Category Archives: Cool ‘Cats

Cool ‘Cats: Michael Payant (Medill ’16)

My name is Michael Payant and I am a Northwestern Wildcat superfan.

There was no single defining moment which inspired my fandom, no single event which served as the catalyst for my love of the Wildcats. Instead, it was a lifetime of little things which built up to make me the man and the fan I am today.

My parents shaped my love of sport. By encouraging me to play and joining me to watch sports, they made me happy, and in retrospect, shaped my personality.

My mom, Susan Cohodes, attended the Medill School of Journalism from 1979-83. She was here for the lowest of lows, when the ‘Cats set the major college football losing streak record at 34 games, yet still loved her time here enough to raise me to bleed purple and white. Despite the fact that I was born and raised in Seattle, Wash., my earliest “college visits” were to Northwestern to watch football games and meet some of Mom’s college friends who still live in the Chicago area.

Stories of NU teams’ exploits were common as my sister and I grew up.

I heard about the 1981 “Stop State at 28” campaign and the subsequent “Laking of the Posts” when the ‘Cats lost their 29th consecutive game. I became acquainted at a young age with Northwestern’s lack of NCAA tournament appearances in basketball. When Northwestern traveled to Seattle to take on the University of Washington in the NIT Tournament a couple years ago, I was right behind the NU bench, cheering my heart out as the ‘Cats fell 76-55. For the sports fan in me, these stories served not to dissuade my NU fandom, but to reinforce the notion that the team and the school never give up.

The stories weren’t all negative either.

Though I was too young to remember it, the ‘Cats 1996 Rose Bowl appearance has been commemorated by the pennant which once rested on my bedroom wall and is now displayed prominently in my dorm. For much of the time I’ve been a coherent fan, the football team has met or exceeded respectability under Pat Fitzgerald. John Shurna’s tenure with the basketball team will not be soon forgotten, and under Chris Collins, hope springs eternal that this NU Era will be a good one.

Being a Northwestern fan is not always easy. I could list the heartbreaking defeats the football team has suffered in the last two years alone, but this is still a little too sensitive a topic. On the other side, as ‘Cats across the country know, for this team, every win is exhilarating.

When I was younger, I believed my cheering determined whether the team won or lost. I still approach every game I attend with this mindset, and it is for our school and our team that I am a fan. I take pride in knowing I have given the team everything I have, and win or lose, I am a Wildcat until the bitter end.

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!

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.

Cool ‘Cats: Ed Tunnicliff (Communication ’50)

Ed TunnicliffStanding on the sidewalk outside of Ryan Field in a purple Northwestern jacket, 87-year-old Ed Tunnicliff (Communication ’50) looked like an average longtime Wildcat football fan. But Tunnicliff has an indelible place in Northwestern sports history, having scored the winning touchdown in the football team’s 1949 Rose Bowl victory.

The former Wildcat halfback returned to campus Friday to contribute his Rose Bowl game jersey to University Archives. He also took the opportunity to tour the football program’s current facilities, meet with head coach Pat Fitzgerald, revisit the 1949 Rose Bowl trophy and share his memories of an unforgettable era in Northwestern football.

“If you look back through Northwestern’s history, when they had good teams, it was because they had depth,” he said. “When I was there, we had all the veterans coming back from four years of war and then all of the freshmen coming in as well, so we had all kinds of depth, and it made a difference.”

That depth led to the team’s first and only Rose Bowl victory — an accomplishment that is still heralded by the Northwestern community today. After talking to University archivist Kevin Leonard, Tunnicliff decided to donate one of his most cherished Rose Bowl relics — the number 15 jersey he wore during the game — to the university’s collection of historic memorabilia.

Tunnicliff retired from the life insurance business 28 years ago and now spends most of his time fishing in Mountain Home, Ark. He didn’t want to make any predictions about future Rose Bowl appearances, but he has avidly followed the good fortunes of the current Wildcat squad and is hopeful about their future success.

“They’re tremendous,” he said. “I’m just keeping my fingers crossed, especially for next Saturday [Oct. 5] against Ohio State.”

After meeting with Coach Fitzgerald, Tunnicliff summed up what makes Northwestern’s football program special — both in his day and today.

“The main thing here at Northwestern is academics, as well it should be, and you were expected to do the same thing that any other student did,” he said. “That whole attitude about education being most important just permeates everything and you just feel confident.”

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Cool ‘Cats: Jena Friedman (Weinberg ’05)

Jena FriedmanNorthwestern alumna Jena Friedman ended up “going native” — in anthropological terms joining the group you are studying — while writing her senior thesis on comedy.

Today the cultural anthropology major produces for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” the iconic comedy show that broke the mold with the hilarious fake newscasts that millions turn to nightly.

Friedman was observing classes at Chicago’s legendary ImprovOlympic comedy club for her senior thesis on the role of gender, race and class in the world of comedy when she decided to go native.

“I wasn’t a theater major,” Friedman said. “That paper is what got me into comedy. I started doing improv and then a year or two later I started doing stand-up.”

After graduation, Friedman got serious about comedy. She moved to New York and eventually landed a coveted writing job for “The Late Show with David Letterman.”

For the last eight months, she has worked for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” serving as a field producer for the show’s zany assortment of fake news correspondents.

“It’s the first job that combines what I liked most about anthropology with comedy — it’s funny and has a political point of view,” she said.

Friedman, a 2005 graduate of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, attributes her unexpected career and success to Northwestern.

“It’s weird, but 100 percent of where I am now is because of that anthropology program at Northwestern,”  she said.

Friedman recently discussed her Northwestern roots and how they led her to success in the comedy business.

How did you transition from majoring in anthropology to writing for “The Late Show” and producing for “The Daily Show?”

After graduation, I continued performing improvisation in Chicago.  Chicago is a great city if you want to study comedy because the community is really supportive and there’s so much access to stage time there. Also, in Chicago, there’s very little industry so you can experiment and play, and if you’re terrible — which most comics are at the start — no one will see you fail. I started performing stand-up because I was working as a consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton and traveling all the time. Stand-up just felt more portable and travel-friendly than improv. Also, I got cut from my house team at ImprovOlympic for missing too many rehearsals.

After a few years in Chicago, I moved to New York. A play that I had written that was a parody of American Girl Dolls was featured in the New York Fringe Festival, and I felt like it was a good time to make the leap.  After a year of performing stand-up in New York, I was connected to a manager who submitted me as a writer for “Late Show with David Letterman.” Eleven months after that, right as I was about to move to LA to attend UCLA film school, I was hired. I worked at Letterman for a year and when the field producer position at “The Daily Show” opened up, I applied for it and have been at the show for about eight months. It’s not as easy as I’m making it sound. I broke some teeth along the way.

What was your “Late Show” experience like?

I had a great experience at Late Show. It was challenging writing for a show that has existed for 30 years. Sometimes I would pitch something and the writers would say, “That’s funny, but we did that in ’96.” But that’s also what made it such a great learning experience: working within the parameters of network TV, writing for a host who has such a specific sense of humor and trying to come up with new ideas for a show that has such an incredible history.

What are your duties for “The Daily Show?” How do you decide which stories to produce?

It’s a field producer role similar to any traditional news show with a field team that will go out and report on a story, but we just do it with “The Daily Show” point of view. We pitch all types of stories. Jon encourages us to pursue stories that we’re passionate about and then after we come up with a take on the story, we’ll meet with him to decide which stories to produce. The environment at “The Daily Show” is very collaborative and democratic. Jon is really involved in the day-to-day and people are excited to be there, and I think that’s part of what accounts for the show’s continued success.

How has your Northwestern education influenced your comedy career?

Working on my senior anthropology thesis is what led me to comedy. It seems like now there’s such an emphasis on majoring in business or engineering — degrees that some might say are more “recession-proof.” But my liberal arts education was invaluable and the anthropology curriculum really pushed me to explore what I was passionate about, and what I learned from my professors is still relevant to what I do now as a comedian and field producer. Even as a stand-up, I sometimes feel like an ethnographer, observing people’s behaviors and then commenting on it.

Do you know any Cool ‘Cats? We’re looking for Northwestern University students, alumni, faculty and staff who are having cool experiences or have unique stories to tell. Let us know at