Stephen Colbert (Communication ’86) is hosting “A Starry Night” Saturday, a gala show as part of programming for the School of Communication’s CommFest weekend celebration. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Stephen Colbert (Communication ’86) is hosting “A Starry Night” Saturday, a gala show as part of programming for the School of Communication’s CommFest weekend celebration.

Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/TNS

Northwestern alumni reunite for a one-night celebration of School of Communication’s star-studded legacy

April 17, 2018

In the fall, Anthony Forchielli and his fellow MFA design students were posed with a challenge: turn the brand-new Ryan Fieldhouse into a glimmering theater worthy of some of the biggest stars in Northwestern history.

“How do you turn a football field into a place where the Oscars happen, essentially?” Forchielli, a second-year student in the lighting design program, said.

This Saturday, the space, now complete with a full stage, massive set pieces and 2,800 audience seats, will be packed with some of NU’s most famous faces — Brian d’Arcy James (Communication ’90), Kathryn Hahn (Communication ’95) and Heather Headley (Communication ’97) — for a gala show as part of programming for the School of Communication’s CommFest weekend celebration. “A Starry Night” will feature performances by students and alumni, and be hosted by none other than Stephen Colbert (Communication ’86).

And Forchielli is just one of a veritable army of students, faculty, alumni and more working to bring the show to life.

The gala revival

While in part a celebration, CommFest also serves a financial purpose: Communication Dean Barbara O’Keefe told The Daily in October that she intends for the fundraiser to help kickstart a new MFA program in acting and the downtown theater space she hopes will come with it.

The gala takes its inspiration from a 1980 fundraiser for what is now the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts. O’Keefe said she wants “A Starry Night” to highlight accomplished NU students and alumni in the same vein as the earlier show, which was broadcast three times on television and featured some of the era’s biggest stars, including Ann-Margret and Charlton Heston.

Don Weiner (Communication ’79) was a production assistant on that original show, said Danny Bittker, a master’s student in Leadership for Creative Enterprises and the assistant to this year’s show producers. Bittker said the original gala helped Weiner make industry connections that sent him on his way to a big break. Weiner, now a Hollywood director and producer, is returning to NU to help with the new gala — this time, as the executive producer.

The idea is to hold an Oscars-esque awards show, but without any actual awards, said Communication junior Jake Daniels, one of Weiner’s assistants on the production.

“The theme of it is going to be, ‘Look at all these cool things that Northwestern people did,’” Daniels said. “‘Let’s talk memories about what was so cool about being here.’ And then definitely also, ‘Let’s maybe give some money to the school because we all know that this was such a special part of our growth.’”

Students set the stage

Though alumni have been more than willing to help out, Bittker said a lot of the heavy lifting has been done by students — literally. Bittker said he has been managing a team of about 200 students working behind the scenes on everything from rigging stage lights to laying down 140-pound tiles across the entire indoor football field.

The school has been intentional about getting students involved, Bittker said, and Weiner especially wanted to pay it forward after seeing the impact of student engagement in the original gala. Though the “celebrity factor” of big-name stars is exciting, Bittker pointed out that for students like himself who want to end up behind the scenes, working with other alumni backstage might prove to be more valuable.

“It’s been life-changing for me. I’ve made a lot of really incredible connections,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of incredible people be involved with this who are at the top of the top of their game. They know how to do these things and do them well, and they put on productions like this in their sleep.”

During the show itself, dozens of students — Bittker estimates close to 80 — will take the stage. Many of them will perform alongside alumni, he said, like in combined Mee-Ow comedy sketches and a Waa-Mu number.

Daniels, who is a current Mee-Ow member and will perform during the show, said one major takeaway from working on the gala was his ability to connect with and learn from alumni in the industry. By working with both stars and behind-the-scenes big shots, he said he was able to get a better “vibe” for what showbiz is like and feel like the industry was more accessible for him.

“Just being on the same stage as Stephen Colbert … it makes it feel more like, ‘Oh, this is what I’m headed toward,’” Daniels said. “‘This industry, I am a part of it, or at the very least I understand how it works because I’m seeing it happen for real.’”

The stage and lighting design for the show were put almost fully in the hands of MFA students, said Communication Prof. Marcus Doshi, with faculty mentors guiding them through the process. Doshi said he and the other design professors leapt at the chance to get their students involved, especially because many of their in-class projects are on smaller-scale shows or theoretical designs that never get carried out.

Joseph Franjoine, the other second-year lighting design student, said he has been working on the show for months in addition to his regular classwork. While he thinks beautiful design can be done with two lights, he’s excited for the chance to work with hundreds for the gala.

“For me, the scale of this design is the really impressive part, and is what gives it variation for me in my portfolio,” Franjoine said. “It’s allowing me to work in a different way, in a different form. It’s taking my canvas and expanding it to a different scale and giving me a different set of paint to work with.”

A family reunion

Franjoine said he and the other design students were inspired by the idea of a glittering, high-end gala — “something that sparkles and has a metallic, beautiful finish.” Scott Penner, a second-year stage design MFA student also working on “A Starry Night,” said the students wanted the stage to feel like a “big, epic spectacle,” decked out with chrome finish and hundreds of LED pixels.

The idea is based on a “starburst,” which brings in active, explosive motion, Penner added.

Franjoine connected the way the starburst brings the separate pixels together into one “constellation” with how the design should help bring together an audience that will mix in all different members of the School of Communication universe.

“It celebrates the magnificence of the school,” Forchielli said. “But also when you walk into the space, it’s all about interconnectivity. It’s about making everybody in the space feel like they’re one.”

Daniels added that the event is the biggest chance for attendees to make connections and friendships, as well as to make Northwestern feel more like a community.

From actors taking nights off their Broadway shows to perform at the gala to other alums who are thrilled to return to campus for the first time since graduation, Bittker said he’s found it clear that NU will always be a home people can return to. He added that he hopes the performances will both showcase the wealth of alumni talent and inspire current students who want to pursue careers in the industry.

“There’s a lot of passion for Northwestern that is really inspiring to see. There’s a lot of alumni that had deep connections to the school,” Bittker said. “This is going to be like a family reunion for so many people.”

Read more from April’s edition of The Monthly here.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @madsburk