Waa-Mu Show increases inclusivity efforts through community outreach, transparency

Kelley Czajka, Reporter

After a year of thinking about superheroes and super powers, the Waa-Mu Show co-chairs learned how to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, both onstage and behind the scenes.

“Beyond Belief: A Superhero Story” tells the story of a girl named Skylar who is sick and in the hospital. To comfort her, Skylar’s older sister, CJ, tells her stories about superheroes. Following her release from the hospital and the start of high school, Skylar realizes the superheroes in the stories are really based on CJ’s friends.

The Waa-Mu Show is an entirely student-written musical, largely worked on through a “Creating the Musical” class held Winter Quarter.

Inspiration for this year’s show struck when one of the head writers brought up the origin story of the Superman comics during an early meeting. The comics were written as an escape from what was happening in the writers’ lives, said Waa-Mu co-chair Charlotte Morris, who plays a student in the show. The Waa-Mu team drew a parallel between writing to escape the difficulties of life and what they do in theater, the Communication senior said. That idea eventually morphed into the plot of “Beyond Belief.”

Last year’s Waa-Mu Show, “Another Way West,” was criticized by some students who said they were disappointed by the way it glorified the Oregon Trail and failed to discuss the mass killing of Native communities associated with westward expansion.

This year, Morris said, the four co-chairs made it their goal from the beginning to include as many student voices and have as many eyes on the show as possible before the premiere of “Beyond Belief.”

“At no point do we ever want the Northwestern community to feel like we are alienating any portion of our community or offending them or taking any of their stories lightly,” Morris said. “We wanted to respond in a way that showed that while that has happened in the past, we are 100 percent moving forward and making sure that never happens again.”

Early efforts

The Waa-Mu team began its inclusivity initiative in the fall, hosting open dialogues for anyone on campus, whether they had been involved in the show or not, to discuss ways they felt underserved by Waa-Mu in the past.

In an effort to reach beyond the student body, Waa-Mu’s student outreach committee hosted a panel for faculty and students to discuss the inclusivity of the organization. Morris said she found the panel to be a productive opportunity to listen to outside voices.

“What we really gained from that is there’s always something more that we can do and another person we can listen to,” Morris said. “So as we go into that, what’s been really exciting is that we hear and listen to all of the voices.”

They turned that lesson into action by welcoming everyone who wanted to be involved with the organization. This year’s Waa-Mu team included 137 students, which is larger than usual, Morris said, allowing the show’s quality to improve.

“One of our main writers this year is an engineer, and he’s written five songs in the show with his writing partner,” Morris said. “I don’t know if that’s somebody that we necessarily would have been able to reach if we hadn’t made as much of an effort as we did, and the show wouldn’t be what it is right now if he wasn’t working on it.”

The student, Communication and McCormick freshman Alec Steinhorn, joined Waa-2 in the fall, requiring him to take the writing class in the winter. Waa-2 is a freshman outreach group that rehearses songs as they are being written and performs in public throughout the year. Steinhorn said he and his writing partner, Communication freshman Jordan Knitzer, helped with the revision of one of the songs.

“We worked collaboratively with the original writers and ended up creating something that I think was a successful improvement of the original work while still respecting the ideas and the creative content of the first piece,” Steinhorn said.

From there, Steinhorn got considerably more involved, he said, and Waa-Mu has ended up being a home for him on campus. Once people get over the initial intimidation of putting their foot in the door, he said, Waa-Mu is a very supportive, inclusive organization.

“I want that support that I felt to be shared with as many people as possible,” he said. “The greatest asset that this institution has is its bank of resources.”

Seeking feedback

The Waa-Mu co-chairs and student outreach committee sought out ways to gather feedback for the show, including face-to-face conversations, an anonymous feedback form and open rehearsals. Additionally, a member of Waa-Mu’s student outreach committee went to every rehearsal to note aspects of the show that could potentially be “triggering.”

Morris said having so many people in the room who are not directly involved in Waa-Mu provided an opportunity to scrutinize details of the musical that may not sit well with viewers. Morris, the other co-chairs and the writers, who have been working on it for months, may fail to see those things simply because they are so close to the show, she said.

“Somebody can come into the room once and listen to a line in the song once and say, ‘I don’t know how I feel about that’,” Morris said.

Several other students have come forward to the co-chairs about parts that made them uncomfortable, such as one actor’s costume or another actor who felt their character was becoming the trope “stupid character.” Creating an open environment allowed the team to address these issues so that everyone could enjoy putting on the show as much as possible, said co-chair and Communication senior Jessie Jennison, who plays main character Skylar.

“The answer will never be, ‘Get over it’,” Jennison said. “The answer from us all year has tried to be, ‘Thank you so much for coming to us. We understand your concern, and we will do everything we can to fix it’.”

Steinhorn said he especially appreciated the co-chairs’ efforts to increase transparency in the deliberation of which songs made it into the musical. He said this year, everyone was invited to attend the Friday sections, which were previously reserved for co-chairs and section heads.

“I’ve known the reason why songs have been revised or cut,” Steinhorn said. “I’m able to see the artistic merit in those decisions and also have ample warning to do those revisions, and it doesn’t feel like people are just taking my work and changing it without my consent.”

Beyond campus

To increase its outreach beyond Northwestern, Waa-Mu will host a Community Day on Saturday. The event will offer a variety of opportunities for Evanston residents to see the show and participate in other activities.

The Community Day will include Wee-Mu, a theater workshop for 5 to 10-year-olds; Club Waa-Mu, a similar but new workshop for 11 to 13-year-olds; and an American Sign Language and sensory-friendly performance. This is the first time the Community Day and ASL performance have been done for a Waa-Mu show.

Waa-Mu decided to include the sensory-friendly performance after the class did a workshop with Delaney Burlingame, a Communication senior. Burlingame, a member of Seesaw Theatre — a theater group that works to produce accessible theater for those with developmental differences — told them one big way to increase inclusivity and accessibility is to create programming that caters to specific groups.

With that programming in place, more people will come to the show and feel welcome there, Jennison said.

“We’re really excited this year to have a lot of opportunities for younger audience members to get involved,” said co-chair and Communication senior Justin Tepper, who plays Mr. Brooks. “The show this year is a family show. It revolves around one family, and it takes place in a high school, so we feel that a lot of the themes are very much relatable to children.”

They also launched a partnership this year with the Gale Community Academy in Rogers Park. Four Waa-Mu students have gone to the school twice a week to teach the academy students about music and lyric writing during their music enrichment period. Assistant director Ryan Martin, a Communication senior, said this opportunity has been a powerful experience for him.

“I feel very lucky to be a part of it and to watch this thing that hopefully becomes a staple, to watch it develop,” he said.

The Waa-Mu co-chairs said increasing inclusivity is a long process that is difficult to complete within a year. The hope, they said, is that the programs and measures they put into place will allow future co-chairs to continue their inclusivity efforts.

“We’ve tried to reexamine what we do and make sure that it still resonates with the people that are on this campus now,” Jennison said. “We’ve tried to lay the groundwork so that when we come back for our 10-year reunion, Waa-Mu will be representative of the campus 10 years from now and not what it looks like today.”

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