Thousands Strong kickoff video features CVPA talent

Thousands Strong kickoff video features CVPA talent

The NIU Foundation kicked off its annual Day of Giving with a Thousands Strong video event, Wednesday, November 18, and the video featured a number of students and alumni of the College of Visual and Performing Arts.

The video is hosted by Kate Drury, a B.F.A. candidate in acting. The music for the video was performed by the NIU Jazz Orchestra and the celebrity interview was Joe Minoso, a 2004 M.F.A. acting graduate and the star of the NBC series “Chicago Fire.”

The Day of Giving runs through November 19. Gifts of all sizes will go a long way to helping ensure the next classes of Huskies have what they need to make the most of their time on campus.

NIU’s “Thousands Strong” Virtual Events Celebrate Huskie Pride

NIU’s “Thousands Strong” Virtual Events Celebrate Huskie Pride

In celebration of our positive impact throughout the world, Northern Illinois Huskies and friends of the university are invited to participate in the NIU Foundation “Thousands Strong” virtual events, which will take place Nov. 18-20.

From 7-7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 18, NIU will commemorate all that makes NIU extraordinary. The Opening Night kickoff show will include an inspirational and entertaining lineup on YouTube Live, with NIU President Lisa C. Freeman and special celebrity guest Joe Minoso, M.F.A. ’04, who plays firefighter Joe Cruz on the NBC drama “Chicago Fire.” Minoso’s unique NIU story and post-graduate experience in theater and television make him an ideal as star for this tribute to Huskies’ success.

This event, which borrows its name from a famous line of “Hail NIU,” the University’s alma mater, will honor the outstanding alumni and donors who help make NIU an engine for innovation, creativity and social mobility. It will also feature inspiring stories of scholarship recipients who are making their dreams come true.

If the kickoff show reaches 1,000 total views, it will unlock $100,000 towards student scholarships, thanks to a special giving challenge instituted by NIU Foundation board member John ’74, M.S. ’75, and Anne Landgraf, ’73.

Beginning at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 18, and going through 11:59 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 19, the Huskie community will come together for an online Day of Giving, supporting the NIU Foundation’s incredible scholarship and fundraising opportunities.

Alumni and friends are asked to dig deep and pull together to show that we are truly “Thousands Strong” by making a donation or being a champion for this important day of philanthropy. Gifts of all sizes will go a long way to helping ensure the next classes of Huskies have what they need to make the most of their time on campus.

Additionally, if 2,000 people donate, at any amount, during the Day of Giving, it will unlock another $400,000 challenge towards student scholarships, courtesy of the Landgrafs.

In addition, over the last few weeks, alumni and friends of the University had the opportunity to upload videos of themselves describing why they are proud to be among the “Thousands Strong” who represent NIU. On Nov. 20, the NIU Alumni Association will select video submissions to include in a special “Thousands Strong” highlight reel on its social media pages, which will also include some exciting celebrity messages.

To learn more about how you can take part in this special event and change NIU history for the better from your favorite spot on the couch, visit

Emily Vitrano, M.F.A. ’19, Enriches World Through the ‘Art of Theater’

Emily Vitrano, M.F.A. ’19, Enriches World Through the ‘Art of Theater’

Growing up in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, Emily Vitrano, M.F.A. ’19, was a very imaginative child. She had lots of time on her own, creating different worlds and playing in them for hours and hours.

“I was a very outgoing child and loved to make my older brothers laugh,” Vitrano said. “If they laughed, it was all worth it. When I was very small, I wanted to be a ballerina. But around 4th or 5th grade, I started doing plays with the local children’s theater and decided I wanted to be an actor.”

With that singular goal, Vitrano earned her B.F.A. from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro before coming to NIU for her master’s program.

Vitrano chose Northern because she felt she was missing something in her artistry. She found the missing piece in the classroom with the head of NIU’s M.F.A. Acting Program, Patricia Skarbinski, who developed a style of teaching acting called “Somatic Meisner” technique.

“My time at NIU was incredible,” she said. “It was a very special three years, steeped in deep artistic and personal growth. I loved every minute of our M.F.A. in acting program and training. My best memories are those made in acting class with Patricia Skarbinski. Patricia is the best teacher and mentor I have ever had, and I will never forget those three-hour classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays; we lost time together and it was truly a transformative experience.”

Vitrano says NIU and Skarbinski gave her the greatest gifts an acting student can be given—a reliable, safe, emotionally deep, structurally strong process.

“No matter the project, the director, the cast, I know I have a tried and true process that works for me and helps me to deliver the best of myself as an actor,” Vitrano said. “For me, fulfillment as an actor comes from the pursuit of something greater than myself. Chasing a moment, a breath, a place, a time, a character, a speech… it’s about the process of it all.”

Vitrano earned her M.F.A. from the program last year. Although Vitrano is actor first and foremost, she is also a teacher, writer and a lifelong student.

“I believe there is a very specific and special magic that happens in the theatre—in the coming together of a group of actors and a house full of strangers to discuss what it means to be human. I suppose, at its core, what I do is study the human condition,” she said.

Vitrano is currently preparing to play the role of Jenny in Next Act Theatre’s production of The Christians, by Lucas Hnath. This production will be available to audiences exclusively online from Nov. 23 to Dec. 13.

When she is not on stage, she is working as co-artistic director of The Outer Loop Theater Experience, a volunteer-based collaboration, driven by the challenge of enriching the world with important, inspiring and transformative theatrical experiences. The organization, based out of New York, also proudly encourages and develops the work of emerging playwrights and all artists.

“We strive to discover compelling stories that resonate with our audience, and we look for unique and engaging ways in which to tell them,” Vitrano said. “Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve produced two sold-out volumes of ‘The Empathy Project,’ and a live, 24-hour, international production called OneIronaut.”

“The Empathy Project” is a theatrical response to the strange and uncertain times we live in today. Vitrano and the team at Outer Loop are using this format to try to inspire empathy and reconnect to our shared humanity. The Outer Loop team is currently working on bringing the project to schools and universities around the country and the world.

Vitrano knows, now more than ever, that working as a paid actor is not a given. The last months of social distancing have severely challenged the entertainment industry, and most regional theaters are in survival mode, trying to adapt their seasons to the newfound virtual platform.

“I’m aware of how lucky I am to be working on The Christians with Next Act. The same is true about The Outer Loop and how quickly and impactfully we were able to shift our programming to respond to the needs of our artists and our community during this unprecedented time,” she said.

She credits some of what she learned at NIU with her ability to keep going and adapt in the face of adversity.

“Huskies have an uncompromising work ethic. We pursue our goals with integrity and tenacity. I’m very proud to be an NIU alumna,” she said.

This article originally appeared on the Alumni Association website. 

Black Playwrights Reading Series presents: “Sender” by Ike Holter

Black Playwrights Reading Series presents: “Sender” by Ike Holter

The final show in the NIU School of Theatre and Dance Black Playwrights Reading Series is “Sender” by Ike Holter, Sunday, November 16.

The reading will be live streamed on Zoom (passcode: 697381), at 7:30 p.m. “Doors” will open at 7 p.m. Following the reading, we invite you to stay on the same link for a talkback with the director, Michael Burke and cast, Theatre and Dance alumni Alys Dickerson, Kris Downing, Kylah Williams and Rotimi Agbabiaka.


SenderIke Holter’s Sender thrives on the contrast between order and chaos and the tensions that emerge as we leave childhood and adolescence behind to contend with the demands of “adulting.” In this comedy, Holter presents us with four millennial friends wrestling with these issues. While each is at a different stage of “growing up,” one of the friends has disappeared and has been presumed dead. Yet, at the beginning of the play, he returns and completely upends the balance established in his absence. This witty, foul mouthed, and razor-sharp play asks: “What does growing up mean . . . and is it even desired in this day and age?”

Sender is one of seven plays in Holter’s Rightlynd Saga, all to be published by Northwestern University Press. Holter’s plays are set in Chicago’s fictional fifty-first ward. The other plays in the cycle are Exit Strategy, Lottery DayProwessRed RexRightlynd, and The Wolf at the End of the Block.

Ike Holter

Ike HolterIke Holter is a 2017 winner of the Windham-Campbell Prize, one of the highest awards for playwriting in the world. Holter is a resident playwright at Victory Gardens Theater, and has been commissioned by The Kennedy Center, South Coast Rep and The Playwrights’ Center. His work has been produced across the country from Goodman and Steppenwolf in Chicago to the Lily Tomlin Center in LA to Primary Stages off-Broadway.



Rotimi AgbabiakaRotimi Agbabiaka (Lynx) most recently originated the roles of Salima in House of Joy (California Shakespeare Theatre) and Cellphone/Narrator in If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka (Playwrights Horizons, NYC). Other acting credits include Father Comes Home From the Wars (American Conservatory Theatre/Yale Repertory Theatre), Tom Waits’s Black Rider (Shotgun Players), Bootycandy (Brava Theater/BACCE, Theatre Bay Area award), originating the title role in runboyrun (Magic Theatre), and several shows with the Tony Award-winning San Francisco Mime Troupe. Rotimi penned the plays Type/Caste (Theatre Bay Area award), MANIFESTO, and Seeing Red; teaches performance to students from pre-school through college; and has graced nightlife stages around the world (as alter ego Miss Cleo Patois). He earned his MFA in Acting from NIU.

Kylah WilliamsKylah Williams (Tess) is a Chicago native and alumna of Northern Illinois University. With over 15 years of professional performance experience, she recently transitioned into the role of associate director of the Black Ensemble Theater in Chicago, where she also serves as head of several arts education programs. When she isn’t writing, directing, or teaching, she enjoys storytelling through audiobook narration.

Kris DowningKris Downing (Jordan) is an actor from Chicago. He received his BFA at Northern Illinois University. Recently, Kris has appeared in ads for Ford and Target as well as a guest spot on Chicago Fire, but he truly enjoys theatre as his first passion. Precious theatre credits include Frank in Melancholy Play, Himself in The Memo, Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, and an understudy for Ike Holter’s Red Rex.

Alys DickersonAlys Dickerson (Cassandra) is an actor, artist, and musician from Indianapolis, IN by way of Chicago, Illinois. Alys graduated with a Masters in acting, from Northern Illinois University in 2016 and has studied at the Moscow Art Theatre graduate certificate program of 2015. In 2020, Alys has moved her creative efforts into conversations around education, healing and change. Currently serving in education and building anti racist curriculum for conversations and learning ‘Race in Rural America’ at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Remembering her favorite roles played: Lady Macduff, Antigone, Lady in Green, The Jewish Wife.

Production Team

Brandon SappBrandon Sapp (Preshow Playlist) is 24 years old from Chicago, Illinois. His passion for acting stemmed from High School, being involved with the IHSA speech and debate team, where he learned the fundamentals of public speaking and competed in regional, state, and national competitions. Currently, he is a senior BFA in acting candidate at NIU. His play credits include: The Flick by Annie Baker, NIU’s devised production of Wonderfully Alice, The Shipment by Young Jean Lee, Your Excellency by James Henry Gooding, and Time of Your Life by William Saroyan. Brandon is happy to help with the cast of Bright Half Life and looks forward to supporting the Black Playwrights Reading Series.

Rachel SeabaughRachel Seabaugh (Poster Design) is a second-year MFA in scenic design candidate from St. Louis, Missouri. She received her Bachelor’s of Art in theatre in May 2019 from Truman State University.



Mikael BurkeMikael Burke (Director) is a Jeff-nominated director, deviser, and educator. A Princess Grace Award winner in Theatre and graduate of The Theatre School at DePaul University (MFA Directing), Mikael has most recently worked with Victory Gardens Theatre, Northlight Theatre, Jackelope Theatre Company, About Face Theatre, First Floor Theater, American Theatre Company, Chicago Dramatists, and The Story Theatre in Chicago, and regionally with Asolo Repertory Theatre, GEVA Theatre Center, and Indiana Repertory Theatre. A former Victory Gardens Theatre Director’s Inclusion Initiative Fellow, he recently served as Northlight Theatre’s inaugural artistic fellow and also serves as head of the directing concentration of the Summer High School Training Program of the Theatre School at DePaul University. Mikael is an adjunct faculty member of the Chicago College of the Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, and a faculty member in the theatre division of the National High School Institute (Cherubs) at Northwestern University. Recent directing credits include At the Wake of a Dead Drag Queen by Terry Guest; Beauty and the Beast by Lucy Kirkwood & Katie Mitchell; This Bitter Earth by Harrison David Rivers; and Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm.

Kay MartinovichKay Martinovich (Producer) is Associate Professor of Acting and Head of Performance here at NIU. She has produced the SoTD MFA/BFA Actor Showcase at Chicago’s Chopin Theater for the past six years. Her NIU directing credits are Lisa McGee’s Girls and Dolls, which was recently streamed live; A Bright New Boise by Samuel D. Hunter; A Skull in Connemara by Martin McDonagh; Middletown by Will Eno; Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage; The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek by Naomi Wallace; The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard; and Women In To Light (devised). Kay has a Ph.D. in theater historiography from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis and an M.Phil. in Irish theater and film studies from Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland. She is a proud member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC).

About the Black Playwrights Reading Series

Welcome to the Black Playwrights Reading Series sponsored by Northern Illinois University’s School of Theatre and Dance. We are proud to offer three readings of work by contemporary writers Tanya Barfield, Dael Orlandersmith, and Ike Holter, directed by Chicago-based director, deviser, and educator Mikael Burke, and featuring our talented alumni.

This series emerged from our desire to respond, as theatre artists and educators, to the ongoing protests for racial justice and equity. We affirm as a School that Black Lives Matter and that Black art matters.

To choose the plays for this series, three faculty members read dozens of plays by twentieth-and-twenty-first century Black playwrights before finally settling on a list of six plays, from which director Mikael Burke selected three. The series begins with New York-based playwright Tanya Barfield’s Lambda Award-winning Bright Half Life (2014). The play jumps backwards and forwards in time to create an affecting and complex portrait of an interracial relationship between two women. The next play, Yellowman (2002) by Dael Orlandersmith was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and dramatizes the impact of colorism on a fledgling romance. Chicago native Ike Holter’s Sender (2016) completes the series with his tale of four friends entering young adulthood. When one member of this tightly knit group disappears without a trace, they mourn him and move on. His sudden reappearance a year later disrupts all their lives.

These readings highlight the incredible talents of Black Voices and our Black and LGBTQ+ alums. We hope you enjoy the series and that you join us after each reading for a talkback with the director and each cast.

— Gibson Cima, Jeremy Floyd, Kay Martinovich
Committee on Black Playwrights Reading Series

“Sender” by Ike Holter
Northern Illinois University School of Theatre and Dance Black Playwrights Reading Series
Sunday, November 15, 7:30 p.m.
Zoom link
Passcode: 697381

Scenes from Black Lives Matter street mural painting

Scenes from Black Lives Matter street mural painting

Students, faculty, staff and community members joined together on Thursday, Oct. 1 on Castle Drive to enjoy music from the NIU Black Choir, percussion and jazz ensembles of the NIU School of Music and a performance by students in the NIU School of Theatre and Dance, and to paint “Black Lives Matter” on the street between Davis Hall and the east lagoon. The event was presented by the NIU Center for Black Studies and the College of Visual and Performing Arts.