'The show must go on': Virtual events keep campus connected

Each year, hundreds of students pack Lang Hall Auditorium for the annual Catwalk fashion show. The show is run by students in UNI’s textiles and apparel program (TAPP) and showcases their original designs. Students dive into planning and creating pieces for the event at the start of every spring semester. Senior TAPP major Jenna Vermost had already made six pieces, including four elaborate wedding dresses, for this year’s show when COVID-19 threatened to end the event altogether.

This was the case for many popular on-campus happenings. But true to Panther spirit, event organizers have found new ways to approach events that have helped students develop new skills, and may end up changing the shape of future events, all while giving students a chance to stay connected to campus in the face of social distancing.

For the fashion show, this meant creating a virtual version which will be premiere on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at 7 p.m. on Saturday, April 25. This presented some challenges — including trying to work collaboratively while maintaining social distancing, and creating new projects for event planning committees — but it's resulted in exciting new ways for students to showcase their work.

“There were huge changes. There’s no stage to set up, so the stage committee is making a website for the show. That’s completely new for us,” said Lillian Teater, senior textiles and apparel major and executive director for the fashion show. “I think that'll be really cool because it gives designers another opportunity to have more exposure with a new group of people.”

Participating students, like Vermost, appreciated the event’s new approach. In addition to the website, the video format allows participants to share additional details about their work process and inspiration.

“I am so thankful for our show director and the promotion class for working hard to come up with an alternative solution,” said Vermost. “The show is going to be so special and we will get to hear from each designer about their collection which is something that can’t really be done in a traditional runway show.”

UNI’s theatre department created an entirely new event after their popular 10 Minute Plays event was cancelled due to coronavirus. Creating the plays is a part of assistant professor of theatre Amy Osatinski’s directing class, a required class for all theater majors. Since debuting as a public event in 2018, the final showcase of student plays has become an increasingly popular campus event. 

“It was really positively received both by the students and community,” said Osatinksi. “We've had more and more people coming to them each semester, and more students turning up for auditions. It also has involved some of our design and production students. So it's sort of just been a really positive thing for everyone.”

After the remainder of the spring 2020 semester shifted to online learning, Osatinski and her students created the Digital Performance Festival, a new digital storytelling event that will allow students to share their work online.

“The goal was how do we take this outcome of experiencing the process of play production from inception to performance? How do we do that when we can't be together and do it in this live way?” said Osatinski. “We decided to do it digitally and it's building some new skills for the students that are really interesting. Obviously, digital media skills, film editing and digital storytelling, but they are also required to follow copyright law and YouTube's guidelines for fair use as they do this. So it's actually led to new discoveries for the students.”

The Digital Performance Festival will take place from Sunday, April 26 through Friday, May 8. Each day, one 3-5 minute digital performance will be shared on Facebook and Twitter. Planned performances include comedy sketches, musical performances and short horror films. Many of the pieces will also tackle current events.

“It opened up an opportunity for some things that they might not get to do with the 10 minute plays,” said Osatinski. “This current situation is really showing us how creative and innovative theatre practitioners can be in getting their work out there and in creating new things. ”

As an online event, the festival will not only allow the campus to stay connected to this beloved event, but will allow students’ work to reach far beyond the campus community. This is especially true in the midst of quarantine.

“We realized people are hungry for this kind of thing,” said Osatinksi. “As we aren't able to connect in person, people are getting really excited about the opportunity to engage with art and performance in a digital way. “

This is something fashion show organizers have already experienced — when Teater shared a teaser video announcing the virtual fashion show, it garnered more than 1,300 views on Facebook. This has caused event organizers to consider utilizing video and social media more in the future.

“We can only fit 500 people in Lang, but this digital platform is giving us a way to reach more people, so it’s super exciting,” she said. “We just talked about, even when we go back to our regular show, having a bigger video element to it so it could be posted to our social media and could reach that wider audience.”

This year, event organizers enlisted the help of Isaac Hackman, junior marketing and interactive digital studies double major, to create the video for the event. Hackman has his own photography  business, which is housed in UNI’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC), and worked with independent filmmakers and produced freelance videos for local businesses in his hometown of Mason City.

“I'm extremely honored to be collaborating with Lillian and be entrusted with creating the innovative first-of-its-kind TAPP fashion show, said Hackman.

Teater credits her peers in the program for helping her tackle such an ambitious undertaking.

“I think it speaks volumes to our program and to the students involved that we continue to think creatively and be flexible,” said Teater. “I would not have been able to do this without my peers. I’m super-grateful and super-excited that we were able to pull something together that we could be really proud of.”

According to Osatinski, the skills students are learning as they tackle these events are not only integral to their studies — they 're also important life lessons.

“We often say in the theater, ‘The show must go on.’ You come up against stuff and the show must go on,” said Osatinski. “I think that lesson of flexibility and resiliency … is really important. The idea that when you get knocked down, you get up. When someone puts a wall in front of you, you find a way over or around.”

Photos courtesy of Melina Gotera for Uprising Magazine.