Category Archives: Alumni

A Wildcat in Sochi: Greg Presto (Medill ’04, ’07)

Greg PrestoNorthwestern alumnus Greg Presto (BSJ ’04, MSJ ’07) just returned from covering the Winter Olympics in Sochi, working as a video producer for USA Today Sports. Presto shot, edited and produced an array of Olympic content, including a fun piece on Russian culture in Sochi.

Read his reflections on the surreal experience of covering the world’s greatest athletes in an unfamiliar land—and running into some fellow Wildcats along the way.

There’s nothing better than a scoop for a journalist, and our team had broken the biggest story in Sochi: There were burritos somewhere. And they were amazing.

The Winter Olympics hold a lot of mystery for Americans—we don’t usually watch a biathlon, and placing the Games in Russia added another layer of confusion in language, alphabet and food.

Despite the reports of missing shower curtains and brown tap water, the lost-in-translation moments are what made covering the Sochi Games wonderful. And I do mean full of wonder. We wondered about the boiled meats and how often to say thank you and what lugers are really trying to do. And for me, answering questions that arise from natural curiosity is what makes journalism fun. If you see something, ask about it. Then say something.

So we asked: “What are lugers trying to do, anyway?” (As little as possible, it turns out.) “Do Russians celebrate Valentine’s Day?” (Yes.) “How much does skiing before you shoot a gun alter your aim?” (A little.) “What does the Russian letter that looks like an asterisk sound like?” (It’s a “J.”) “Why are downhill ski poles bent that way?” (To bend around the skier’s body.)

And, of course, where did the Russian guy at the Ekaterininskiy Kvartal media village learn to make such amazing “fajitos?” Turns out he spent some time in Colorado, where he learned to make some incredible wrapped goodies filled with crunchy vegetables (a rare treat) and spiced pork worth the 40-minute round trip to grab a bunch for some coworkers.

A taste of home like that was a welcome respite from feeling like the ugly American who can’t understand anything. Staring at a string of Cyrillic text and having the symbols look completely meaningless was, as one coworker pointed out, as close as we’ll probably come to understanding what it’s like to be illiterate. Trying to translate kilograms to pounds on a rare trip to the press center gym was nearly impossible on three hours of sleep. And giving directions to a cab driver? Well, an hour to wait for the next bus isn’t so bad, I guess.

But it was something we were all learning together—not just my fellow USA Today Sports folks, but other media, including a pile of Northwestern alums. Ten of us gathered for a photo on the last day, recounting confusions and questions we’d raised and reminiscing with our fellow Americans and media from Australia, Korea, Japan and China.

It’s with the Chinese guys that we finished. After the Olympic flame was snuffed out and the last of our video gear packed, we celebrated with a dinner that devolved into a sing-off, with a table of Chinese journalists singing one song and our group singing another. They took us to school with a string of not-in-English tunes that included Pavarotti and a bunch of stuff we couldn’t identify. But the crown jewel of their dominant concert was a three-part harmony rendition of a song that wasn’t lost in translation at all: “Jingle Bells.”

Medill alumni in Sochi

Some of the Northwestern alumni covering the Olympics in Sochi gather for a group photo.

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The Hills Are Alive for Northwestern Alumnus

Ian Weinberger (Bienen ’09) spent the past several months working as a music assistant on NBC’s production of “The Sound of Music Live,” which airs tonight at 7 p.m. (CT). Read about his varied experiences working with the cast, crew and orchestra on this unique production.

Ian Weinberger

I’m really grateful to have had some great experience at Northwestern learning how to put together new musicals. Working on the American Music Theatre Project shows and the Waa-Mu Show taught me so much about how musical theatre is made. While “The Sound of Music” isn’t exactly a new musical, and while working in television is a whole different animal, there were certain elements of this process—new dance music, different keys, working with orchestrators and copyists—that my Northwestern experience absolutely prepared me for.

I was brought onto “The Sound of Music Live” by music director David Chase. I’d worked with David on a couple of projects over the last couple of years. He wrote to me in August and asked if I’d be interested in being the music assistant…and I’m so glad he did. My duties have been pretty varied, but in general I’ve been working with the orchestra, the cast and the creative team to help put this thing up.

We’ve been rehearsing the show since mid-September, and for the first couple of months the rehearsal process functioned very much like a Broadway show. My first major set of tasks had to do with preparing for the recording sessions. We recorded the orchestra (37 stellar Broadway musicians) that you’ll hear on the broadcast tonight, and the actors came in to record the companion cast album that was released earlier this week.

The tricky part was, unlike a Broadway show, we were recording the album about five weeks ahead of our “opening,” and only a couple of weeks after our official start of rehearsals. So a tremendous amount of planning had to be done with David and the music department, director Rob Ashford and his team, as well as the actors, to determine what would be recorded. We knew certain changes could be made after recording had completed—if we needed a few bars to be repeated, for example, or if a certain section had to be a little slower, we could make those adjustments digitally. But, by and large, what we recorded is what we had—we couldn’t create new underscoring if we needed more music. In fact, in many instances we recorded several versions of something–at different tempi, or with both 2- and 4-bar intros, etc.—just so we’d have options as we started to piece the show together.

After the recordings were completed and mixed, I worked with David to organize the various playback cues that we’d use for the show. Some musical numbers needed to be split into several cues. For example, at the top of the show, when Maria sings “The Sound of Music,” there is a held note in the orchestra. Then she sings “My day in the hills…”—and the orchestra joins her in time on the word “day.” In a standard theatrical setting with a live orchestra and a conductor, this is as simple as the conductor holding until “day” and then bringing in the orchestra with Maria. But in this case, the playback was split into two cues—one for the held note, and then another for the rest of the song. So Mark “Wedge” Weglinski, who’s manning the playback, presses “GO” for the held note and then “GO” again when she sings, “My day in the hills.” All told, there are about 75 playback cues for the entire show.

The makeup of our music department differed greatly from that of any standard theatrical production that we’re used to working on. Aside from David—the boss!—we were very lucky to have Fred Lassen as associate music supervisor. Fred was left in charge with cast rehearsals while David went away for the 10 days of recording. (Tonight, Fred’s job is to sit at a keyboard and play along with the entire show, just in case—knock on something—the playback system and its backup system fail for any reason.) Steven Malone served as the music director dedicated to the seven von Trapp children and their understudies—working specifically on the kids’ music. We had two additional rehearsal pianists, plus I also played rehearsal piano when needed. Finally, Georgia Stitt, one of the nuns, took on the role of “nun captain,” rehearsing and leading the choir of 24 nuns on her own when David or Fred were otherwise tied up. Plus—Doug Besterman (orchestrator), a team of copyists, a recording engineer and two assistants, Wedge on playback, a sound mixer and his team…it has taken a village—for the music alone! I heard yesterday that all told, about 340 people are working on this.

Anyway, it’s all been very exciting and a very educational project for all of us. But now I am off to work! We’re just about to start our last (only our second!) full run-through at 1 p.m. before we do the show at 7 p.m. (CT) tonight. The excitement is palpable here in Bethpage, NY—we really can’t wait to share this with you. If you’re watching tonight, hope you enjoy!

World War II Midshipmen’s School at NU

As World War II raged in Europe, Northwestern University was one of three schools to open a Midshipmen’s School to train Naval officers. By 1945, more than 25,000 men had graduated from the school.

Rev. Robert Wilch graduated in 1943 and looked back fondly on the time he spent training for the Navy on Northwestern’s Chicago campus. Hear his memories in this 2009 interview, featuring archival footage of the Midshipmen’s School at NU. Read more

NU has a long history of naval training on campus, as one of the six original Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps units was established on campus in 1926 and remains today. Last Friday, current NROTC students honored alumni who gave their lives in war.

On this Veterans Day, we honor and remember all the courageous men and women–past and present–who served our country in the military. Thank you for your service.

Relive WNUR’s Broadcast of ‘War of the Worlds’ from 2001

This week marked the 75th anniversary of Orson Welles’ infamous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, and Northwestern students celebrated by gathering at a residential college Wednesday evening to listen to the original production and engage in a fireside discussion afterward.

But on May 13, 2001, a group of students working at Northwestern’s student radio station, WNUR, produced and aired their own live version of “War of the Worlds.”

The brainchild of Mark Gordon (Communication ’03), the radio broadcast used the original script but was adapted to include references to Northwestern, Evanston and Chicago people and landmarks. According to a story that ran in The Daily Northwestern, WNUR received permission to alter the script from the estate of Howard Koch, one of the writers of the original broadcast.

Gordon recruited WNUR students who typically reported news and sports, as well as a few radio/television/film majors to round out the cast. The broadcast begins as a breaking news story about a mysterious accident on the I-90/I-94 John F. Kennedy Expressway. The cast rehearsed in Annie May Swift hall several times before the live production to coordinate the timing of their lines with the various sound effects that Gordon had previously recorded to make the broadcast sound authentic.

“My favorite story related to the show was how we got the car horn sound effects,” said Brian Nemerovski (Medill ’03), who played a sports anchor in the fake broadcast. “Obviously, we needed the sound because the re-creation centered around traffic being stalled on the Kennedy. So Mark Gordon walked into the attendant’s booth at the Whole Foods parking garage on Chicago Avenue and asked them to press the panic button on as many sets of keys as they could find. The attendants agreed, and Mark got the sound!”

Given the pandemonium created by the original 1938 broadcast, WNUR took no chances and featured disclaimers throughout the show to remind the listening audience that this was a theatrical production and not an actual emergency.

“I think someone even called Evanston and Northwestern police just to keep them in the loop in case they got any calls,” said Ben Harper (Medill ’03), who served as a news anchor in the broadcast.

Click below to listen to the complete WNUR broadcast from 2001, courtesy of Ben Harper. The action starts around the 10:15 mark.


Cool ‘Cats: Alex Nee (Communication ’13)

Alex NeeWhen Alex Nee walked in Northwestern’s graduation in June, he already had more main stage acting experience under his belt than most theater majors get in an entire career. Nee spent much of his senior year playing the lead role of Johnny in the international touring company of the broadway musical “American Idiot.”

After the show closed and he finished up his remaining credits at NU, Nee landed a role in the national touring company of “Once,” which plays at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago through Oct. 27. Nee discusses the new musical and how his time at Northwestern led him to such a fast start in the competitive world of theater.

How did you manage to land a lead role in an international touring company while still a senior at Northwestern?

I was in “Rent” at Northwestern in fall of 2011, which Dominic Missimi was directing and he was friends with casting director Jim Carnahan. Jim happened to be out in Chicago casting a different show, and Dominic brought him to see “Rent,” and then because of that a couple of us got asked to audition for “American Idiot.” After a five-month audition process of going back and forth to New York, I finally got cast in the show. It was the biggest thing that ever happened to me at that point in terms of theater. I knew this was something that I wanted to do as a career, but I was very much focused on school and being at NU and doing the shows there and finishing up my education. It was a lot of soul-searching, but when I got cast it felt like a dream come true, and I couldn’t be happier with the decision.

What happened after the “American Idiot” tour ended?

Timing-wise, it all very miraculously fell into place. I finished touring with “American Idiot” June 16 and then two days later I flew from Vegas to Chicago and walked in cap and gown at graduation with my class, even though I hadn’t technically finished. Because it was the same casting director for “Once” and he already knew me, I ended up getting an offer to do this tour right after “American Idiot.” I did the summer session at Northwestern and finished up the three credits that I needed to get my degree. Then I started rehearsals for “Once” in mid-August and have just been going since then.

I couldn’t ask for anything more at this point in my life. It really was just sort of luck and timing that gave me that first audition, but I’m so thankful that it worked out and that people have been so generous and trusting in giving me a shot, considering I’m so young. It can be hard and draining and kind of lonely sometimes being on the road all the time, but I wouldn’t change it for anything, because I get to do some pretty amazing shows that I didn’t think I would ever get to do at this point in my life. I’ve also gotten to work with some really incredible and inspiring people.

Describe “Once” and the character you play in the new musical.

It’s based on the 2006 movie, but there are differences, because it’s adapting it for the stage and telling the story in a different way. It’s about two traveling musicians in Dublin—one of them is Irish and one of them is Czech. Something about them pulls them together and they immediately connect and fall in love, even though every circumstance in their life is telling them that they shouldn’t be together. It follows these two people who make beautiful music together, and connect and try to make it work and all the people who help them make this beautiful music. My character, Andrej, is one of the Czech immigrants in Dublin, and he lives with the main girl. I’ll leave the ending open, but it’s a very realistic story and not a fairy tale.

What do you like about the show?

I’ve been a huge fan since the movie came out. The music—there’s nothing else like it, especially in theater. It’s not something you can find in any other musical. It’s simple, honest, but emotionally complex music. It’s so easy to listen to and play this music every single night, because I deeply connect to it—and every time it sort of elevates me to this heightened state. The show embraces the awkwardness of real human interactions. It’s messy, but very honest, and I think it connects with audience members because of its honesty.

My other favorite part of it is that I get to embrace my musician side, as well as my actor and dancer side. Everyone who’s onstage is playing all the music, doing all the scene work, dancing, moving—it’s a completely self-sufficient show. You see all the inner workings, and there’s no hidden orchestra or anything. I’m playing the bass, the ukulele, mandolin, guitar and cajon (hand drum). It was great to really practice and learn new instruments once again, because I haven’t done that for years and it really sparked a lot of creative juices in me.

How has your Northwestern training prepared you for such a rigorous show?

Northwestern helped me a lot in how I approach the rehearsal process. My acting teacher demanded that we come fully prepared into any scene—learn all the mechanics first and do that on your own. There’s no excuse to not know the lines or not know the music, so having that Northwestern “go-getter” mentality helped a little bit. But once you have that down, it opens you up to all the possibilities that are around. It makes you really able to listen to everyone else more and learn so much from everyone else in the room, instead of focusing on what you’re doing. I think that’s extremely important for this show, because until you can look up from the instrument, until you really know what you’re supposed to be playing, you’re not actually going to start the real work of the show.

What else were you involved in while at Northwestern?

That same year that I was in “Rent,” I was also in “Spring Awakening,” which is another sort of rock musical. I was in David Catlin’s production of “The Little Prince.” There was a ton of onstage music in that show as well, and we were able to collaborate and make up parts with each other, so I was doing a lot of drumming and similar stuff to what I’m doing in “Once.” I also was in Asterik and sang a cappella all three years I was there. I did a lot of student productions and department productions and was just trying to get my hands into as much stuff as possible.

What advice do you have for current theater students at Northwestern?

I was never planning to audition outside of Northwestern until I had finished school. I think by fully investing myself in the Northwestern experience and fully giving my time to those projects and not being scatterbrained about it, that’s what ultimately gave me this outside opportunity because I really connected with the faculty members there. I think it’s such an important experience. I wish I had that fourth year, and I really cherished those three years that I did have. You don’t need to try and get started early, because the people who are at Northwestern are so incredible and have these great connections—so if you really connect with them and make long-term friendships and connections, that’s ultimately what’s going to help you.