PennFest NYC: Bright Lights, Big City, Big Talent

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Different people surely had their own defining moments for the PennFest NYC event this past June. One came fairly late in the evening, when John Stephens C’01 sat at the piano, slaying the audience with a delicious, gut-tickling cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” As he sang, a tall young guy near the stage stood behind his lady friend, arms wrapped gently around her, both of them swaying to the music. Most of the crowd was swaying, too, and for a moment the whole scene seemed straight out of the movie High Fidelity.

Stephens was just one of five musical acts and a couple of dozen filmmakers and performers showcasing their stuff at the sold-out PennFest NYC. More than 500 people—many but by no means all of them Penn alumni—crammed into the Knitting Factory in Tribeca to hear live music, see the work of up-and-coming filmmakers and performers, schmooze, and otherwise immerse themselves in a Penn-centric world of arts and entertainment.

The evening was the result of a lot of hard work and over-the-top enthusiasm by a core group of New York alumni, especially Hayley Lattman C’97, the event’s director; Melissa Donald C’98, PennFest’s film coordinator; and music coordinator John Gottstein C’97. (Gottstein is also the front-man for the high-voltage SSRi, which cranked out some rousing, high-testosterone metal anthems with verve—and Gottstein’s disarming smile.)

They also had considerable help from PennNYC—especially Karen Chance C’99, assistant director of the Global Alumni Network in New York —and from the model that had been created out in Los Angeles by Matt Rosler C’96.

“I actually read about PennFest in the Gazette” [“Alumni Profiles,” May/June 2002], said Lattman. “I saw that Matt Rosler had started it in L.A., and I just thought it was an incredible, exciting idea, and something that was needed. Because when you think of Penn, you think of pre-professionalism, and you don’t think about people who are doing really amazing artistic endeavors throughout the country.” Rosler encouraged her to give it a try in New York, and offered more than just encouragement: He and his Penn Club Los Angeles colleagues had put together a 20-page PennFest Planning Manual to be used by other host cities. 

Donald and Gottstein also had concluded that New York-area alumni in (or aspiring to be in) the arts and entertainment professions needed an outlet and a means for networking, since an arts and entertainment alumni community had “not really galvanized in New York City.”

After reviewing tapes of a number of Penn comedians, the three settled on Aaron Karo W’01—a standup comic and author of Ruminations on College Life and an emailed newsletter (also called Ruminations)—to be the event’s emcee [“Laugh It Up,” March/April].

After the show, Karo suggested that it wasn’t his most successful night as a stand-up comic. But he kept the evening moving at a crisp pace, and he got his share of laughs along the way.

“Other schools wouldn’t do this,” he said of PennFest. “I think it’s really special that we’re doing this—and turnout has been huge. And I think this is just a portent of bigger and better things to come.”

Enigmatic illusion, a dynamic style, a Penn education and an offbeat sense of humor … meet the magician who could make the Quaker disappear faster than you can say, “Hey, where’s my Smoke’s VIP card?”

That would be Ryan Oakes C’00, conjurer, who did some baffling things with ropes, defused a would-be heckler (“I acted the same way the first time I got drunk”), and offered a lively, sometimes-dazzling presentation and patter. And he did in fact make himself disappear from inside a large wooden box, with the help of a lithe assistant. But you had to be there to see it—or not.

Springtime on Locust Walk
Everywhere I go
I see pretty girls
I want to know …

It’s not often that a band performing in a Manhattan nightclub plays paeans to Locust Walk, and nearly all of the audience knows exactly what he’s singing about. The lyrics sounded better when backed by their author’s band: The Bobby Fingeroth Band, whose guitar-based songs featured a searing electric violin, bass, and drums as well as the melodious vocals of Bobby Fingeroth C’97, a former diplomatic-history major at Penn. He diplomatically dedicated one song to former Penn quarterback (and current Atlanta Braves infielder) Mark DeRosa W’97 and suggested that another song was actually about former Quaker basketball star Matt Maloney C’95.

The two other musical acts were the multicultural Aquavibe, which featured Derek Lee C’97 on guitar and offered a powerful, richly layered sound that melded a range of styles—hip hop, trip hop, funk, soul, and jazz—into what they called “the People’s Groovement.” And Brooke Wurst C’94 provided able guitar accompaniment for the soulful torch songs of Lucy Keating.

The two dozen film clips were presented in three discrete blocks, each lasting about 15 minutes, which meant that no individual clip lasted more than two minutes. Stylistically, they ranged from Alan Dorfman C’00’s outrageous The UK of A and Shane Stein C’00’s I Wish My Beer Was As Cold As Your Heart to Adam Hertzog C’95’s Sportscasters: Behind the Mike to Neil Chatterjee EAS’01’s dazzling animation, Carsus Corporeus. While that condensed approach had the advantage of offering a broad mix of styles and visions in a short amount of time, the rapid-fire pacing sometimes overwhelmed the impressive individual efforts.

“We’re already thinking about things that we’re going to do a little bit differently for next year,” said Lattman. 

On the whole, she described herself as “ecstatic” with the way the evening had gone. “It exceeded my expectations,” she added, “and I think that this is something that can go on for many years.” 


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