Welcome to Penn State: The musical

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa — Within hours of getting keys, moving into a dorm room and saying goodbye to parents and family members, more than 3,500 first-year Penn State students will venture out of their rooms to an interactive experience that should set their emotions in high gear, and hopefully prepare them for a smoother and smarter transition to college life. 

Stepping out of the ordinary activities of New Student Orientation and Welcome Week, Penn State leaders have opted to give the incoming Class of 2022 a debut theater performance that tackles tough — but very real — scenarios, like finding academic success, avoiding pitfalls, alcohol use and other realities of life on a college campus.

By students, for students

Not shy about discussing sex, consent, alcohol, drugs and peer pressure, the interactive theater experience titled “Results Will Vary*” was written by students for students — making the show as true to life as possible.

A mix of actors, vocalists, writers, dancers and musicians were recruited from Penn State’s School of Theatre to write and produce the show from scratch. The show uses storytelling, sketch comedy and songs to educate first-year students about what is generally one of the biggest transitions in their young lives, complete with awkward moments and difficult challenges.

"We’re transporting ourselves back in time to channel emotions we had when we attended New Student Orientation (NSO), and sharing what we know now and what we wish we knew then," said Jasmine Forsberg, a cast member and sophomore in the School of Theatre. "Having current students talk directly to new students is what makes the show more relatable than a pamphlet or seminar. We're really striving for new students to be able to see themselves in our stories. It's personal for the audience, and for us."

First-year students learn about college life through theatre and song

During Welcome Week, first-year Penn State students at University Park will attend a debut performance of Results Will Vary*, an interactive theater production that explores realities of life as a Penn State student. Written and performed by students in the School of Theatre, the show uses stories, sketch comedy and songs to explore topics like diversity and inclusion, alcohol and drug use, sexual assault prevention and consent, and more. 

Curtis Parker

The eight-member cast spent the summer infusing their own experiences, voices and advice into the 30-minute production.

The show flows from sketch, to song, to punchline like an episode of "Saturday Night Live" — mostly funny, but at times serious. A mix of rap, '90s R&B, ballads and pop songs — like "Residence Hall Rap Battle" and "Falling in Love at Penn State" — examine issues like transitioning to life on a big campus, solving problems with roommates, and engaging with peers on social media with civility.

"Our show is unique in that it is entirely written and performed by students, since they're truly the best experts on their own experiences," said Sonia DeLuca Fernández, associate vice provost for educational equity. "We specifically wanted the cast to use language they use in real life, in order to give the audience permission to engage in topics they might not have been previously exposed to, such as making decisions about whether to drink at a party or how to have respectful conversations related to diversity and inclusion."

A cornerstone of the production focuses on safety, minimizing risk, sexual assault prevention and consent, decision making, bystander intervention and the University's Responsible Action Protocol, and specific examples for when and how to call 911 or campus police — with a '40s-inspired chorus line repeating the police phone number throughout the show.

“We’re already talking about these topics as part of NSO and Welcome Week, but this show is a visual and emotional way to package and deliver these messages so they resonate with students more fully,” said Dan Murphy, director of Student Orientation and Transition Programs. “From the get-go, we want students to feel like they're part of a community and to know what the expectations are for being in this community."

Whether it's dealing with homesickness, understanding the importance of consent, or getting locked out of a residence hall late at night, Murphy said he wants students to walk away from the performance better prepared to face a variety of situations after having identified with at least one character, scenario or song in the show.

The cast also developed a series of PSA-style vignettes about on-campus resources and support centers, including Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), Paul Robeson Cultural Center (PRCC), LGBTQA Student Resource Center, University Health Services, Pasquerilla Spiritual Center and Lion's Pantry.

For Forsberg, her personal experiences with CAPS was the inspiration for a song she wrote.

"Everyone struggles with something — whether it's anxiety, grades, a relationship, body image or finances — and CAPS was really helpful for me as a first-year student," Forsberg said. "Music is a language of its own and has a way of connecting with others when words can't, so I wanted to address the stigma of therapy through a song, and share the message that therapy is for everyone. You're not weak if you go and talk to someone."

Kamryn Harris, a cast member and senior in the School of Theatre, discovered her favorite resource center as a junior, and, like Forsberg, channeled her story into a song about the cultural center. 

"After I went to the PRCC for the first time, I knew I had a found a really safe space for people of color at Penn State," Harris said.  "I never want any student to feel like this campus is too big and they're too small or unsure about how to ask for help.”

Art meets assessment

While other universities do sometimes use short skits as part of orientation activities, only a handful employ musical theater, acting, visual arts and live music like Penn State's, according to Murphy.  

"Our ultimate goal is to have a measurable impact on students," said DeLuca Fernández.

After viewing "Results Will Vary*," students will take a follow-up survey to gauge their recall and opinions about the information and topics presented.

Following a preview performance earlier this summer, initial results indicate that more than 80 percent of students said they would definitely call for help for a friend in need, 62 percent memorized the phone number for campus police and 60 percent identified CAPS as a resource they learned about for the first time after watching the show.

As a supplement, students also will participate in follow-up activities with their orientation leaders and can use the show as a jumping-off point for conversations with resident advisers and faculty members. Starting in summer 2019, the goal is for the production to be performed daily for incoming students at University Park as a feature of NSO with plans to expand similar interactive arts efforts to other campuses in the future.

"As we move forward, we will develop assessment tools, gather data and measure effectiveness to continue to shape the show in ways that best support our incoming students,” said Murphy.  

Student Affairs, Educational Equity, Undergraduate Education, the School of Theatre and the Center for Pedagogy in Arts and Design collaborated to develop “Results Will Vary*,” which will premiere Aug. 23 for first-year students at University Park.  

Last Updated September 14, 2018