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Comin’ Together

Dreams Become Reality as the School Celebrates CommFest

CommFest 2018, the School of Communication’s learning, interaction, and entertainment festival, exceeded every goal—it inspired the community, promoted new projects, and elevated the school’s brilliant faculty and students. But most notable of its achievements was the sheer joy that alumni and friends experienced in celebrating the school’s successes. Dialogue offers a starry-eyed look back at those two banner days.

The vision, engagement, and investment of our alumni and donor community
have sustained us for the last 150 years; the goodwill generated by this
spectacular weekend has forged the path for the next 150.

—Dean Barbara O’Keefe

On April 20 CommFest 2018 kicked off with an auspicious sign: a brilliant blue, sunny sky.

The weekend of panel discussions, master classes, demonstrations, discussions, open houses,
film festivals, and the culminating “A Starry Night” show hosted by Stephen Colbert (C86, H11)
attracted thousands of visitors to Evanston and was the first such comprehensive education-and-performance event the school has ever staged.

“We set out to design an experience that would celebrate and promote the achievements of the school, energize our supporters, empower our students, and raise awareness for new goals and initiatives,” says School of Communication Dean Barbara O’Keefe. “We did all of that and experienced the unequaled pleasure of knowing that when we call, our devoted alumni always answer.”

These alumni were led by CommFest committee chairs David Lefkowitz (C82), Elizabeth Clark Zoia (C89), and Amanda Silverman (C93), who devoted years to the planning, implementation,
and follow-up for all weekend events, most notably “A Starry Night.”

“The entire CommFest weekend was a fantastic success,” says Lefkowitz. “It was exciting to see so many School of Communication alumni and other friends back on campus, reengaging with the school, celebrating the school’s extraordinary accomplishments and looking forward with confidence to the school’s bright future. We owe huge thanks to alumni Don Weiner and Dave Harding, who produced the dazzling gala show, and Elizabeth Clark Zoia and Amanda Silverman, who chaired the entire festival and brought the idea to reality with high impact and style. We also appreciate all the people who so generously provided substantial financial support through ticket purchases and sponsorships.”

The future includes a new MFA program in acting set to launch in 2019 and the downtown Chicago media and performing arts center that will be built to support it.

“We garnered a tremendous amount of support for the MFA and center through CommFest,” says O’Keefe. “The vision, engagement, and investment of our alumni and donor community have sustained us for the last 150 years; the goodwill generated by this spectacular weekend has forged the path for the next 150.”

The weekend provided opportunities for rediscovery, reengagement, and reunion.


The School of Communication leadership, faculty, and students have transformed the way we connect and create. To showcase the school’s exciting and diverse community, nearly 50 independent events were staged in University classrooms, auditoriums, and common spaces. The schedule was carefully crafted to represent all facets of the school, including acting workshops, puppetry demonstrations, interactive performance art, health communication
workshops, debates, branding seminars, communication health and disorders presentations, algorithmic analysis, and much more.

“If there is an atom at the top of my fingertip,
that atom is billions of years old, traveling
all of the world, and it has been in
so many different places. It’s a little bit of
an extension of that thought. We’re in the
ocean—however we think, however we
exist, it’s affecting the world around us,
and the world around us is affecting us,
so the piece [You Are the Ocean] is about
that relationship.”

—Ozge Samanci, associate professor
of radio/television/film

“Why mask? Well, when we put on a mask
we say that by covering, the actor uncovers.
What I’ve found in the last 20-some
years here is that most of my job is getting
my students out of their heads. They’re so
cerebral. These students were brought up
in front of the small screen—whether it’s
the television or the iPad or the computer
or the iPhone—and the idea of acting from
the neck down is frightening. When we put
on a mask, a little miracle happens and we
feel freer to explore.”

—Cindy Gold, professor of theatre

“One of the most difficult parts about telling
the truth to patients and families after
unexpected harm has occurred is … how
poorly prepared most health professionals
are to have these conversations. But now
the culture is changing, and hospitals and
health systems are more willing to talk to
patients and families after unexpected
harm has occurred. … One of the challenges
that we’ve faced is how can we find
the right people in each health system to
do these difficult, difficult conversations.”

—Bruce Lambert, professor of
communication studies

Rocky Wirtz on Rebuilding the Blackhawks
Chicago Blackhawks chairman and University trustee William Rockwell “Rocky” Wirtz (C75) is renowned for his strategic vision. When he took over the team in 2007, ticket sales were at an all-time low, the Blackhawks hadn’t won a Stanley Cup championship in nearly 50 years, and management had gone to war with the fans, the media, and the players. “But other than that, we got along with everyone,” Wirtz joked. “We were very close to being out of business. ESPN
called the Blackhawks the worst team in professional sports.” As part of his vision to revive the team, Wirtz made it clear that he wanted the Blackhawks to win a championship. He also insisted that all employees be treated equally, as part of the same team. He strengthened relationships with the community, fans, press, and players and began broadcasting Blackhawks games on TV to build the fan base. Soon afterward, the Blackhawks broke their five-decade drought with a 2010 Stanley Cup win, followed by repeats in 2013 and 2015. Wirtz’s well-attended presentation was moderated by communication studies professor Michelle
Shumate, faculty director of the master of science in communication program.

Deep Space Teamwork
“We think we’re on the verge of humanity becoming an interplanetary species,” said communication studies professor Leslie DeChurch during the event she copresented with Noshir Contractor, the Jane S. and William J. White Professor of Behavioral Sciences in the
McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, the School of Communication, and the
Kellogg School of Management. “This means we have to radically accelerate how we understand human collaboration,” DeChurch continued. “The only way a journey to Mars can be successful is if a very small team of people can work together in very small spaces impeccably.” As important as the hard science is—how humans could get there and live there—the social science behind the mission is imperative. She and Contractor are working with students on four NASA-funded research projects to determine how to best assemble a crew for the proposed mission, based on personality, skill set, and coping strategies.

Children and Media: Ellen Wartella on the Latest Findings

Department of Communication Studies chair, director of the Center on Media and Human
Development, and the Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor of Communication,
Wartella has long been Northwestern’s go-to expert on human development and the media for the press, the entertainment industry, the research community, and the federal government. Her most recent work evaluates the impact of the show 13 Reasons Why on its young, impressionable audience. Wartella and co-researchers conducted online interviews with
nearly 5,000 teens, parents, and school counselors in the US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Brazil. “One of the things we found in the study is that the kids who watched the show,
particularly those who had high social anxiety … and younger viewers, were greatly impacted by the show,” said Wartella. “But it also had an impact on their empathy and their behavior… They went up to people they had not been nice to and apologized…The show raised that awareness.” In conjunction with talk moderator and research consultant Vicky Rideout, Wartella detailed additional effects of the series and challenges in communicating with the
media about the study’s findings.

There are certain things all professional actors need to know that
many professional actors don’t know. This is about putting more
arrows in their quiver.”

—Anna Shapiro, artistic director of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Taking Northwestern Theatre Downtown: A Conversation with Anna Shapiro and Barbara O’Keefe
School of Communication Dean O’Keefe and Tony Award–winning director Anna Shapiro
discussed an exciting school initiative: the new MFA program in acting. “There are certain things all professional actors need to know that many professional actors don’t know,” said Shapiro, artistic director of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Northwestern’s Marjorie Hoffman Hagan, Class of 1934, Chair of Theatre. “This is about putting more arrows in their quiver.” O’Keefe and Shapiro discussed how they had long regarded the MFA in acting as a priority but had postponed it because neither wanted to take resources—namely faculty and space— from the undergraduate acting program. The dean’s creative vision kicked in while visiting Abbott Hall on the University’s Chicago campus. “When I walked up to the second floor, it felt like walking into an old theater,” said O’Keefe. “It was this huge, beautiful, cavernous space, and I knew this was it.” Shapiro added that graduate acting students would be able to take advantage of being so close to some of Chicago’s most admired theatre companies, and she could also work on strengthening internships and other relationships with those institutions. The fully funded program will begin taking applicants this winter and will admit its first class in fall 2019.

Trump and the Media: Understanding the Present and Future of the News and Social Media
Scholars from around the world debated how the relationship between the media and President Donald Trump is changing politics. Communication studies professor Pablo Boczkowski moderated a panel of scholars who contributed essays to his book Trump and the Media: Rod Benson (New York University), Gina Neff (University of Oxford), Sue Robinson (University of Wisconsin–Madison), and Michael Schudson (Columbia University). The discussion covered Trump’s dominance in the news cycle, his use of Twitter, whether the media are obligated to shadow his every move and tweet, and how to encourage responsible online behavior amid real and exaggerated claims of “fake news.” In Robinson’s words, “Trump is winning the journalism story, and it needs to be reclaimed.”

Open Television Tonight (OTV): How Can Web Distribution Disrupt the Television Business?

Television’s future might lie less with network executives and more with independent
creators. This well-researched prediction comes courtesy of communication studies
assistant professor Aymar Jean Christian, creator of OTV—an online content distributor
that promotes intersectional programming. Moderating a panel exploring his research,
Christian said, “In the past, networks have controlled content. But with the internet and with more ways for independent artists to show their work, there are more opportunities to
reach different audiences. … Intersectionality has value in this new economy.” One of the first series he helped launch, Brown Girls, received a 2017 Emmy nomination and was picked up
by HBO. Christian’s panel included OTV contributors Deja Harrell, who created, wrote, and stars in Seeds, a show about young black women and their friends; Karan Sunil, writer and director of Code-Switched, about a group of South Asian friends and relatives; and Daniel Kyri, who cocreated and wrote The T, which focuses on transgender issues. They discussed creativity, representation, and the necessity of making real, relatable characters. “When we see a black perspective on TV, it’s a very singular narrative,” said Harrell. “I’d never seen young black girls who talked like me. I wanted to create characters I know.”


The CommFest weekend included opportunities for guests to reunite with friends, classmates, and affiliated departments. Buildings and offices were open throughout the weekend for drop-ins as well as guided tours. The weekend included dedicated reunions, not by class year but by affinity group: Waa-Mu, WNUR, Studio 22, Debate, MFA in Writing for Screen and Stage, and more. Each of these reunions took place on the Evanston campus on Friday, April 20. Groups affiliated with the theatre department were treated to a concurrent a cappella showcase featuring independent student singing groups. Earlier in the day, the school held a welcome reception in Norris University Center for all CommFest guests.


The CommFest finale brought the (field)house down. “A Starry Night,” the culminating event of the weekend, was a rousing, raucous, purple-tinted party of a show— punctuated by the manifold talents of celebrated alumni and the incomparable wit of Stephen Colbert (C86, H11).

“The School of Communication, as you all know, was known as the Department of Elocution. And what better place to teach mellifluous speech than… Chicago,” he joked before affecting the city’s much-maligned accent.

Starring two dozen prominent stage and screen alumni, the show was held in the brand-new Ryan Fieldhouse and Wilson Field—an immense, turf-covered indoor football field transformed into a glittering theatrical venue to accommodate seating for the evening’s 2,800 guests.

The last time so many School of Communication celebrity alumni assembled onstage was in 1980 for “The Way They Were,” a gala show hosted by Charlton Heston (C45) and Ann-Margret (C63) to mark the completion of the Theatre and Interpretation Center, now the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts. This year’s show—produced by Don Weiner (C79), who launched So You Think You Can Dance and Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader—helped raise funds and awareness for the forthcoming MFA program in acting and the downtown Chicago performing and media arts center that will support it.

The show opened with a taped vignette of Colbert and fellow alumnus Seth Meyers (C96, H16), host of NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers. The two traded barbs about everything from
auditioning for the Mee-Ow Show to their late-night rivalry.

“Every graduate of the School of Communication gets their own talk show,” joked Colbert, who hosts CBS’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Former Saturday Night Live cast member Ana Gasteyer (C89) performed the opening number, “Comin’ Together,” with Stephanie D’Abruzzo (C93), a Tony-nominated actress and Sesame Street puppeteer best known for her work in the original New York company of Avenue Q. The star-studded cast also included Brian d’Arcy James (C90), who sang “You’ll Be Back”
from Hamilton, a highlight of his role as King George, which he originated off Broadway and reprised recently on Broadway. James, Gregg Edelman (C80), and Tony nominee Richard Kind
(C78) together sang “I Wan’na Be Like You” from The Jungle Book.

Sharif Atkins (C97) who stars in Seal Team and is known for playing Dr. Michael Gallant on the iconic television hit ER, introduced a sketch by Mee-Ow Show alumni that included performers
from the group’s 2018 cast. Adam Kantor (C08), who took a night off from appearing in the Tony Award–winning musical The Band’s Visit to come to campus, sang alongside current members of his former a cappella group, THUNK. Craig Bierko (C86), a Tony nominee for his leading role in the Broadway revival of The Music Man, sang “Trouble” and “Seventy-Six Trombones,” the latter featuring the raise-the-roof accompaniment of members of the Wildcat Marching Band. Harry Lennix (C86) joined emeritus professor Frank Galati (C65, GC67, GC71) onstage to introduce a segment about the school’s connections to the Chicago theatre

Emmy Award winner Nancy Dussault (BSM57), Tony Roberts (C61), and Kind performed bygone Waa-Mu songs with current cast members. “This just reminds me how much I loved being a student,” Dussault told the audience. “There’s so much talent onstage and offstage here at Northwestern.”

Kimberly Williams-Paisley (C93), who starred as the radiant young bride in Father of the Bride, introduced a tribute to Happy Days creator and Pretty Woman director Garry Marshall (J56). Kathryn Hahn (C95), who starred in Bad Moms, introduced a segment on influential Northwestern alumni, saying, “I’m so moved to be back here.”

Other celebrity alumni contributing to the show were Paul Barrosse (C80), Daniele Gaither (C93), Kyle Heffner (C79), Rush Pearson (C80), Laura Innes (C79), Gary Kroeger (C81), J.P.
Manoux (C91), Stephanie March (C96), Marg Helgenberger (C82), Dermot Mulroney (C85), and Dana Olsen (C80).

Heather Headley (C96), who has won both a Grammy and a Tony, sang twice. “If It Wasn’t for Your Love” accompanied a video segment about School of Communication alumni all-stars across its spectrum of expertise; “Home” from The Wiz closed the show. The crowd rose to its feet as she held the last goosebump-inducing note, after which cast members joined her onstage for a rendition of the Waa-Mu Show standard “To the Memories.”

Dean Barbara O’Keefe called the event and CommFest 2018 a smash hit. “I thank all our contributors for what we have accomplished,” she says. “CommFest has written a new chapter in the history of the school and paved the way for many chapters to come.”