Dialogue Fall 2017: CommFest 2018

CommFest 2018: Rediscover, Reengage, Reunite

The School of Communication community—including alumni, students, parents, friends, and fans—is invited to Evanston on April 20 and 21 to take part in the celebration of the century. Participate in a two-day program of interaction, education, and entertainment—capped by a star-studded gala featuring some of the biggest names in entertainment. Rediscover the School of Communication, reengage with one another, and reunite within a shared vision of our future.

In the nearly 140 years since the School of Communication’s founding, its leadership and innovative pedagogy have transformed how our culture hears, speaks, shares, creates, emotes, engages, includes, and inspires. This spring the school will celebrate its unequaled contribution to the communication arts and sciences—and that means the party of the century.

The Backstory

These are exciting times for the communication arts and sciences. Our industries are being transformed, not simply by technology developments but also by restructurings of global culture and economics. For people who work in communication professions and the creative economy, the world is full of challenges and opportunities, all arriving at what seems to be an accelerating pace.

Since its founding, the School of Communication has continued to evolve along with the ecology of media and communication. And now, in response to the transformative impact of digital technology and globalization, the school has rapidly expanded programs in some areas and contracted in others. Some entire fields, notably communication sciences and disorders and performance studies, have shifted dramatically to reflect emerging developments across the sciences and humanities. The goal is to keep the school where it has always been, in the forefront of knowledge and practice.

In fact, the members of the School of Communication community are working hard to keep pace with change in the environment for their work, whether as alumni in creative enterprises or communication professions, faculty, staff, or students. This community is succeeding, achieving new heights of productivity, impact, and visibility. The school and its graduates are changing the world, and in the process the world is changing the school, often in ways that are difficult to appreciate.

Dean Barbara O’Keefe is very aware of this frenetic pace of activity and the risk of being driven by events. She observes that “the age in which we live provides fewer opportunities for deep connection and reflection than we would like. It seems as though there is no longer a time and place, in this world of rapid, ubiquitous communication, to step back from the flow of information and response. We need to find spaces where we can connect with others and examine, reflect, discuss, debate, appreciate, and enjoy the work we do.” When alumni began organizing an extraordinary gala performance to help raise funds for new programming and facilities for the performing and media arts, Dean O’Keefe suggested that the gala weekend could become a space where friends and alumni could come together with current faculty and students to rediscover the school, reengage with one another, and reunite as a community.

Faculty and student leaders were excited by Dean O’Keefe’s suggestion of organizing a program around the gala, a festival that would celebrate the achievements of the entire School of Communication community and highlight the new territories that the school and its alumni are exploring and developing in this new century.

The Plan

The faculty and students envisioned a festival of communication ideas, arts, and industry. Two days of reunions, lectures, salons, master classes, and parties will culminate in a celebratory gala featuring entertainment’s brightest minds and talents—an occasion befitting what Dean O’Keefe has called “the most exciting creative community in higher education.”

“This process has been an almost unfathomable confluence of vision, tenacity, and talent,” says Adam Joyce, the school’s assistant dean for planning and engagement and one of the festival’s primary organizers. “The moment we articulated this idea, our alumni, students, and friends jumped at the challenge.”

That challenge was not insignificant. Northwestern’s busy Evanston campus will welcome up to 3,000 guests over the course of the weekend, in classrooms, auditoriums, and outdoor spaces. And that has required the collaboration of University leadership as well as the school’s own resources and vast alumni community.

“There are hundreds of people working together to make this happen,” adds Joyce. “It’s remarkable yet unsurprising, given our devoted community.”

The Alumni

Simply put, without alumni, this weekend would not happen.

Elizabeth Clark Zoia (C89) and Amanda Silverman (C93) lead the steering committee, which oversees launch parties, recruits the gala’s featured performers, and manages the dozens of alumni volunteers. Silverman recalls recommitting to her alma mater after speaking with Dean O’Keefe at an alumni event several years ago.

“I sat with the dean and was instantly blown away by her vision for the School of Communication. After that night I was all in and happy to be involved in any way,” says Silverman, who has produced for television. “The gala and festival are a way to toast the brilliant history of this school while moving it forward. I love a creative, celebratory way to help with fundraising.”

Coordinated by Clark Zoia and Silverman, launch parties have taken place throughout 2017 to generate interest and engagement among alumni based in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, DC. “We want to offer an opportunity for our community to reconnect,” says Clark Zoia, an entrepreneur and former publicist for celebrities and high-profile film and television projects.

The festival weekend will provide many such opportunities, including affinity reunions—gatherings designated by association rather than class year. These will include Waa-Mu, Studio 22, Mee-Ow, and debate and forensics.

“Northwestern has a fantastic reunion infrastructure in place,” says Joyce. “Yet we hear that alumni are eager to see those who were in their cocurricular circles but not necessarily in their graduating class. This event will allow an intergenerational reunion experience for all in attendance, and what better way is there to collaborate and network than that?”

But it’s what lies at the end of the weekend that will be the biggest draw: the talent-packed gala performance at the brand-new lakefront Ryan Fieldhouse. Some of the most prominent School of Communication alumni in the entertainment industry will gather to star in a spectacular show that will fete the school’s wildly successful performing arts curriculum, innovative student-artists, visionary faculty assisting in the event’s design and production, and supportive friends in the industry.

An effort of this magnitude requires a seasoned professional at the helm, which is where Don Weiner (C79) has stepped in. A recent graduate when he volunteered for the school’s 1980 gala “The Way They Were,” Weiner is now a director and producer of such high-profile television events as So You Think You Can Dance and Showtime at the Apollo. He and gala coproducer Dave Harding (C78) clearly understand the intricacies of large-scale live programming.

“I got my start producing and directing for television while working on the first gala,” says Weiner. “I was just a year out of school at the time, and I owe everything to that experience. Now, so many years later, I’m delighted to be working with an incredible group of professional alumni on a show that will offer the same sort of opportunity to current students.

“I have no doubt that they’re going to look back at this event as a watershed moment in their careers,” he adds, “not to mention a really fun and memorable highlight of their college years.”

The Students and Faculty

Engaging the student population in the weekend’s planning serves multiple goals: meeting logistical needs, exemplifying the school’s professionally driven curriculum in a real-world way, and facilitating networking opportunities with alumni.

Senior theatre major Kaja Burke-Williams is active on the Dean’s Advisory Council, a group of undergraduate students who meet regularly with Dean O’Keefe to discuss the school and its initiatives.

“The DAC has been instrumental in getting students involved in the gala,” says Burke-Williams, who also plays a leadership role with the Waa-Mu Show. “We have two wonderful DAC members as student cochairs, Keebler Straz and Madeline Kelly, who have reached out to all of the theatre, dance, comedy, and a cappella groups on campus to help foster total student involvement. Through this I hope to create a stronger bond between School of Communication alumni and students.”

Of course, there is no leading-edge School of Communication curriculum without the innovative faculty. Resident experts have been tapped to fill the weekend with engaging talks and master classes, such as a digital-media boot camp led by assistant professor of communication studies Jeremy Birnholtz; a puppetry event featuring associate professor of theatre and Slavic languages and literatures Dassia Posner; and lectures by communication studies professor and leading collective-impact researcher Michelle Shumate and by MS in health communication program director Bruce Lambert.

Festivalgoers will also be treated to music theatre workshops, an Oxford-style debate, theatrical design and lighting demonstrations, art installation partnerships with the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, and more.

Additionally, CSD Connect—an annual conference for alumni and industry that is facilitated by the Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders—will take place the day before the weekend festivities.

“We are committed to building an ecosystem of lifetime learning and networking for our students and alumni,” says department chair Sumitrajit Dhar. “This year our conference will be special because we will be hosting it the day before CommFest begins. We hope our alumni will come and participate not only in the conference but in the entire festival to see how our department and school are continuing to touch and change people’s lives.”

And this is exactly what CommFest intends to achieve.

For more information and to buy tickets visit commfest.northwestern.edu