Celebrating the arts, Lynn style
It’s hard to imagine Lynn University without Celebration of the Arts. The annual showcase presented by students, faculty, staff and alumni has become one of Lynn’s most anticipated events.
This year’s Celebration, held April 28 at the Keith C. and Elaine Johnson Wold Performing Arts Center, sold out, drawing 750 people from across campus, the community and beyond to enjoy pre- and post-show attractions and, of course, the high-energy main stage production. From the first notes of Phantom of the Opera selections by Conservatory of Music students to the final rousing song and dance of “Footloose,” the audience was dazzled.
A short time ago, a campus production of this scale was unthinkable, until the right person—and the right place—came along.
One dream and nine students
Carrie Simpson singing “Someone Like You”
Shortly after Lynn’s Wold Performing Arts Center opened, drama professor Carrie Simpson had an idea: “We had this beautiful building, and I had nine drama majors who really wanted to use the main stage. I thought, ‘We need to get them onstage. They’re so talented, and so are many of my colleagues. Wouldn’t it be awesome to have an event where everyone could come together?’ I envisioned something like the Fringe Festival or Mallory Square, with something for everybody.”
Simpson had no budget, but she had determination and so did her nine students.
“The same nine kids put art in the lobby,” said Simpson, Celebration’s creative director and director of the main stage. “They called people and asked for donations. They walked around and passed out food. We had no costumes. No set. But we had a dream.”
Celebration takes off
Year by year, Celebration gained momentum. In the beginning, Simpson’s key creative collaborators were her husband and fellow drama faculty member, Adam Simpson, an actor, director and theater technician; and Timea Varga, a then-Lynn student and accomplished dancer and choreographer (who’s now an instructor in the College of Arts and Sciences). In 2014, Katrina Carter-Tellison, newly appointed dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, became one of Celebration’s biggest advocates, serving as its executive producer.
“My role,” said Carter-Tellison, “is to ask what they need to be successful and to give them the creative space to do their wonderful work.”
“Katrina really believed in what we were doing,” Carrie Simpson said. “With her leadership and support, we were able to do more.”
“More” has meant additional numbers, a larger cast, and enhancements like moveable sets. The sets begin with Carrie’s simple drawings that she keeps in a large, overstuffed binder. “I go to Adam and say, ‘I want this, and I want it to spin!’ I can’t draw, so I give him really bad drawings. We sit down, and he says, ‘I see it. Here’s what we can do.’ Then I walk into the theater, and there it is. I say, ‘Oh my God, you built it!’ ”
Adam Simpson spends hundreds of hours designing and building the sets—in the Wold’s scenery shop and late at night in his home garage. As technical director, set designer and stage manager, he’s responsible for the sets, lighting, sound, costuming and props. Working with him are nearly 50 students.
Anne Marie Van Casteren (center) in “Bang Bang”
He points to a large, lighted vanity for one number, “Bang, Bang,” performed by two vocalists and six dancers. “There are probably 30 or 40 hours of work to build this, and it’s probably on stage for about 90 seconds,” he said. “Most are like this. There are at least 20 hours of work behind every scene, if not more.”
It’s a statement of pride, not complaint. “It’s very satisfying,” he said of the work. “It provides me and my crew an opportunity to be challenged and problem solve.”
A passion to perform
Until this year, Anne Marie Van Casteren ’14, ’16 had one role at Lynn: coordinator of programming and student development in the Hannifan Center for Career Connections. She never sang publicly. All that changed after a friend spotted an old Facebook video of her singing. Soon, word reached Carrie Simpson, and Van Casteren auditioned and earned spots in six numbers.
“It’s a big time commitment,” Van Casteren said of the two-hour, three times a week rehearsals, “but it’s fun. I used to just sing in my car to Christina Aguilera. Now, I’ve had to learn how to breathe while singing. And once you throw choreography into the mix, it’s really difficult. But Celebration has given me the confidence to know I can do it. I can’t thank everybody who’s helped me enough for that.”
Two of Van Casteren’s fellow performers, student dancers Shabach Tyus and Jasmine Jones-Olszewski, also find Celebration fun and rewarding.
Said Jones-Olszewski, who’s performed in the show for two years, “It gets crazy and hectic, but in the end, when you walk off stage, knowing that you just killed the routine, and hear the applause, it’s worth it.” This year, she also assisted Varga and another faculty member, Ali Cunningham, with choreography,
Fellow dancer Tyus is a three-year Celebration veteran. “There are so many things I love about it—my friends, the laughter, the ideas, the excitement. But my favorite thing is being on stage and performing.”
Back by popular demand
This year, two of Celebration’s original nine from the class of 2013 returned to perform: Kayla Golladay–Manzano (now married to Christian Manzano ‘12) and Stephanie LoVerde. LoVerde works at Showtime Performing Arts, a children’s theater in Boca Raton, and Golladay-Manzano works with Great Escape Publishing in Denver. Both have stayed in touch with Carrie Simpson and gladly accepted her invitation to return to the Wold stage. They revived a song from their student days, Sinatra’s “That’s Life,” and each sang solo numbers.
LoVerde has performed at Celebration every year since graduating, except for one. “I keep coming back because I miss it,” she said.
It’s Golladay-Manzano’s first time back performing as an alumna. “It’s been so exciting to meet the students and see their excitement for the show, because I had that same feeling years ago,” she said.
A window into Lynn
Celebration of the Arts is a yearlong labor of love at Lynn University … from the creative leaders to the performers, backstage crew and many behind-the-scenes Lynn community members who help plan the event, secure publicity and sponsorships, and provide logistical support.
“Celebration is like a window into what we do here at Lynn,” Carter-Tellison said. “For the internal community, it’s an opportunity to come together to create something beautiful, and for the external community, it’s an opportunity to come to campus and see the sort of magic we can create here. That’s our gift to them.”
Alumna and Lynn staff member Sydney Putnam, one of the featured artists in the pre-show Celebration Gallery
Celebration times six
Celebration of the Arts is six celebrations rolled into one, all taking place at the Wold Performing Arts Center:
- Celebration Circle: food from favorite restaurants, beverages, henna tattoos and hand wax casts, and music by The Rubrics, Lynn’s faculty band
- Celebration Gallery: art and creative writing displays, including the debut of the new edition of Quest, Lynn’s arts magazine
- Senior Art Showcase: works by senior digital art and design students
- Celebration Unplugged: spoken word and smaller performances
- Celebration main stage show
- Celebration After Dark: music by President Kevin Ross’ band, Wolfhawk
Celebration: By the numbers
Presenting Celebration of the Arts is a Herculean effort. This year’s main stage show involved:
10 planning team members
21 costume changes
22 Celebration Unplugged performers
34 artists in Celebration Gallery and Senior Art Showcase
43 main stage performers
43 backstage crew members
52 Conservatory of Music musicians
244 total people involved
625 rehearsal hours
650 set-building hours
750 audience members (sold-out show)