When Northeastern hosts Trevor Noah, host of “The Daily Show,” for a conversation with students on Thursday, it will be a brief return to pre-COVID-19 tradition. In years past, many of the biggest headliners on the Boston campus have been comedians or rappers, from John Mulaney and Tina Fey to 2Chainz and Logic.
But with the notable exception of Noah, the virtual lineup of star attractions in the pandemic era has largely shifted to YouTubers and other online creators.
That’s just one of the ways that the Northeastern student group Council of University Programs, or CUP, has had to adapt, bringing new ideas to their programming. The group usually puts on 12 to 15 events per semester. And its president, Victoria Pacheco, says planning events around a virtual stage forced them to rethink what type of entertainers they should book.
“Instead of saying ‘who’s going to fill this space?,’ it’s really now about asking ‘who’s going to engage [the audience], and who do people really want to see?,’” Pacheco says. “Being virtual has allowed us to break out of that container, and bring people who normally wouldn’t come at all.”
Since May, the Council of University Programs has hosted the likes of Shea Couleé, a popular drag queen who gave a behind-the-scenes look at her makeup routine; Andrew Rea, better known for his culinary YouTube channel ‘Binging with Babish;’ and David Dobrik, a YouTube star famous for his daily video blogs.
From muted audio to sudden camera outages, each virtual event over the summer presented growing pains that the student group had to overcome.
“Everyone was so familiar with their in-person roles of how things go—we know how to produce and direct in the moment—but when we had to switch to virtual, it seemed like we had to also become IT support,” says Madeline O’Hara, the group’s vice president of marketing. “We just weren’t really prepared for that.”
Pacheco says the shift in programming stemmed from the need to social distance and respond to the news. She vividly remembers when the group had to cancel Springfest, a large concert it organizes every April. It was like a “sucker punch to the gut,” she says.
And over the summer, when the pandemic coincided with widespread protests for racial justice, Pacheco says she realized that students needed a forum where they could hear different views, and engage with one another on current events.
“It’s not just about trying to disconnect and forget, but also connecting and remembering in a different way that’s not just absorbing the harsh news,” says Pacheco, who is studying finance and management of information systems. “I don’t think we’ve had an artist or entertainer that doesn’t talk about current events, but they’re able to talk about it in a way that connects with the audience.”
As the group gears up for its biggest event of the fall this week, O’Hara says it is also planning several smaller, more interactive events to encourage more connection between students.
“Students are really leaning toward these other ways to find community, whether they’re at home or on campus,” says O’Hara. “We’re trying to find ways to bolster the community aspects of our events through additional Zoom calls or virtual trivia nights. It doesn’t have to be a performance all the time.”