The Varsity Show premiered this April as planned, despite unexpected changes to its creative team.
This year’s iteration underwent said changes after allegations of sexual misconduct, which led to the resignation of one of the show’s writers and wider discourse within the theater community about how to report sexual misconduct. In a meeting of the Activities Board at Columbia, various theatre groups expressed their confusion over the role of umbrella group Columbia University Performing Arts League, which oversees the allocation of resources, performance spaces, and the casting process, in the reporting and removal of alleged offenders.
The Varsity Show still followed its yearly schedule as planned, putting on its West End Preview in February. The plot of the show is traditionally kept under wraps until the debut of the full-length event, so the preview, which features unique scenes and characters, is intended solely to give the audience a feel for what the music may sound like. This year’s preview focused on capturing the elusive tone of a tumultuous political year on campus.
In contrast, the Varsity Show proper turned away from topicality and instead focused its plot on typical Columbia clichés and stale political commentary on the 2016 election. It was at its best when it wove specific references into its narrative, such as the appearance of the Ivy League Snapchat Story bottle-flipping man or references to Lerner’s crooked tables. Stellar cast performances also helped aid a lackluster plotline and set.
Columbia is no stranger to famous guests on campus, but 2017 and 2018 saw celebrities from nearly every field of art pay a visit to Morningside at events such as the Athena Film Festival and Bacchanal, as well as for individual talks.
Guests of the eighth annual Athena festival included producers and stars of critically acclaimed Lifetime show “UnREAL,” which premiered its third season at the opening night of the festival; Gloria Steinem, who participated in a panel for Valerie Red-Horse’s film “MANKILLER;” and director of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Lost” J.J. Abrams. Abrams was honored with the Athena Leading Man Award for advocacy for women in the entertainment industry and gave an exclusive interview to Spectator about giving the spotlight to women and the meaning of the Time’s Up movement.
Annual spring concert Bacchanal brought headliner Ty Dolla $ign alongside supporting acts Kamaiyah, St. Beauty, and student opener Soul for Youth to campus in April. Concertgoers were surprised with guest appearances from RJ, TeeCee4800, and YG, all rappers who have collaborated with Ty Dolla $ign and who performed alongside him for numbers during the show.
Well-known figures in art, music, and literature also made visits to campus to give talks to Columbia students. In October, visual artist and political activist Ai Weiwei described his vision for recent installation “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” and discussed the role of art in activism, citing his experiences with the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China. Musician Patti Smith filled the Lenfest Center’s venue The Lantern in February, where she promoted her newest book “Devotion.” On the same weekend, Martha Stewart, BC ’69, returned to her alma mater to impart entrepreneurial tips to current students.
The diverse and flourishing Columbia arts scene means that there is no dearth of talent on campus, but it also means that for many students involved in the arts, the resources offered by Columbia often fall short of their needs. Over the past year, students have formed clubs and groups that help fill in the gaps where the University falls short.
Columbia’s pressing shortage of practice spaces has forced many campus musicians into spaces without air conditioning or sound proofing—including, on occasion, their own dorm rooms. Eager to institute change, students circulated a petition that garnered over 1,000 signatures and gathered testimonies from professors and students at other renowned universities. Administration received the petition and is working to expand available practice space, but in the meantime, clubs are forming their own spaces. CU Records, to name one, has opened a new recording studio in Lerner that allows music and non-music majors alike to record tracks with the club’s equipment and instruments.
Meanwhile, Film students have faced issues with steep equipment costs and a lack of career prospects in the field. Even fewer film resources are available to non-majors. The Society for the Advancement of Underrepresented Filmmakers and Columbia University Film Productions both seek to help student filmmakers with finding equipment, funding, and connections with other filmmakers who can collaborate on projects.
After a tumultuous political year, Columbia students are still grappling with the fallout of the 2016 presidential election and the Trump presidency—not just through traditional activism, but through art, theater, dance, and music as well.
Whether explicitly or implicitly, the current political climate influenced many campus theater productions. In both of its fall productions, King’s Crown Shakespeare Troupe addressed gender dynamics and governmental corruption in “Measure for Measure” and “Medea,” acknowledging the productions’ role in the discourse surrounding gender, power, and sexual assault.
“I want to push back on the idea that we’re doing this play because people are talking about sexual assault right now in the media and in the world and in the Columbia community,” Sylvia Korman, BC ’18 and director of “Measure for Measure,” said. “I think it’s all part of a larger [ongoing] conversation.”
Other productions were more overt in their parallels to current politics. Where the Columbia Law Revue parodied the Trump administration in “Robert Mueller’s Day Off,” Columbia Musical Theatre Society took a slightly more serious approach in “Urinetown,” a dystopian performance that drew attention to the water crisis in Flint and the struggle between big government and small communities.
Political consciousness infused other forms of art as well, with the LeRoy Neiman Gallery’s October exhibit focusing on the intertwined history of printmaking and political dissent. The Law School brought “Windows on Death Row,” featuring the art of death row inmates, to campus in order to facilitate a discussion on the American prison system.
Dancers sought to give voice to marginalized identities at workshops, such as Movement of the People Dance Company’s winter intensive, and talks, like the Committee on Global Thought’s panel on the intersection of hip-hop and activism. In music, the annual Bold Brilliant Beats concert featured marginalized identities in its performers and Darcy James Argue’s Grammy-nominated band infused its jazz with messages of the current paranoia surrounding political conspiracy theories and fake news.
Altogether, arts communities on campus all addressed political upheaval in their own way.
This school year saw a handful of new restaurants and eateries opening in the Morningside Heights neighborhood that were instant hits among students.
The long-anticipated Shake Shack opened just before students returned to campus in August, followed by Hex & Company, a board game café from the owners of The Uncommons. The newest location of the Chinese fast food chain Panda Express opened its doors at the beginning of December, boasting an expanded menu with New York-exclusive dishes.
Over on Amsterdam Avenue, Midtown transplant Tartina began serving authentic Italian food to the community in October, with the goal of not only giving Morningside Heights a taste of real Italy, but “a place where everybody remembers again how to celebrate life,” in the words of owner Maria Teresa Valestra.
In September, Harlem-based coffee shop and art space Dear Mama Coffee is set to open its second location at Columbia’s Manhattanville campus, where CEO Zachary Sharaga hopes to host drawing and coffee-making classes, display art from community members, and, of course, serve coffee and food.
However, this year was also marked by the closure of a number of student favorites. Amigo’s, famous for its fishbowl-sized drinks and margaritas, closed over Christmas break. Three months later, the 110th Street Rite Aid and the Asian supermarket M2M both closed within a month of each other. It was a bad year for bagels as well, as both beloved bagel stores Absolute Bagels and Nussbaum & Wu closed temporarily for health violations. Fortunately, both stores overcame the sanitary issues and reopened not much later.