The Varsity Show is one of the most ingrained student-driven traditions at Columbia, but to the cast and crew behind the show, the production in itself a rite of passage.
Founded in 1894, the Varsity Show is the oldest performing arts group on campus and has become rooted in the Columbia community—“Roar, Lion, Roar” is even based off of a Varsity Show tune. This sense of camaraderie and history has passed to the participants who inherit the rituals and rites of their predecessors, bonding members and alumni to each other and to Columbia.
One might say their indoctrination has a messy beginning: a pie to the face. The Varsity Show creative team goes to the actors’ dorms to throw pies in their faces to inform them that they made the cut, rather than making them go the conventional route of waiting by a door for a cast list posting.
V118 director and V116 actor Alex Hare joked that “getting pied in the face is definitely not delicious,” as the creative team just fills the empty pie tins with whipped cream, but it’s still one of the most memorable moments for any cast member.
“It was incredibly exciting and terrifying getting pied—the director of V116 took a series of pictures of me as I was pied and you can see my face change from confused to elated to just total fear,” Hare said.
As a pie-ing perpetrator, producer Hillary Kritt, BC ’12, maintains the experience is just as scary and fun from the other side. “It’s really scary ‘cause you don’t want to hurt them,” she said. “Somebody broke someone’s glasses one year.”
Despite the chaos of the inauguration, it lays the building blocks for their long-shared experience.
“It’s fun because it’s kind of the first community thing we do together,” Kritt said.
Even though the process vary from year to year, the creative team always ends up going back to the beginning, by watching past Varsity Shows and thinking about what else they can bring to the table on two annual weekend retreats.
“We spend a weekend or a little more than that holed up in a room coming up with ideas,” Kritt said. “That’s another thing about the Varsity Show—it’s like a very team-created piece—like we all go on the retreat together, we all come up with the plot together, and then the writers go off and write.”
Basic as the routine is, it’s a thing of tradition—going along with the ‘if it ain’t broke, why fix it?’ philosophy.
In part, the producers credit the alumni with passing down such time-honored traditions and procedures.
“The alumni are very involved in making sure these traditions go from year to year to year,” Kritt said. “Some feel very strongly about it, so it’s funny, in terms of making changes.”
Many alumni return to watch the show, but their participation also extends beyond just that of an audience member.
They’re a critical part of the infamous Turkey Day, when old members return to see a raw cut of the show. After the performance, the alumni meet with the show’s producers to critique the show—it’s where plot twists and entire characters are debated and occasionally thrown out. During last year’s Turkey Day, one of the most popular characters from the “West End Preview,” the “Frontiers of Science Cowboy,” was scrapped, much to the dismay of the writers.
This year, the writers reflected more positively on the hours-long ordeal.
“This year in particular was very constructive,” Harris said. “We had 60 alumni come and we talked for four hours …
It’s a really impressive showcase of the Varsity Show community and people come back—one of the people there did a Varsity Show in 1958.”
From Turkey Day onwards, the cast is thrown into a whirlwind of practices, often working late into night and spending hours exclusively with their cast mates.
“Not only is the creative team a second family but the whole Varsity Show community is, just ’cause of how much time we spend together,” Harris said.
Perhaps the best-known side of the Varsity Show among the average Columbia student is the sense of mystery around the show. The theme, like most other details surrounding the production, isn’t even unveiled until the opening night.
“We do that for the community, so that the audience gets a surprise performance basically—so you get into the room and you don’t know what you’re getting till you get the program. You see the title and as the show goes on, you’re just sort of surprised by what’s going to happen,” Kritt said. “For that reason, and also because the show is always changing. Like literally, we’ve cut numbers like two days ago so we don’t want to tell you guys something that’s not going to be real.”
Whether throwing pies or making Morningside Heights excursions for a humorous photo shoot, the quirky and practical traditions help temper the Varsity Show’s grueling schedule—they also may be why the show is celebrating its 118th year.
Charlotte Murtishaw contributed reporting.