure out how to make it through. There’s a real fear about being able to support themselves when they can't get jobs on campus or elsewhere. We’re doing what we can to help. Last spring, we worked to raise $100,000 for students in an emergency fund but that’s just the start; we have to keep fundraising to help give our community more relief.

How did that come together?

The fund last spring was crowdsourced through the UCLA Spark platform — everything from $5 to $5,000 and more — and our executive board stepped up and matched half of all the funds we received, which was terrific. Those gifts really helped sustain us. We had 70 new donors to our School.

In the midst of the pandemic, I understand that four M.F.A. students were able to complete their thesis films this summer in unique ways.

Yes. One student did a remote project in a bubble — they put a team together out in a location; everyone locked down in a quarantine situation and, after an extensive back and forth with our FTVDM Safety Committee and outside experts, they were able to shoot their thesis film. L.A. County has guidelines for shooting, too, which were very helpful in helping in guiding our efforts. Other students were able to complete their thesis projects in a totally reimagined way. They did them in their homes, with their home "quaranteam" — brothers, sisters and parents who held boom mikes and acted in their films; they used found footage and creatively told their stories. A bigger budget and a larger cast do not equate to a better film. I hope working in this form ends up inspiring our creators.

What are your thoughts about all stage productions being virtual?

I’m scared for the theater world. We need to get artists back to work. It's very hard on many, many people in our community. Virtual stage productions are OK — Hamilton got it right but they were shooting with multiple cameras before COVID; some theaters are doing some work that is really good: The Geffen Playhouse is doing a production right now, The Present, that has been selling out, and they're making it a full virtual experience: First, you join the audience in a virtual lobby and then you move into the show. That can work for a while but there are limitations to online theater. I think to myself, what are we doing exactly? We already have a better way of responding to this with screens — it’s called television and film!

What have been your favorite Zoom moments so far?

During the Spring Quarter, I visited a virtual tap-dancing class. There were just 10 pairs of feet, spread out in little squares; some feet were in the kitchen, I could tell, some were in their back yards; some were in a bedroom, some were in their driveway, and they were all tapping away. This truly made me feel like, “Oh, wait, maybe we can do this and get through this and still find real value in the work that we are doing.” Oh, and I also love any time somebody is unmuted and they don't know it.

Top: Kite in 2019, talking to the student cast of 'Rebel Genius,' a new musical he directed at UCLA TFT. Photo: Rey Jarrell

Posted: September 24, 2020