Logo for virtual STAGES festival

Theatre alumni group’s networking event goes virtual

In 2014, the School of Theatre’s Affiliate Program Group (APG) presented the first edition of STAGES, short for School of Theatre Alumni Giving Experience to Students.

Founder Mike Karns (’11 B.F.A. Stage Management) started the festival in response to his own career taking an unexpected turn.

“I started STAGES with the Alumni Program Group after multiple internships while I was in college. I realized there were so many career paths in theatre, and I wanted students to have an easy way to find out more about the options out there and to connect with alumni and friends who could help them after graduation,” he explained.

STAGES has allowed us to pair the stellar skills students are learning in their classes with real world connections and knowledge from professionals in the field, giving them a leg up as they enter the workforce.”
-Mike Karns

For the first five years, STAGES was a one-day event when the APG would bring theatre professionals from across the disciplines to campus to spend time with the students in workshops, discussions and masterclasses. Guests were a mix of SoT alumni and others found through alumni connections. In 2016, the Penn State Alumni Association awarded the APG a Student Interaction Award recognizing STAGES as a program that benefits both students and alumni and provides opportunities for interaction with exceptional success.

The pandemic, while disrupting the course and careers of many theatre professionals, meant a unique opportunity for this sixth edition of STAGES. An all-virtual format, necessitated by the current situation, meant a far wider net could be thrown to find potential panelists for a STAGES Virtual 2020.

The current president of the APG board, Allison Lee (’95 B.F.A. Stage Management), was excited about the possibilities. “It was an opportunity not to be missed. My first thought was that we really had no limitations to what we could bring to the students in the virtual format. We could give the students access to more industry professionals than ever before.”

One of the APG’s newest board members, Ben Nissen (’18 B.F.A. Musical Theatre), was instrumental in figuring out the new format for this year’s festival, planning two panel sessions on alternating Sundays throughout the fall semester, and creating a registration site as a way to pass information to students regarding the available sessions.

Ben has his own very special perspective on STAGES, as a past participant.

“Participating in STAGES during my sophomore year, I didn’t know what to expect but was excited to meet a lot of different people from the industry and learn about disciplines and careers that I was not previously familiar with. Connecting with the guests helped me see that there were many different things that I could do with my degree, and helped give me the confidence to explore my own ‘Unexpected Trajectory,’” said Nissen. “I am forever grateful for my experience at STAGES because through a connection that I made my sophomore year, I was fortunate enough to secure a job with one of my favorite Broadway shows, just before graduation.”

I know first-hand how impactful this festival can be and am thrilled that we are able to still bring it to the School of Theatre this year, in a virtual way.”
-Ben Nissen

Students have been able to attend hour-long sessions on a variety of topics, including: Theme Parks and Cruise Ships; Personal Branding and Social Media; an Indian Classical Dance Masterclass; Women in Theatre; Working in a Recession: 2009 vs. 2020; The Future of Broadway; Building a Career Outside of NYC; a lighting design panel; a panel delving into the new musical Diana; and reflections on attending graduate school.

Panelists have volunteered their time and include many alumni: Melanie Whipple (’95), Jill Bamford (’95), Jack Gooch (’95), Stephanie Cowan (‘14), Adam Brozowski (‘09), Jason A. Sparks (‘09), Julie Danni (’09), Justin Stasiw (’09), Lauren Weinberg (’09), Veronica Garza (’11), Phil Young (’14), Paul-Jordan Jansen (‘12), Jason Pizzi (’97), and Nathan Lucrezio (’09), with more alumni to come, as well as other theatre professionals. Sessions are organized and moderated by the alumni board members.

At the conclusion of each session, the students are offered the contact information of the panelists and asked to fill out a survey so that the board may continue to mold STAGES Virtual to their needs.

The primary goals were to give the students interaction with industry professionals and a chance to ask questions.

School of Theatre Director Rick Lombardo had a simple request: “create a STAGES that gives the students hope for the future of live entertainment.”

STAGES is a project of the board of the School of Theatre Affiliate Program Group, which represents the alumni of the School of Theatre. The board is made up of nine alumni, one faculty adviser, two current students, and the director of the school, working to connect with other alumni and to encourage and support educational and career opportunities for students in the field of theatre.

Current board members:
Allison Lee (’95 B.F.A. Stage Management) – President
Courtney Cavanaugh (’09 B.F.A. Stage Management) – Vice President/Secretary
Kate Pappas (’97 B.A. Theatre) – Treasurer
Mike Karns (’11 B.F.A. Stage Management)
Laura Matey (’11 B.A. Theatre)
Ben Nissen (’18 B.F.A. Musical Theatre)
Carolyn Quinn (’16 B.F.A. Stage Management)
Mike Smanko (’77 M.F.A. Theatre/Design)
Jodi Stevens Bryce (’90 B.F.A. Theatre)
Steve Snyder (Head, B.F.A. Acting) – Faculty adviser
Rick Lombardo (Director of the School of Theatre)
Megan Belgam (Senior, B.F.A. Stage Management)
Becca Suskauer (Senior, B.F.A. Musical Theatre)