Student performing arts groups keep campus theaters busy

Is it some kind of harmonic convergence that has made a cappella singing so popular with students at Penn?

There’s a barbershop group, Penn Pipers; there’s a gospel group, The Inspiration; there’s even a Hindi group, Penn Masala. There are groups with catchy names like Chord On Blues and Pennsylvania Six-5000 and groups with musical names like Counterparts and Off the Beat. There are boy groups and girl groups and coed groups. There are 11 a cappella groups in all.

But this year, there are 12 dance companies, surpassing the number of singing ensembles for the first time.

There are a record 42 groups representing 1,200 student actors, comedians, singers, musicians and dancers participating in extra-curricular activities under the umbrella of the Performing Arts Council (PAC) in 2002-2003.

The student performing arts coordinator for the Office of Student Life is Ty Furman. He organizes facility arrangements, administers a small budget that supplements allocations each group receives from the Student Activities Council, provides leadership and organizational support and enforces what he calls “the uniqueness clause” to make sure that each group has a distinct mission.

The Music Department and the Theater Arts Program offer students some for-credit performance experience. “However,” said Furman, “historically, opportunities for curricular performing arts have been limited. That may be why extracurricular groups thrive here. Students who love performing don’t want to give it up when they come to Penn.”

Three of the groups have a century-long tradition to draw upon—the Penn Glee Club, Mask & Wig (the nation’s oldest all-male musical comedy troupe) and Penn Players.

Excellano Project, a spoken-word group that plans to organize a poetry team to take on all comers in varsity slam competitions, is one of the newest groups.

Performance space is at a premium on campus and so is rehearsal space. The Iron Gate Theater at 37th and Chestnut is the workhorse for PAC organizations, but every theater space from Houston Hall to Irvine Auditorium to Zellerbach Theatre plays host to student productions.

Many groups have very specific rehearsal requirements. “The opening of Pottruck Gym with four dance studios has added great new rehearsal space for our dance companies,” said Furman. “We use every nook and cranny we can find.”

Serendipitously, the space crunch has created some very interesting programs.

“We decided last year that each organization could only schedule one solo show. If they wanted to do something else they would have to find another group to work with collaboratively.” Since then, Onda Latina, Penn’s Latin American dance group, has partnered with the Jazz Ensemble, and Penn Dance, a modern and jazz group, has worked with the Glee Club.

Recruiting new members is critical for every PAC organization. The season kicks off in September with Freshman Performing Arts Night. For two nights, Zellerbach is the rollicking center of the student performing arts universe as each group takes four minutes to showcase its talents and newly minted Quakers wander among the tables set up in the lobby signing up for auditions.

The Performing Arts Council also sponsors educational workshops throughout the year. The spring schedule includes a choreography workshop and the annual Alumni Career Symposium, a networking event.

“We always get great participation from alums,” said Furman. Last year, producer-director Richard Gershman (C’72), whose credits include regional theater, Broadway, movies and TV, was one of six panelists. “Candace Bergen (CW’67,Hon’92) always sends me a lovely ‘regrets’ letter.”

Originally published on January 16, 2003