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Graduating senior ‘calls the shots’ at Northwestern Commencement

Northwestern's student production team
Northwestern's Commencement student production team Beth Koehler, Amanda Sugiharto, Liza Alrutz and Carter Liebman. Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo.

Think Northwestern President Morton Schapiro has a big job? No one does anything at the University’s 161st Annual Commencement ceremony unless Liza Alrutz (’19) tells them to.

Through her headset, Alrutz, the ceremony’s production manager tells everyone when to line up, when to walk and when to talk.

“One of the most important jobs is to keep an eye out for line delays to avoid bottlenecks,” said Alrutz, a graduating senior in the School of Communication.

Alrutz is the first undergraduate student to call the cues for Northwestern’s Commencement. In the past, the job was done by a faculty member. In preparation, Alrutz chaired the production meetings all year. She has also served on the production crew for the past three years.

Julie Payne-Kirchmeier, interim vice president of Student Affairs, said the idea for students to call the Commencement production came from a plan she co-created with Kelly Schaeffer, assistant vice president for student engagement.

“At Student Affairs, we are committed to student learning, and our focus has always been strong on the co-curricular element,” Payne-Kirchmeier said. “Kelly and I wanted to find a way to better connect students to the Commencement program each year. This is a phenomenal way for a student interested in productions to get experience in helping run a large production like this.

“The students do it all,” Payne-Kirchmeier said. “They work on the entire program. At some point, the show is theirs, and they run it.”

Alrutz was supported by a team of fellow undergraduates, one from each class: rising senior Beth Koehler, rising junior Carter Liebman and the newest member of the team, Amanda Sugiharto, a rising sophomore. All team members were recruited from the student theater community.

Although the ceremony is meticulously planned and orchestrated, the nature of a live show is that unexpected things happen.

Last year when soprano Renée Fleming gave the Commencement address, rain poured down on the processional. Liebman sprang into action and held the umbrella for Fleming while she walked. When 2017 Commencement speaker Billie Jean King decided to bring up Northwestern’s women’s tennis team to hit balls into the audience, Alrutz discretely placed the basket of tennis balls on the stage.

As a graduating Wildcat, Alrutz had the option to sit with her graduating class or manage this 20,000-person event.

“It’s great to be a part of something bigger. I’ve enjoyed meeting so many Northwestern staff members, and it doesn’t have the more tedious parts of stage management, such as taking blocking notes or setting tape lines,” Alrutz said. “I have a lot of fun here with my team, and I will get to walk the stage at my School of Communication Convocation this weekend.”

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