Staff Q&A with Laurie McCall

Laurie McCall

Bonnie Weller

Named for its benefactors, Marc E. Platt and Julie Beren Platt, both 1979 alums, the Platt Student Performing Arts House is, as its name indicates, a home for student performing arts at Penn.

Located in Stouffer Commons at 3702 Spruce St., Platt, built in 2006, serves as the headquarters for the Performing Arts Council, which represents more than 1,300 students in 45 student-run performance organizations, including dance, theater, a cappella, music, comedy, and spoken word groups.

“Our students love to perform,” says Laurie McCall, director of student performing arts and the Platt Student Performing Arts House. “The variety is just unbelievable and they are very talented. It’s nice that students can pursue their professional goals, and still have [performing arts] as a big part of their lives.”

At Penn for more than two decades, McCall’s first job at the University was in the former Office of Student Life Programs, which later merged with Academic Support Programs and is now part of the Office of Equity and Access Programs in the Division of the Vice Provost for University Life. As assistant director of Academic Support Programs, she coordinated all undergraduate, graduate, and professional student orientation programs.

McCall joined Platt in 2007 as associate director. She was named interim director in 2012, and was appointed to the position permanently this past April. She and her staff advise and offer training to students to help them fulfill their creative passions, or prepare them for professional careers in the performing arts.

The Current visited with McCall at Platt to discuss the creative life at Penn.

Q: You served as director of Student Activities and Orientation at York College in York, Pa., before coming to Penn. What do you enjoy about working with college students?
A: I like the energy. College students are always fun to work with. I like the atmosphere of a college campus. I like helping students reach their goals. I think that student activities, and student life, and student organizations, and leadership really make a difference in your academic experience, so it’s nice to be a part of that. I think that college can be life-changing for a lot of kids.

Q: What are some of your job responsibilities?
A: We run this space, which hosts a lot of rehearsals and events, and occasionally a show. We advise more than 40 performing arts organizations and the Penn Art Club, which is a visual art organization. There are also some development initiatives, as well as alumni outreach. We also do community service through the arts, which is a pretty big chunk of our week. We host the Philly Art & Culture Fair. We did that on the 27th of September. We had over 40 arts organizations, both from on campus and Philadelphia. We had some breakdancing and some jazz bands.

Q: As associate director of Platt, you expanded the After School Arts Program. Can you talk a little bit about the program?
A: The After School Arts Program is just one segment of the community service that we do. The arts lend themselves very well to working with the community, and our students love to do it. On Mondays here in Platt, from 3:45 to 5:45 p.m., we have about 40 kids ages 10 to 15 from Philadelphia who come here after school. They have the opportunity to learn about singing, dancing, theater, or learning an instrument, and they pick the two that they’re most interested in. My office becomes a place for violin lessons, the copy room becomes a place for keyboard lessons, the hallways have trumpet lessons or guitars on stage, and all the other rehearsal rooms are used for the theater, dance, or singing lessons, so it’s pretty crowded. We have drum lessons this time, which is really popular. We have a talent showcase for them at the end of the semester and their families come and watch what they learned.

Q: Platt also has a Community Ticketing Program. How does that work?
A: Our groups donate tickets to the community. We have over 30 organizations on our list and what happens is one of the groups will say, ‘We’re willing to give up 20 tickets for our Friday night show,’ and I’ll put that out on the listserv and the groups will just grab them up, and be able to bring their clients or their family to a live performance that they might not otherwise be able to see. Our groups also go to schools and different community organizations and either perform or do a workshop. We’re also starting a new initiative with the chaplain. He wanted to offer an award to the performing arts group that does the most charitable work. He’s going to buy them pizza and give them a plaque at the end of the year.

Q: Is community service required or is it something that the students just do?
A: It’s not required at all. We make it something we want to do and the students love doing it.

Q: Do most Penn students involved in the various organizations have previous performing arts experience?
A: Most of them do, yes. Some of them have tried something new here. They might have come in wanting to be in a musical and they ended up in a comedy group, or they end up in a theater group and start a new club writing improvisational comedy or spoken word. They do branch out; they do like to start new things, make their mark.

Q: Can you talk about The Shop at Platt, where students can create scenery and costumes?
A: We have a performing arts shop that’s run by [Platt Technical Supervisor] Peter Whinnery where students go to build their sets, design their light plot for a show, make or borrow costumes or props. It’s a very interesting place to go visit. There are lots of power tools, lots of paint, but, as Peter puts it, ‘There’s a lot of paint but probably not the color you need.’

Q: Is there performance space at Platt?
A: There’s a small space here that we do smaller events like stage readings. We also partner with Nick Gonedes, a professor at the Wharton School, who runs an open mic night once a month. That’s what our stage is mainly used for, smaller one-act plays, stage readings, cabaret-type performances. But our student groups perform at different venues all over campus.

Q: You also offer master classes to students?
A: Yes. When various performers come to campus, maybe to perform at the Annenberg Center, we work with the Annenberg staff to try to get those performers to do a master class just for students. We recently had one with Samantha Barrow who does something called Dance & The Language of Wounds. In December, we have Brian Sanders’ experimental dance company called JUNK, which is pretty popular, doing workshops for our students, as well.

Q: A lot of Penn students carry a heavy class load. Are students able to fit performing arts activities into their schedule?
A: I think the nature of most Penn students is to be busy. A lot of them do better, manage their time better, if they are busy. And frankly, [performing arts] is great training for the real world because if you can put up a show, you learn a lot of things that will apply to the workplace, like how to work with a team, how to use the resources that are available to you, how to sacrifice a little bit because you really want to go home but your set is falling  apart and you need to stay. Putting up a show is a great, great way to build the characteristics you need out in the real world.

Q: What sort of training do you offer students?
A: We recently had a workshop on how to run sound and light for a show, how to work the equipment, how to design your light plot. Usually once a year we have a stage combat workshop so that people know how to either fist fight, sword fight, or karate fight on stage without hurting each other and making it look real. Last year, one of the groups was doing ‘Robin Hood’ and they really needed a rapier workshop. It turned out that they thought it was the best stage fighting that they had ever seen once the show went up, so I guess that training helped.

Q: Penn has some famous alumni working in the arts, such as Vanessa Bayer of ‘Saturday Night Live’ and singer John Legend. Are there other alums working in the entertainment industry in less glamorous positions?
A: I just was in Los Angeles for Time to Shine so I got to meet a lot of Penn alumni that are behind the scenes in Hollywood. We are trying to bring alums back to have lunch with students or a small meeting with students who are really interested in that industry or that type of job when they graduate so that it’s meaningful and productive for the students as well as the alum. Sometimes when you put [guest speakers] in a room in front of a large audience, it’s not as engaging or as meaningful, so we’re trying to provide smaller career mentoring opportunities for students and our alums. They really love to interact with the students.

For a list of upcoming student performances, visit the Platt Student Performing Arts House website. Performances are usually held on Fridays and Saturdays, and sometimes on Thursdays.

Originally published on November 14, 2013