Not Just an Event, a Learning Experience

By Jenny Barnett, October 7, 2022
IC students help make 10th Presidential Inauguration an event to remember.

After being led onto stage by the African Drumming and Dance Ensemble, Ithaca College President La Jerne Terry Cornish addressed the audience at the beginning of her installation ceremony on October 1 as she wiped away what would prove to be the first of many tears that day. But while all eyes were on President Cornish and the many performers and speakers in the arena, hundreds of students, faculty, and staff had been working behind the scenes since August—and in some cases months earlier—on the technical and practical aspects of putting on the show. 

Unlike many academic institutions that hire external companies to create major events—like inauguration and commencement—at IC, they are primarily student run, in line with the college’s educational mission of theory, practice, and performance.  

“It's a laboratory for our students to learn the things they came to the college to learn. It's not just an event, it's a pedagogical event. And it's exciting to see that many students involved in something of this nature.” 

Steve TenEyck, associate dean of the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance

Putting On a Show

Inauguration day events have been the first project of the semester for associate professor Chrissy Guest’s Television and Digital Media Live Event Production class, where all contributed in some capacity. Television and digital media seniors Abby Damouras and Thomas Kerrigan were lead producers for the welcome video, in which 16 representatives from trustees, faculty, staff, community members, student families and caregivers, and alumni all offered greetings to President Cornish. The pair worked with four other classmates to produce the clips, with Damouras overseeing on-campus shoots, and Kerrigan responsible for those filmed remotely. Much of the content was created in class, but scheduling conflicts meant that some had to take place in the evening.  

students filming

Students filming part of the documentary shown during the Installation Ceremony at President Cornish's Inauguration. (Photo submitted)

Guest’s class also produced a seven-minute documentary on Cornish’s upbringing and career prior to coming to IC which involved traveling to her hometown, Baltimore, to collect footage and conduct interviews where former colleagues, mentors, family members—and even representatives of the Baltimore Ravens—paid tribute to Cornish. They also produced two “Day in the Life” videos chronicling the varied experiences of Music, Theater, and Dance students for the evening showcase; and a quiz to entertain the audience during the pre-show. In all, the videos involved coordinating 40 contributors. 

Live event students were actively involved on the day, too. Damouras, for example, acted as floor and stage manager, organizing performers for their on-stage, in-person welcome and facilitating stage changeovers. Kerrigan was behind the scenes with the engineering team in the control room making sure things ran smoothly and troubleshooting any potential technical issues. To maximize the breadth of professional experience, roles were swapped for the morning and evening. Damouras was in the control room for the showcase while Kerrigan was behind a camera.  

students planning

Live Event class students collaborating to adjust the event script and determine all event cues. (Photo submitted)

“Running a live event is a great learning experience in the sense that you have to prepare for everything to go wrong—and then be happy when it doesn’t,” said Damouras. “It’s been a tremendous learning experience.” 

Students cited juggling classes and assignments with the event planning as one of their greatest challenges. Many were in multiple rehearsals the week prior and call time for inauguration was 7 a.m.  

“On Saturday we work all day, then when inauguration is over, we recharge for the Music, Theater, and Dance performance,” said Damouras.  

Kerrigan found balancing the live events project with his other classes and extracurriculars took a lot of hard work and time-management skills. He’s technical director of operations for Ithaca College Television, shoots three shows within ICTV, and is involved with the radio station.  

“This has definitely been one of the most challenging classes I've ever had, but in the absolute best way possible,” Kerrigan said. 

Student Performers Take Center Stage

During what appeared to all like a technical glitch during a speech by President Cornish’s son, Wayne, a flash mob comprising four a cappella groups—Ithacappella, Pitch Please, Voicestream, and Premium Blend—emerged from the audience. Segment producer Zawadi Boyce ’24 was charged with the communication and scheduling involved in seating the performers scattered within the audience and facilitating their act.

students playing instruments

Students playing during the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance Inaugural Celebration and Showcase. (Photo Credit: Dave Burbank)

“It’s a lot of moving parts,” said Boyce, who, after the planning phase, then stepped into a floor stage manager role, coordinating with the multiple musical guests and IC groups for rehearsals and the show itself.  

In total, more than 300 performers and presenters participated in the day’s events—the installation ceremony in the morning and the School of Music, Theater, and Dance showcase in the evening. In addition to the African Drumming and Dance Ensemble and a cappella groups, the IC chorus, choir, jazz ensemble, Ithaca brass, Aurora brass, Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers, and concert band all played a part. 

The showcase was designed to represent every discipline in the school—either through a live performance or video—but largely featuring content that was already in progress, in order not to tax faculty and students too much, according to Ivy Walz, associate dean and chair of the showcase subcommittee. 

African drumming and dance ensemble

IC’s African Drumming and Dance Ensemble leads Cornish into the Inauguration. (Photo Credit: Dave Burbank)

Baruch Whitehead, associate professor, coordinated the opening processional and worked separately with all the individual groups in the weeks leading up to October 1, bringing performers—including adults and children from the Ithaca community—together for the first time on the Thursday before Inauguration.  

“It's hard to get everybody scheduled together and I don't want to overburden the students with additional rehearsals,” said Whitehead. “So, we try and do it during class time. But we brought everybody together on September 29 at the A&E Center to put it all together.” 

While the African Drumming and Dance Ensemble had performed the processional dance before, it was adapted slightly for the ceremony and rehearsals had been one focus of the class since the beginning of the semester, according to music education major Kathryn Dauer ’23, one of the dancers. Like many participants, Dauer appeared in multiple elements—she is also a member of the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers and the choir.  

“I think that the biggest challenge was all of the moving parts—the transitions and remembering who comes next, who does what,” Dauer said. “But we all worked really hard on it.”  

Lights, Camera, Action!

Communication management and design major Camille Brock ’24, one of two students on the steering committee, was tapped by Prunty for her logistical planning skills. As crowd manager lead, she was tasked with recruiting volunteer crowd managers for both the inauguration and showcase, organizing them, and ensuring they were appropriately trained. She also coordinated the fireworks display that wrapped up the weekend’s celebrations. Like many students, Brock immensely valued the opportunity for experiential learning.  

“I'm really glad that I was able to participate in something like this,” she said. “Being able to learn by doing and having mentors along the way assist with that learning is more valuable than anything I'll ever get just in the classroom.” 

students working

Student-run control room during the Music, Theatre, and Dance Showcase event. (Photo Credit:

Dave Burbank)

Production and stage crews hailed from the theatre production and management department in the School of Music, Theater, and Dance, under the guidance of production coordinator Mike Garrett. Once TenEyck had finalized the event plans, he handed them over Garrett and his team to execute. Key roles were assistant lighting designer, production electrician, and lead rigger. 

As assistant lighting designer, Ashley Crespo ’24 had been working with TenEyck since early August, meeting with technical teams and performers to create a light plot for the event. Crespo then collaborated with production electrician Colin Murphy ’23 to bring the plans to life.  

“He [Murphy] took the plans as they were designed and figured out where all the cable needs to go, the lengths of the cable, how it all plugs into each other; he calculated the loads on each motor point and figured out how that whole piece was coming together,” said Garrett. 

Murphy was also responsible for ordering the lights, as well as any additional equipment needed to hang them, since the A&E Center isn’t fully equipped to accommodate lighting for this type of event. He recruited students to help with unloading and setting up the arena, which began on Sunday, September 25, when the crew worked from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. They continued to have calls throughout the week and Murphy was waiting on one more piece of equipment on the morning of the dress rehearsal. Fine tuning can happen right up to the day of the event.  

Lead rigger Lavender Pyzowski ’24 was responsible for making sure equipment was installed in the arena safely. Garrett’s technical crew worked throughout the week to unload and get fully set up in the space. Jobs included ensuring proper rigging of the trussing and making sure it all worked; measuring to double check the layout; taping out and loading the seating and loading the stages; hanging the curtains and the IC seal; and hanging and rigging the video walls and audio system. Including the time spent striking everything after the event, Garrett calculated a total 700 hours of labor—all outside of class. 

“I feel like 99% of this is motivated, pushed, and successfully completed by the students,” Garrett said. “My role is essentially just double checking everything they do to make sure it's safe and it will function. I keep the ball rolling and do the contract work so they can focus on their learning outcomes and putting on a fantastic event. I'm constantly amazed with what our students can accomplish.” 

TenEyck pointed out that the experience is a great resume builder. He referenced a recent conversation with a ’99 alum who’d been involved in these activities in the past and now works producing arena events around the world on tour with Garth Brooks. 

The lights start coming down right after the showcase.  

“Saturday, our curfew is 2 a.m. and then we're getting back in on Sunday at 10 a.m.,” said Murphy. He’s a theater production and design major and a live events minor—which requires internship hours. So, some time counted towards that, with the rest paid by IC. 

Pyzowski worked closely with Murphy on the physical set-up. Hired as lead rigger the week before the lights arrived, she had a shorter but equally intense schedule.  

“I was in charge of a small group of people getting motors in the air to be able to even get lights in the air,” she said. “It's kind of a preparatory step to everything else. But it's a lot of manual labor in a short amount of time.” 

Timelapse of the Inauguration setup.

Pyzowski was also working on “Sweat,” the first fall production by the school’s Center for Theatre and Dance, which opened the same weekend, going from a full day of rehearsal one day to loading for inauguration the next. She volunteered to help with some sound rigging and was available on the day as an extra pair of hands. Like Murphy, Pyzowski also helped with take-down on Saturday night and Sunday. She honed her rigging skills as a member of the production team for commencement and, as a junior, hopes to have more opportunities in the future.  

“I’m someone who's very hands on,” she said.   

Murphy pointed out that commencement—the event closest in scope to inauguration—takes place after classes are over and that it is challenging for students to juggle the extra work at this point in the semester.  

“We have theatre majors running from classes to working on the show, to working on their theatre show, and then back to the inauguration,” said Murphy. “It's important to recognize how tough that's been. All the crew has been very accommodating with the hours that we've asked them to do.” 

Mutual support among the students was very much in evidence, with many referencing the high level of teamwork and camaraderie. Murphy is proud of his crew’s accomplishments.  

“Mike Garrett is involved, but he's there to make sure that we're doing things safely, and that we're not making major mistakes,” said Murphy. “I think it's super cool that basically the entire thing is done by students.”