Northwestern Residents Warm Up With the Witches

No, Halloween has not moved to the winter.

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On Feb. 11, student members and faculty and staff affiliates of residential colleges and residential communities gathered in the lobby of the Josephine Louis Theatre to sip warm hot cocoa topped with marshmallows and peppermint flakes as they waited to see the highly-anticipated “Vinegar Tom.” Guests at the reception were able to escape the snowstorm and long lines at the dining halls by munching on tasty appetizers ranging from savory (including crudité and antipasto) to sweet (like gooey brownie treats), while conversing about what to expect from the acclaimed show. Words like cats, feminism, witches, and executions were being thrown around as students, faculty, and staff mingled.

Following the performance of Caryl Churchill’s “play about witches with no witches,” attendees were invited to a special “talk back” with faculty members Tracy Davis (Professor of English and Theatre) and Lydia Barnett (Assistant Professor of History). They provided historical context for the setting of the show, discussed its themes on class and gender, and answered any lingering questions audience members might have had.

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Rosie Roche, Northwestern Arts Manager and fellow at the Humanities Residential College at Chapin Hall, believes that “These intergenerational discussions can be very deep and sustain interest in a subject by bringing up many different perspectives.” Her goal as the pilot of a “Night at the Arts Circle”  is to make the high-caliber arts offered at Northwestern University “as accessible and as fun for students as possible, [while making] engaging with arts and culture a hallmark of the Northwestern student experience.”

There is no denying that these events bring communities together over food and provide students with a respite from their studies, but they also allow Northwestern students to take away important lessons and bond over larger themes. Nancy Anderson, Associate Director of Residential Academic Initiatives, emphasized how these residentially-organized trips create shared experiences between students, faculty, and staff. Equally important, the outings provide opportunities for individuals who may not otherwise be able to attend on their own due to cost or logistics. “I always strive for a balance of activities: on- and off-campus, intellectual and social, interactive and spectator-oriented. Students are often introduced to stimulating Chicago area venues as well as the wonderful range of events produced at Northwestern,” said Anderson. She noted some winter quarter highlights, including Wicked, a Chicago Bulls game, Lunar New Year dinner in Chinatown, and Ragtime (this year’s Dolphin Show).

Maggie Olson, a freshman at the Residential College of Cultural & Community Studies (CCS) at 2303 Sheridan Road, was attending her first Northwestern theatre production. “My friends had talked about [“Vinegar Tom”] and said it was so good, and I was excited that it was a feminist production.”

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When asked why she was at the event, Tess Russell, a sophomore at CCS, decided to take advantage of the break from the fast-paced quarter system and enjoy a reminiscent night at the Arts Circle. “I grew up seeing plays a lot with my mom and my family, so plays really interest me and I saw the free opportunity. I always like expanding my boundaries and seeing new things and just getting out for a night after a long week of school.”

Jessica Biddlestone, Assistant Chair for Public Affairs Residential College (PARC) at North Mid-Quads, is a huge proponent of these events because they are “really good to kind of get to know the fellows . . . but in the kind of setting that’s outside of our building.”

Biddlestone has also seen a huge success in the amount of students eager to partake in similar events. “I’ve actually been thrilled this year because so many PARC students are really interested in these cross college events. I think because it’s just such a great opportunity to get a chance to go into the city or do something different than you normally would.” Leslie Bonilla, a frequent attendee of cross-RC events and a resident of 1838 Chicago, explains why she continues to return to these gatherings. “They’re free and always fun to attend. The food is great, the atmosphere is really casual, and everyone is super nice.”

“I think it’s really interesting that this [play] was written in the 1970s and it feels like someone could have written it right now. The problems from 300 years ago persist on and the oppression of women and the way women are seen in society has taken such a slow change. You would think it’s not relevant, but it still is,” Olson said.

A few hours earlier, Olson and Russell had walked into the building with little knowledge of the play, but they left with something much more than the few brownies in their hands. “I think it’s good to be educated about [women’s oppression] and coming out to see this production . . . that’s one of the first steps in trying to be a part of the movement,” says Russell.

Students went to see a play about witches but left charmed by the show’s story.

The event was made possible by generous support from the W. Keren and Robert Vishny Endowed Fund, which promotes student and faculty engagement to enhance the residential experience.