Two GS students, Spencer Rose Oberman and David Offitt, a student in the Joint Program with The Jewish Theological Seminary, will appear in the 116th Annual Varsity Show this weekend in Roone Arledge Auditorium in Lerner Hall.
What sort of performance background did you have prior to joining the Varsity Show?
David: Before performing in the Varsity Show, I was involved in musical theater throughout middle school and high school. I was also in X-MAS 4 earlier this year at Columbia.
Spencer: I've pretty much been performing my entire life. After years of doing musicals at summer camp or through community theatres, I decided to attend a Performing Arts high school. After high school, I spent two years at Emerson College (Boston, MA) as a musical theatre major. I left Emerson to go on tour with "Sesame Street Live!" where I played Jenny the Music Teacher (the only human character in a predominantly "muppet" cast). And now, here I am at Columbia, where I have reached the pinnacle of my performing arts career: The 116th Annual Varsity Show.
This is the first year at GS for both of you, and the Varsity Show’s auditions are early in the fall semester. What prompted you to audition for the Varsity Show, as opposed to the other theatrical opportunities on campus?
David: Varsity Show auditions are actually held towards the end of the fall semester—which leaves plenty of time to perform before Varsity Show even starts! I chose to be involved in XMAS because I knew it would be a low-time commitment and would be a great introduction to Columbia theater. After having such a positive experience working on that show, I couldn't resist being involved in another show second semester.
Although there were many other performance opportunities on campus, none was as compelling as the Varsity Show. I was compelled to try out because the Varsity Show is such an incredible tradition—one that spans 116 years and involves some of the greatest American musical theater minds of our time. I also knew that the Varsity Show would give me the opportunity to work with some of Columbia's best theatrical minds and talents. Overall, I could not be happier with the choice I made to try out for the Varsity Show.
Spencer: I had done the Columbia Musical Theatre Society's production of "Compose Yourself," which was a showcase of songs written by Columbia student composers. I performed a song written by Matt Star CC ’12 (one of this year's composers/ lyricists of the Varsity Show, along with Evan Johnston, CC ’12), and since I was so impressed by his music, decided to give it a shot and audition. I didn't really know anything about the Varsity Show at the time, except that it was a student written musical with long-standing history, but after having a ton of fun at the audition and the callbacks, I knew it would be a positive experience if I got in!
One of the legendary things about the Varsity Show is the intensive time commitment it requires. What strategies have you adopted to manage both rehearsals and your coursework?
David: The legends are certainly true! Towards the beginning and middle of the semester, we have about 20 hours of rehearsal a week, and closer to show time, our rehearsal commitments often exceed 30 hours a week. The key to keeping up with my work has been organization. I need to both organize my time and organize my assignments to make sure that I do the most important and time-sensitive assignments first. I've also had to learn to think ahead in order to get larger assignments done on time. I simply don't have the time to spend entire weekends in Butler, because I always have rehearsal on the weekends! That said, rehearsal has helped me with my work in many ways this semester. Rehearsal provides me with a healthy break from my studies. After sitting in class for an entire day, I get to use by entire body by dancing, singing, and acting for a few hours. After rehearsing, I often have more energy than when I started, which can be helpful for a long night of work ahead of me!
Spencer: Haha. Oh my, this a tough one. The Varsity Show definitely requires a HUGE time commitment, especially now that we're in crunch time! I have found that the best way to manage rehearsals and coursework is to stick to an organized daily schedule that maps out everything I have to get done in the day, whether it's rehearsing, working on a paper or just eating dinner. Also, it's important to not let yourself get too overcome with the stress of getting everything done. Sometimes I just need to take a break and hang out with some friends for a while and relax. Then, when I get back to the daily grind, I'm refreshed and able to tackle the hectic schedule in a more efficient way.
The Varsity Show is a campus institution—do you feel a certain pressure to live up to expectations?
David: I feel two different kinds of pressure working on the Varsity Show. On the one hand, I feel the need to live up to the expectations of the student theater population. These are the people who see the show every year and critique it meticulously because they know what to expect. Many of these students have been in the Varsity Show, and so they are comparing us to their shows. It's hard to live up to past Varsity Shows because every show is always trying to outdo the previous shows. We try and make it funnier, more exciting, and more spectacular. At the end of the day though, the entire theater community has been incredibly supportive throughout the entire process. They understand what we're going through, and they know how hard yet rewarding the whole process can be.
On the other hand, the Varsity Show has to live up to the expectations of the thousands of undergraduates, graduates and alumni of the University, and this can be a truly daunting task. Year after year, our audience expects a professional-level production, and we have to give it to them! Columbia views The Varsity Show as an ambassador to the entire community—we perform at Days on Campus (the accepted students day for Columbia College and SEAS), we perform at the Columbia Club (an alumni club downtown), and we're expected to embody everything that Columbia represents. It's truly both an honor and a challenge. All of these expectations don't hinder our productivity and creativity; they inspire and motivate us to put on the best show we can.
Spencer: There's definitely a little pressure to live up to expectations, but I think one of the best things about Varsity Show is the fact that it changes every year. Our show is something entirely new and exciting, and therefore it can't really be compared to any of the past shows.
Expectations for this year's show are very high, and I hope we get some positive feedback after all is said and done. In fact, I'm pretty sure we will. But, ultimately, we have put so much hard work and effort into this production, and we are all so proud of it, that I think we have succeeded in what the Varsity Show is all about, regardless of how the audience responds.
What’s been the best part about working on the Varsity Show?
David: The best part about working on the Varsity Show has absolutely been the experience with the cast and the creative, production and design teams. While the feeling of tradition is nice and certainly adds to the experience, working on the Varsity Show is ultimately like working on any other musical. Everyone involved needs to work together as a team in order to make the show run smoothly. I have been so blessed to work with such incredible people. Specifically, I have come to think of the cast as my family. The twelve of us spend countless hours together, both in rehearsal and outside. We have learned how to work with each other in rehearsal, and focus on creating a great show, while simultaneously having fun together. I can't even imagine what my day will look like in two weeks when these people are not an integral part.
Spencer: The best part is without a doubt the friendships I have made during this process. When you're rehearsing with the same people for hours on end, 7 days a week, you will inevitably become close. Thankfully, everyone involved in this year's show are amazingly cool people, and I think my Columbia experience thus far has been exponentially greater because of them.
Without giving anything away, can you give us an idea of what the audience can expect?
David: The audience can expect a fun, funny, lighthearted view of Columbia. Are there any deep messages? Not really. But audience members should come ready to laugh and make fun of themselves. The Varsity Show is unique because it is about Columbia. The same jokes wouldn't translate to any other school or venue, so audience members have to know that we will be making fun of them. Their school, their administrators, their clubs, and their lives. But remember—it's all in fun! And of course, the audience should expect some really fantastic songs, some beautiful dances and the most exquisite sets to ever grace Roone Arledge Auditorium.
Spencer: Great musical numbers with a rocking band, a lot of laughs, and the chance to poke some goodhearted fun at their favorite campus characters.
Anything else we should know?
David: Ameneh Bordi, our director, always reminds us, "The Varsity Show is our gift to the Columbia community. It's not for us [the cast]— it's for them." As I approach the performances, this sentiment keeps coming back to me. I'm so excited to finally present this gift to a community that has supported us so thoroughly throughout the performance.
I would also like to quickly address the students of GS. As a first year GS student (in the Joint Program with JTS), I have seen the ways in which GS students try their hardest to become a part of the Columbia undergraduate community, and seeing and being involved in the Varsity Show is a great way to do that. GS students should remember that The Varsity Show is for them just as much as it is for the rest of Columbia.
Spencer: Just that working on the Varsity Show, although stressful and time-consuming at times, has opened me up to the larger Columbia community in a way that I didn't experience first semester. I think sometimes GS students feel like they are somehow separated from the rest of the university because of their age, but being in the Varsity Show made me realize that I can still have that college experience, regardless of any differences between myself and the typical Columbia College student. Vshow made me love college and Columbia, and I can't wait to let that love shine through when we finally present what we've been working on this year to the rest of the student body!