Dialogue Winter 2017

Innovation's Next Generation

School of Communication students and recent alumni are at the forefront of groundbreaking work, demonstrating their entrepreneurial training and using what they learn at Northwestern to tackle old problems in new ways. Whether that means using theatre to help autistic audience members, changing the way we view public education, or connecting people with chronic illness through new media, graduates and students are transforming the world we live in by putting into practice the innovative problem-solving skills they learn at the University.

Innovating on stage:

From left: Tom Casserly, Zachary Baer, and producing partner Nathan Vernon

Zachary Baer (C10) and Tom Casserly (C11) knew they wanted to make their mark on the theatre world, but it happened sooner than they expected. Within a year of graduating from Northwestern, the two helped finance and coproduce Peter and the Starcatcher, a play that won five Tony Awards in 2012.

“It was an amazing experience and incredible opportunity for us as early professionals, and it certainly required an entrepreneurial spirit,” says Baer. “It also gave us great exposure to the industry and what it really takes to get a Broadway show up on its feet.”

Baer, who now works for Disney Theatrical Group, said he directly credits his professional success to working on student theatre productions at Northwestern.

“We were so incredibly lucky and blessed to have the student theatre community at Northwestern to bolster our learning experience and to have extracurricular activities that let us flex our muscles in learning how to produce,” says Baer. “Tom and I coproduced the Dolphin Show at Northwestern University, America’s largest student-produced musical. What we’re doing now is not that different at the end of the day. There are bigger budgets and more celebrated creative team members, but it’s really those skills we learned at Northwestern that allow us to continue to do today what we love professionally.”

Casserly now works for producer and School of Communication friend Barbara Whitman and recently helped produce the Tony-winning Fun Home. He considers innovation almost essential for theatrical success. “Theatre has to be collaborative and innovative because it’s such a tough business,” he says. “Most shows do not succeed financially. The pressure to innovate is real, because it’s not like other industries where if you do a good job you can be reasonably certain to be successful.”

Innovating with new audiences:

Madeline Napel is a theatre major who knows what it means to be different. Her 26-year-old brother Walt has cerebral palsy. While he loves music and theatre, as a child he didn’t often get to attend live performances.

Madeline Napel with a child at a Seesaw performance

“Unfortunately, it’s been nearly impossible for my family to find performance venues where he will be accepted for who he is,” says Napel. “He rarely gets to go see concerts or theatre of any kind. To me that was always a huge injustice.”

Napel is now the executive director of Seesaw Theatre, a student group producing original multisensory presentations for children on the autism spectrum or with other developmental differences. In that role she is always looking for new ways to connect with her audience as well as how to ensure that Seesaw continues to thrive. “We’d love to see a Seesaw Theatre on every college campus one day,” she says.

This year, Seesaw expanded its season to offer its first-ever Inclusive Theatre Festival in November, introducing Northwestern students to disability theatre. This winter the company is presenting its first “Lunchbox,” an event designed to bring together families who otherwise might not have met so that they can bond over a shared experience.

Napel’s fellow senior Delaney Burlingame is Seesaw’s artistic director and directs its mainstage show in the spring. She says that the most successful theatre finds a way to be relevant, relatable, and innovative.

“Along the lines of innovation, theatre today is all about surprise,” she says. “With TV and the Internet, we’ve pretty much seen it all. Audiences today come to the theatre to see something’s that’s inventive and unexpected, and I think current work is really trying to rise to that occasion. Moreover, theatre has had to adapt to a more diverse audience than ever.”

As a student Burlingame has learned to innovate by taking advantage of the campus community and knowing when to ask for help. “I think what I’ve learned most during my time at Northwestern is that you’re never alone and there’s never only one way to move forward,” she says. “Problem solving when you feel like you’re at a dead end is all about shifting your perspective. Taking a moment to breathe and ask for a second opinion is often all you need to get the gears moving again.”

Innovating with music and performance:

Performance studies senior Maxwell Abner often found himself daydreaming as an audience member. While watching a favorite musician or theatrical performance, he would wonder what it would be like if a play were more like a concert, or a concert more like a play.

“I was always interested in the idea of breaking down forms and genres,” says Abner. “And that’s what we do in performance studies, we smash together different art forms and make new work.”

Abner wrote and performed Old Fashioned Love, which was half-play and half-concert, melding two of his favorite forms of artistic expression. The show followed the story of his own great-grandfather, a folk singer who worked the club circuit during the 1920s and even performed in one of Al Capone’s speakeasies. The performance also featured Abner’s own band, Max Abner and the Old Fashioned Lovers. Half the music was new; the other half was drawn from songs his great-grandfather had sung.

Abner says he’s always been encouraged to explore new ways of storytelling in performance studies and that the department’s professors have forever changed how he sees both the stage and the world. He has also learned how stories can have larger impacts on the world.

“The department taught me that art is not just a mirror of life, that art and life are mirrors of each other,” he says. “When we see a play or a movie, our own lives might then mimic some of the things we saw. This is why so many plays and movies have political ramifications in the real world. All art is political, whether it’s intended that way or not, so I’ve learned when I put something in the world, I have to be very careful that I’m comfortable with the moral messages I’m sending.”

Innovating the future:

Senior Matt Fulle, a communication studies major, felt lucky to attend a stellar private high school in Seattle—but learned quickly that others didn’t have the same opportunities.

“I had very good opportunities in high school, discovering my passions and exploring a lot of different things, and I believe that every student should have the opportunities I had,” says Fulle. “On a broader level, when you dig deeply into a lot of society’s problems, whether in public discourse or policy, the reality of why some solutions might not succeed is rooted in education. So if you’re talking about drug policy or crime or voter turnout, a lot of those things have to do with education.”

While still in high school, Fulle served on the City of Seattle’s Youth Commission, which advocates for educational equity. One of his first projects was to implement teacher evaluations by students, because he believed that student feedback was important for improving education. He helped develop a student survey pilot program for Seattle’s public schools and worked closely with Education Post, a nonprofit that seeks to broaden the debate about public education. Fulle also interned for US Senator Patty Murray, then the Democratic chair of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pension Committee.

“Two weeks after I got there, they were debating a bill to replace No Child Left Behind,” he says. “I was there spending 12 to 14 hours a day in the office with this incredible exposure to policy making and to witness the biggest education policy shift at the national level in years.”

Fulle also used his time on Capitol Hill to study communication. “I worked with communication studies professor Angela Ray, who explores the rhetoric around floor debate,” he recalls. “So I studied these floor speeches. The interesting thing about floor speeches is that not many are heard by the general public, yet they play a pivotal role in advancing legislation. I read 160 speeches and tracked the development of lexicon in those two weeks and found that how different leaders talk reflects their different responsibilities in the Senate. It was fascinating work.”

Innovating in other countries:

Rachel Otto (GC15), who earned her doctorate in audiology at Northwestern, traveled to Guatemala last March as part of the Entheos Audiology Cooperative to give badly needed audiology care to people who might not normally have access to healthcare.

“I got involved because I have always been service oriented, and this opportunity was a great way to use the skills I developed at Northwestern,” says Otto.

On her trip Otto joined a team of 30 audiologists and volunteers from across the United States to help children and adults in rural Guatemala. They held hearing screenings, offered earwax removal, and facilitated hearing-aid fittings for several hundred people.

“There is a significant need for audiology care in Guatemala, as they have few practitioners and very limited resources in this specialty throughout the country,” she says. Otto plans to return to Guatemala this winter; she traveled to Jordan in 2015.

For Otto, innovation is also about broadening perspectives. “At Northwestern we learned the importance of being independent and thinking critically. These skills are essential to being successful in audiology, whether I am seeing patients at the private practice where I work or seeing patients in a makeshift audiology lab in a schoolroom in another country,” she says. “Stepping outside our comfort zone and putting new ideas into action are necessary elements in making good things happen in the world.”

Innovating the audience experience:

Junior theatre major Noah LaPook was an existential kid, always fascinated by his own mortality. But it wasn’t until he arrived at Northwestern from his home in New York City that his existence took shape—triggered by the stage and the stars.

“There are a lot of intersections between theatre and astronomy,” says LaPook. “To start, they are both based in wonder.”

A participant in the Devising and Adaptation modular curriculum, LaPook is a certified telescope operator at Northwestern’s Dearborn Observatory. As part of a team of hosts that opens up the awe-inspiring night skies to the public, he can explain moon phases, diagram the life cycle of a star, and identify faraway constellations. “Theatre majors make the best hosts because they can milk it, even on cloudy nights,” he jokes.

But LaPook draws a legitimate connection between the two passions, and it comes down to the energy component. The sun is continuously fusing hydrogen atoms into helium, a process generating heat and light. “It is the thing that warms humanity and can bring life and hope and comfort.”

Theatre operates similarly, he says. The performers must never stop radiating energy. Without it, the performance dies and the audience’s attention is lost. “This helps me when I’m on stage,” he says. “You can’t stop fusing.”

It has also helped him formulate a mission to break the rules of the theatre, paralleling new discoveries about our infinite universe. At Northwestern he is striving to create theatre where the audience is invited into the performance, performers have the license to experiment, and everyone involved walks away with the sense of awe LaPook feels when he looks up into the star-studded darkness.

“Anything’s possible in theatre,” he says. “And there’s no better bonding experience than collective wonder.”

Innovating health and connectedness:

Chronic illness can come on suddenly and change a person’s life forever—and it’s not limited to the elderly.

Kristen Domonell (left) and Sanaz Amirpour (right), who were both in the first graduating class of Northwestern’s MS degree in health communication, founded Chronicality (www .chronicality.com) to help people, especially younger patients, suffering from chronic illnesses ranging from autoimmune diseases to chronic pain disorders. The website calls chronic illness a technicality or “chronicality” that “sets the terms in someone’s life, but it doesn’t have all the control.”

Chronicality’s website aims to inform and connect those suffering from chronic conditions.

“The master’s program and our subsequent work opened our eyes to a whole community of people in our age demographic who are living with chronic illnesses and engaged online through social media and blogs, actively seeking ways to live well in spite of chronic illness,” says Domonell. “The general public attitude is that people with chronic illnesses are older and approaching their senior years, but we also see the millennial community of chronic illnesses as a growing population that faces unique challenges. Many people think that this group is too young to be sick, and in the event of invisible illnesses, many young people find they are not even believed.”

Domonell and Amirpour say their mission is to give readers the tools they need to manage their own chronic illness and live life on their own terms. “We have big plans for expanding our readership and online community and hope to extend to other platforms down the line,” says Amirpour. “We are also in talks about providing consulting to health and pharmaceutical companies looking to produce well-written content and graphics for their communities but unsure where to start or why their current content is not getting the attention they would like.”

She adds that the work of running a startup—providing daily meaningful content, managing writers, optimizing search-engine results, getting the word out on social media, and other marketing efforts—can be overwhelming. “The dayto-day work alone could bog you down, but we have to think, in a world inundated with online content, what is it that we hope to achieve?” asks Amirpour. “We know we have to be innovative and different to stand out, so we take that into consideration with every decision we make.”

Innovating style:

Larkin Brown (C10) knows all about the entrepreneurial spirit.

“My father is a serial entrepreneur,” she says. “I grew up with that word, watching him going about starting his own ventures. I took a class on entrepreneurs at Northwestern, and that helped me unpack what it really means: to find something you really care about and work on a solution that feels unique. It’s only when you do what you feel passionate about that you can hustle it along until it gets off the ground.”

Brown’s passions lay in style and form and, beyond that, in helping others feel good about how they look. After majoring in communication studies at Northwestern, she founded Lark in Style (www.larkinstyle.com), an independent styling company that helps men and women dress their best.

“It’s really not about clothes,” she says. “It’s about what they do, and what you do in them. Clothing is a tool, and it affects how you see yourself and changes how others see you. We all get judged on our appearance anyway, so why not try to match your inner self with your outer appearance if you can?”

Brown’s philosophy on clothes is rooted in science, and recent research says that what we wear does affect how we feel and, surprisingly, how we perform. “There’s a bunch of science coming out of Northwestern,” she says. “They did this experiment where they had people do a set of problems. Some wore a doctor’s lab coat and others didn’t. The people who put on the lab coat scored much better on the problems than the ones who didn’t.”

Also a full-time staff member at Pinterest, Brown says her work in social media has taught her how to connect with her clients. She has found that the best way to innovate is to listen closely to client feedback.

“Lark in Style is a one-woman team, so all the feedback comes directly to me. That means I can see right away what’s working, and that gives me insights into innovating,” she says. “Right now I’m at an interesting period in my business where I’m also looking at the big picture. While I love one-on-one styling, the next step is to be more ambitious and to make an impact on more people, and that might mean more video content or blogging.”

Innovating on screen:

DS Shin, a senior double-majoring in radio/television/film and economics with an integrated marketing communications certificate, began creating content at the age of 10.

“I created small Photoshopped banners to support my favorite wrestler, Trish Stratus, on pro wrestling fan sites,” he says. “They were horribly designed and had a ridiculous font, but I enjoyed showcasing my work to an audience online. Since then I’ve gone from working on my elementary school broadcasting team to interning at the Chicago Tribune.” Shin also created stop-motion animation shorts for Northwestern’s “Smart Dillo” campaign and won the Graphic Design USA American Inhouse Design Award. His short documentary Mental Sport was selected for screenings at the Chicago International and Tiger Paw Sports Film Festivals.

Mental Sport introduces the audience to the world of competitive diving by following Cosima and Felicitas Lenz, sisters who share their dreams and fears about their sport.

Shin recently worked as a social media intern at World Wrestling Entertainment, which he calls a dream job. “It has been my childhood dream to work for the company—my college essay was actually about pro wrestling,” he says. “So I feel like I’m checking off my bucket list by working there.”

He uses a multidisciplinary approach to empower his messages, practicing on a wide range of media platforms— including film, infographics, web design, and graphic design. Having worked on projects in Seoul, Chicago, Paris, and Cape Town, Shin believes he’s only just starting to create content in new and innovative ways.


Students collaborating in the Garage’s 11,000-square-foot state-of-the-art space on north campus

The Garage, Northwestern’s student product and idea incubator, opened in June 2015. Within just one year the north campus startup space welcomed a thousand visitors a month, inspired students to found 147 residency groups, and drew representation from all 12 schools of the University. This innovation and entrepreneurship community brought in alumni and industry experts to offer guidance and financing for getting viable ideas off the ground. The inclusive atmosphere has launched such ideas as industrial drones for warehouses, software to help inmates find prospective employers, and augmented reality apps.

“We built a really strong community in terms of the type of students coming in and the sort of ideas they’re bringing,” says Garage director Melissa Kaufman. “Year two is about storytelling.”

This offers a special incentive to School of Communication students. While the Garage has a surfeit of engineers and business students—or, to use Kaufman’s Silicon Valley–inspired term, “hackers and hustlers”— she would like to see more artists, performers, and creative minds add to the expansion of ideas.

“Their skill set and talents are really valued here,” she says. Because the Garage is much more than just a launching pad for new product ideas, Kaufman wants to move into nonprofit work and performance art. She hopes more communication students consider lending their inventive and collaborative styles—especially in this year of the story.