Virtual Classrooms Deliver Real Advantage for UM Education Majors

Mixed-reality teaching experience helps students develop skills

UM senior Bre Comley (left) and graduate student Gabby Vogt interact with student avatars through Mursion. Last school year, 800 students in the School of Education practiced with the cutting-edge technology system and are required to use it at least twice as part of their coursework before graduating. Photo by Megan Wolfe/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – Meet Ava and Dev. They are in middle school. Ava is quick-thinking and decisive and likes to be challenged with new ideas and concepts. Dev is a rule-follower who is self-driven with high standards.

Ava and Dev are not your average students. In fact, they are not even real students at all. They are avatars in a virtual classroom at the University of Mississippi School of Education, where education majors are gaining valuable, hands-on teaching experience even before their student teaching.

Mursion, originally called TeachLive, is a cutting-edge technology that delivers customized virtual reality training to provide professional challenges that exist in the job every day.

Developed at the University of Central Florida, Mursion is being used at more than 85 campuses in the United States. Since 2012, Mursion has grown at UM. Last school year, 800 students in the School of Education practiced with the system and are required to use it at least twice as part of their coursework before graduating.

“Through Mursion, the mistakes students used to make in front of real students can now be made in front of avatars,” said Tom Brady, the school’s Mursion coordinator and a clinical associate professor. “This way, a student can watch back for feedback and see themselves teaching for the first time.

“Students are able to see how they miss student avatars falling asleep or on their phone; until this iteration, it may go unnoticed for two or three minutes.”

UM elementary education major Scarlett McCombs interacts with student avatars via Mursion. Photo by Megan Wolfe/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

Mursion is designed so that if a student does not do well, there are no consequences because the avatars just forget and the student can start again. If the teacher does that in the classroom, the kids don’t forget.

Since all the qualities of the virtual classroom are controlled by a faculty member teaching the class, students who feel they did poorly can re-enter the virtual classroom and teach the lesson again without having affected student learning. Depending on the lesson objectives, sessions typically last anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes.

The system works from two ends. From one end, a teacher interacts with a screen showing a classroom with multiple avatar personalities. On the other end, a trained actor candidly speaks through a voice modulator and mimics certain movements through handheld controllers, basing reactions on predetermined personality traits of the Mursion students.

“The actors work very hard on changing their pitch just a little bit, and through the modulator, a 20-year-old woman can sound like a 13-year-old boy,” Brady said.

As of now, two actors provide all the voices. Each session is organic and personal; they are not scripted, but personality descriptions of each avatar are provided for a foundational, yet unique, experience.

Abby Wilson, a senior theatre major from Oxford, learned about Mursion through David Rock, UM education dean, who saw her perform in several high school productions.

Once the Mursion acting job opened up, he reached out to see if Wilson would be interested. She uses her theater background to help her act out as a middle schooler behind the screen. But there is a lot more to the job than just acting, Wilson said.

“The job is way more technical than anything else,” she said. “Before this, I had never even picked up an Xbox controller.”

Much like activating a Kinect or Xbox, the user walks in front of a Kinect cable until the system confirms he or she is identified. The avatars have many controls to react back to the teacher, much like those on an Xbox or Wii controller. Through a wireless connection, the teacher can be heard and seen as he or she interacts with the virtual students on the screen.

Scarlett McCombs, a master’s student in elementary education from Oxford, is another Mursion student actor. While Wilson’s experience covers acting, McCombs’ covers the classroom.

“Many candidates do not have much experience with public speaking or working with children, and the Mursion experience scaffolds them toward success in both of these areas through providing the most authentic virtual experience we can,” McCombs said.

Together, their qualifications and studies make the perfect fit for a realistic and credible student classroom experience.

By having real humans behind the virtual students, the sessions mimic the everyday parts of being a teacher very well. Specifically, student behaviors are designed to challenge the teachers, occasionally even lashing out or acting inappropriately.

Scarlett McCombs interacts with student avatars via Mursion. Photo by Megan Wolfe/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

A new dynamic soon will be introduced to the classroom, when UM faculty will add a student who struggles with dyslexia and a friend who mocks them in class.

“If you see these sorts of things for the first time in a real classroom, you are more likely to crash and burn and let down some real kids, but instead, they are seeing it here first,” Brady said.

The avatars act on three levels. The first level requires student avatars to act relatively obedient; if they “goof-off” and are disciplined by the teacher, they will immediately listen and get back on task.

The second level generates pushback, and avatars may speak inappropriately to the teacher. They may fall asleep, play on their phones or “air-drum” on their desks when they are not interested in what the teacher has to say.

The hardest level generates the kids to not let the teacher get anything done; it is not used in either section for the Ole Miss classes.

Larry Christman, aka “Mr. C,” is a retired Oxford Elementary School principal and the Mursion lab facilitator. Christman is usually in the room with the students as a coach and evaluator.

Christman began facilitating Mursion about seven years ago and has dealt with many nervous students over the years.

“Most of my students have never taught a lesson or even stood before a group of peers and made any kind of public speaking,” he said. “I tell them it’s normal to feel some anxiety. That, hopefully, it will help them when they go to student teach.”

There is no such thing as perfect performance in a Mursion session. Christman said his role is to help students learn to be adaptable in the sometimes unpredictable profession of teaching.

“Several years ago, I had a young lady who got up to teach her lesson and started crying,” Christman said. “She just froze up! My graduate assistant and I took her out in the hallway. We consoled her.

“I told her to go back in the room and complete her lesson. She then did a wonderful job!”

Mursion is required for all students, but it is not graded. It is used for feedback. This helps create a more realistic and calm environment for students to develop into teachers.

“I learned a lot from the two TeachLive sessions that I completed,” said Lizzy Sloan, a senior elementary education major from New Canaan, Connecticut. “They were both very meaningful experiences. I learned that it is normal to feel nervous before teaching students, especially for the first time, and to work through those feelings.

“TeachLive helped me feel more confident with regards to my teaching abilities because I was able to receive immediate feedback from Mr. C.”

The university is helping Mursion grow across state lines, too, specifically to Alabama. Jan Miller, dean of the College of Education at the University of West Alabama, was thrilled to incorporate Mursion into the curriculum after hearing from Ole Miss users.

“Integrating Mursion into our educator preparation program helps to provide opportunities to start teaching on day one with more proficiency in classroom management and more confidence in the pedagogy of teaching,” Miller said.

Using Mursion early in the education program ensures candidates will be better prepared for future professional experiences, she said. With the help of UWA, UM is continuing to push Mursion expansion efforts across the country.

UM graduate student Gabby Vogt interacts with student avatars via Mursion. Photos by Megan Wolfe / Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

Mursion also has room to grow at UM. Rooms are available for off-site locations such as Southaven and Tupelo, using the actors in Oxford.

“We can do more … there is room to expand to offering sessions all week long,” Brady said.

Last year, UM faculty added a counseling session with virtual parents. This “parent-teacher meeting” will act as a new dynamic for the students, because teaching not only involves children, but also their parents. This will allow students to learn to deal with many different kinds of parent personalities.

“Students are trained on communication strategies they might use for 11 difficult parent types they might encounter in the TeachLive simulation,” said Sara Platt, UM clinical assistant professor of special education. “These parents might be helicopter parents, disengaged parents, intimidating or threatening parents, or parents who are not concerned with school at all.”

Platt and Debbie Chessin, retired associate professor of education, worked on this course for to give Ole Miss students opportunities to apply data evaluation and communication skills.

“This is the time for (students) to make the mistakes and receive guidance, so they should have no fear,” Platt said.

A 2018 evaluation from the School of Education found that almost 90 percent of Ole Miss education students believe the Mursion simulation feels like a real classroom and that they are more confident to teach real students after their experience. Additionally, more than 90 percent of students say they would recommend the Mursion experience to peers who want to be teachers.

“I tell the students that nothing will take the place of flesh-and-blood students, but Mursion is a close second,” Christman said.

Retired New York Times Journalist Named Overby Center Senior Fellow

Greg Brock will share insights from distinguished career as center's latest honoree

Greg Brock. Photo by Steve Crowley/The New York Times

OXFORD, Miss. – Veteran journalist Greg Brock, whose 43-year-career included positions at some of the country’s largest and most respected newspapers, has been named a senior fellow at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at the University of Mississippi.

His appointment was announced by Charles Overby, chairman of the Overby Center, an institute devoted to creating a better understanding of the media, politicians and the role of the First Amendment in our democracy.

Brock recently retired from The New York Times, where he worked for 20 years in a number of leadership capacities. He was senior editor for standards, news editor of the Washington bureau, news editor on the international desk and deputy political editor for the 1996 presidential campaign.

“Greg Brock has had a career filled with accomplishments,” Overby said. “He will bring his insights and experience to Ole Miss in a way that will benefit students and all who come in contact with the Overby Center.”

Brock said he is honored to join the Overby Center and that he looks forward to working with the other distinguished members of the center.

“Just when I thought I was ready for retirement, Charles Overby honored me with this fellowship, truly a capstone to my career,” Brock said. “I am especially delighted to be a part of the center because I get to work with Charles and Curtis Wilkie, the inaugural fellow, both of whom are nationally recognized for elevating the standards of journalism throughout their careers.”

Before joining The Times, Brock spent almost a decade at The Washington Post, where he had several editing positions, including night city editor and a news editor for the front page.

He began his career in Florida at The Palm Beach Post. He later worked at The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, The San Francisco Examiner and the Louisville (Ky.) Journal.

Brock was a 1994 fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University and later served on the foundation’s advisory board for 10 years.

A native of Crystal Springs, Brock graduated from UM in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. At Ole Miss, he worked for The Daily Mississippian as a reporter, news editor and managing editor.

He was president of the student chapter of Sigma Delta Chi/Society of Journalists and was chosen by the faculty as the Sigma Delta Chi Outstanding Graduate in Journalism.

In 2012, the UM School of Journalism and New Media awarded him the Sam Talbert Silver Em Award, given to a Mississippi-connected journalist whose career has exhibited “the highest tenets of honorable, public service journalism, inside or outside the state.”

Besides his work at the Overby Center, Brock is an adjunct instructor at the journalism school.

‘Great Russian Nutcracker’ Tour Brings Holiday Spirit to UM

Young dancers from across north Mississippi get chance to perform with Moscow Ballet

Performers in the Moscow Ballet’s ‘Great Russian Nutcracker’ dance during a party scene in the show that is coming to the UM Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts at 7:30 p.m. Friday (Nov. 30). Image courtesy of Moscow Ballet

OXFORD, Miss. – The Moscow Ballet’s “Great Russian Nutcracker” is coming to the University of Mississippi’s Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts at 7:30 p.m. Friday (Nov. 30).

The Moscow Ballet has toured annually with the “Great Russian Nutcracker” since 1993. This year, the show is being performed in more than 100 cities, featuring the Russian Vaganova ballet and 64 local dancers in each city performing across hand-painted sets for a true holiday experience.

Julia Aubrey, Ford Center director and UM associate professor of music, hired local dance teacher Lydia Siniard to teach choreography to 64 young north Mississippi dancers who were selected by Moscow Ballet audition director Yuriy Kuzi to perform with the troupe.

“It is an extraordinary opportunity for these young dancers to appear with a professional ballet company,” Aubrey said. “I know their family and friends will cherish the memory of seeing the children on stage for a magical two hours.”

The selected dancers, who will perform in specific dances throughout the program, were chosen from 109 children who auditioned Sept. 11. The group has practiced every Sunday afternoon since the audition.

“The Ford Center is dedicated to offering arts opportunities for our local children,” Aubrey said. “Whether it is music, theater or dance performances, I want to provide our young people with a chance to practice their art and express themselves as unique individuals. To see them smiling and excited about their time on the Ford stage is an incredible reward.”

Kate Meacham, Ford Center marketing director, said she is looking forward to the production coming to the community. The two-act ballet of “The Nutcracker” has been presented at the Ford Center in 2004 and 2013, but not by the Moscow Ballet.

The ‘Great Russian Nutcracker’ features a new character from the original storyline, the Dove of Peace. Two dancers balance and leverage with each other to create the white dove with a 20-foot wingspan. The Moscow Ballet brings the show to the UM Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts at 7:30 p.m. Friday (Nov. 30). Image courtesy of Moscow Ballet

“It’s such magical show and holiday tradition,” Meacham said. “I hope the audience takes the sense of magic and wonder that is such a part of ‘The Nutcracker.'”

“The Nutcracker” is a fairy tale story about Masha, a young Russian girl who dreams that her toy nutcracker transforms into a prince to protect her from villains such as the Mouse King.

The “Great Russian Nutcracker” features a new character from the original storyline, the Dove of Peace, and the character is instrumental in one of the production’s many highlights. When the Dove of Peace escorts Masha and the Nutcracker Prince to the Land of Peace and Harmony at the start of Act II, two dancers balance and leverage with each other to create one stunning soaring white dove with a 20-foot wingspan.

A limited number of tickets remain available, so those planning to attend the performance are encouraged to buy tickets soon.

Tickets are $50 for orchestra/parterre and Tier 1 Box-level seating, $45 for mezzanine and Tier 2 Box-level seating, and $40 for balcony seating. A 10 percent discount is offered to UM faculty, staff and retirees. Discounted tickets for UM students are $20 for balcony seats only.

Tickets can be purchased at the UM Box Office at the Ford Center or online at http://fordcenter.org/. Discounted and student tickets are available only at the Box Office with a valid UM ID.

For more information on the performance, visit http://fordcenter.org/event/moscow-ballets-great-russian-nutcracker/.

Mississippi River Pollution Topic of Next Science Cafe

UM professor speaking on water contamination, solutions at Nov. 13 event

Inoka Widanagamage

OXFORD, Miss. – Protecting the Mississippi River and preserving farming communities in the state is the focus of this month’s Oxford Science Cafe.

The monthly program, organized by the University of Mississippi Department of Physics and Astronomy, will feature Inoka Widanagamage, UM instructional assistant professor of geology and geological engineering. It is set for 6 p.m. Tuesday (Nov. 13) at Uptown Coffee, 265 North Lamar Blvd.

Widanagamage, a low-temperature geochemist, said she hopes to educate the community on the types of pollution affecting the “Mighty Mississippi.”

She plans to discuss the negative effects that industrial and farming pollution are having on the Mississippi River, one of the most polluted waterways in North America. She will propose solutions to the river’s many environmental problems and discuss steps that can be taken to protect and improve agricultural lands negatively affected by the river.

“(The Oxford Science Cafe) is really an important program where you can reach out to the community and share knowledge,” Widanagamage said. “It will help the community to understand the importance of protecting the Mississippi River.”

The Oxford Science Cafe, launched in October 2011, takes place monthly during the fall and spring semesters and is free to the public. The event features a speaker who gives a short lecture on any topic in the science field, followed by a question-and-answer session.

The topic of pollution and its impact on the health of Mississippians and the state’s economy is one that needs to be examined and discussed by the community, said Marco Cavaglia, professor of physics and astronomy and Science Café organizer.

“I think it is very important for people to hear about science, especially science that we do here at the University of Mississippi,” Cavaglia said. “Students in particular may benefit from Science Café lectures to complement what they learn in classes. We discuss topics that are often not covered in class.”

For more information, visit http://www.phy.olemiss.edu/oxfordsciencecafe/.

Gospel Choir to Host Fall Concert

Group celebrates 45th anniversary with Saturday show

The UM Gospel Choir performs its annual fall concert Saturday (Nov. 10) in Nutt Auditorium. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – The University of Mississippi Gospel Choir will host its annual fall concert at 7 p.m. Saturday (Nov. 10) in Nutt Auditorium.

Free and open to the public, the concert will feature a number of special guests, including the Coahoma Community College Gospel Choir and the Rev. LaDarrell James.

This year’s concert is particularly notable, as it marks the 45th anniversary of the Gospel Choir on campus, said Jarrius Adams, the choir’s president.

“I am overjoyed to celebrate (the choir’s) 45th year at the University of Mississippi,” Adams said. “I think it symbolizes longevity and the foundation that our founder, Linda Taylor, laid back in 1974.

“I am proud to say that 45 years later, our goal is the same and our mission has never changed.”

Though the public can expect enthusiastic and dynamic performances throughout the entire show, Adams pointed to one moment that he thinks will be particularly poignant.

“The highlight of our concert will be our Aretha Franklin tribute, featuring a guest performance from former UMGC director Zsa’Xhani Davis,” Adams said. “We will be performing a medley of songs in honor of Franklin, one of the most iconic voices in music history. We will pay tribute to her legacy and celebrate her contributions to gospel and soul music.”

For more information about the UM Gospel Choir, visit http://dos.orgsync.com/org/umgc/home or UM Gospel Choir on Facebook or email umgospelchoir@gmail.com.

Community Invited to Public Archaeology Day at Rowan Oak

UM students to discuss artifacts found at Faulkner's home at Nov. 10 event

UM staff members and students participate in the 2016 Public Archaeology Day at Rowan Oak. Photo by Marlee Crawford/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – University of Mississippi archaeology students will get a chance to share their field work with the community when they host a Public Archaeology Day on Saturday (Nov. 10) at Rowan Oak.

Free and open to all ages, the Public Archaeology Day event is set for 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Rowan Oak, home of American literary giant William Faulkner, is off Old Taylor Road in Oxford. Visitors can expect to see some of the artifacts the class has discovered on the property, as well as learn about the different methods for surveys and shovel tests used by Ole Miss archaeologists.

Tony Boudreaux, director of the Center for Archaeological Research, teaches the anthropology class hosting this event.

“The goal of this class is to teach students how to present archaeology to nonarchaeologists,” Boudreaux said. “Part of what we’re going to be doing out at Rowan Oak is giving students the opportunity to practice this with interested members of the general public.”

The class has been working at Rowan Oak to learn more about the pre-Civil War period, Boudreaux said. Students in the class say this work is particularly meaningful because most existing information regarding Rowan Oak pertains only to when Faulkner owned the home and property.

“Many aspects of archaeology are not pretty, but they are meaningful,” said Arianna Kitchens, a sophomore anthropology major from Collins. Also a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, she plans to use the work at Rowan Oak for her honors thesis.

“The archaeology of slavery is most certainly one of these aspects. Our aim is to uncover the daily activities of the slaves who certainly had a great impact on the property as well as in the community of Oxford.”

Faulkner bought the home and property in the 1930s, but this land was initially settled in the mid-1800s by a slaveholder named Robert Sheegog.

“We hope to build on the already existing narrative of life at Rowan Oak to include the story of Robert Sheegog and his slaves,” Kitchens said.

Students and teachers alike are excited for the opportunity this event presents.

“The Public Archaeology Day is a great opportunity to share our research in an educational format,” said Hannah Rhodes, a master’s student in anthropology from Knoxville, Tennessee, who is specializing in archaeology.

“The public can come learn not only about the archaeological methods used at the property, but also gain a more holistic understanding of the property’s positioning within the history of the city of Oxford. Our students look forward to discussing these topics with the public.”

Regional Bank Gives Business Students a Behind-the-Scenes Look

Trustmark hosted students from five Mississippi universities for a day of learning

Brooke Meeks, talent acquisition officer for Trustmark National Bank, speaks to a group of business students from around the state at Trustmark’s inaugural ‘Behind-the-Scenes’ event at its headquarters in Jackson. Photo by Kena Smith

JACKSON, Miss. – University of Mississippi business students gained insights into how banks make money, ensure positive customer experiences and connect with local communities, among other topics, at an inaugural “Behind-the-Scenes” experience hosted by Trustmark National Bank.

The event, held Nov. 2 at Trustmark’s Jackson headquarters, included students from five universities: UM, Alcorn State University, Jackson State University, Mississippi State University and the University of Southern Mississippi. The students were business majors with a minimum GPA of 2.5. 

“The goal of Trustmark corporate was to partner with universities to give students interested in corporate finance, banking and wealth management the opportunity to learn more about these roles in a corporate bank setting,” said Amy Jo Carpenter, career planning specialist at the Ole Miss School of Business Administration. “I believe that good information helps make good decisions, and this type of event offers firsthand knowledge about fields you cannot learn in the classroom.”

The event was conceived by Rita Floyd, director of organizational development for Trustmark, to better educate business students on how financial services companies operate and the various types of employment opportunities available after graduation.

“I recruit for our management training program and corporate internship program, and we have seen a decline in interest over the years,” Floyd said. “So I felt we needed this opportunity to showcase what we have to offer.”

The students, staff, and faculty received a glimpse of Trustmark’s culture, financial operations, core values and vision. The bank’s size and strength demonstrates a regional powerhouse – approaching $14 billion in total assets – with a broad scope of financial services offered and range of career options.

The day included speakers and panelists representing various lines within the banking industry, such as general banking, insurance, wealth management, mortgage, risk management and lending. Trustmark CEO Jerry Host joined the students for lunch.

UM business students take part in the inaugural Trustmark National Bank ‘Behind-the-Scenes’ event in Jackson. Participating students include (from left) Jeremiah Morgan, Winn Medlock, Amy Jo Carpenter, Aldyn Ewing, Meg Barnes, Kaylei Burcham, Jenny Nolan, Jared Tubertini and Wesley Dickens. Photo by Kena Smith

“Hearing personal experiences of associates and executives from Trustmark was extremely valuable,” said Jared Tubertini, a junior banking and finance major from Jackson. “I learned there are many facets of Trustmark that help the company perform at a high level.”

The industry experts who presented, all Trustmark associates, were Joe Gibbs, Brian Johnson, Heath Jordan, Brooke Meeks, Melanie Morgan, Chase Ogden, Jim Outlaw, Tom Owens, LaRoy Savage and Breck Tyler.

“In this eye-opening and educational experience, I learned that Trustmark is not just a bank, but a financial institution that provides many different services for its clients,” said Aldyn Ewing, a sophomore management major from Covington, Louisiana. “I can see myself working for this company because of the multiple opportunities for advancement and growth that they offer.”

“The Trustmark event was a great opportunity to pair classroom and professional knowledge,” said Jeremiah Morgan, a junior from Jackson majoring in management information systems and finance. “We learned about the application of solutions in business and how to effectively communicate the outcomes.”

Celebrating its 129th anniversary, Trustmark continues to expand with locations in Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

“Based on the comments from students as they were leaving, I would say (the event) was a success and something that we will host again,” Floyd said. “We might even possibly try to do this twice a year: once in the fall and once in the spring.”

Ole Miss Theatre to Stage Tony-winner ‘Assassins’

Time-bending Stephen Sondheim musical brings presidential plotters together to ask, 'Why?'

UM theatre arts students Hannah Bosworth (left), Kaelee Albritton and Elena Ontiveros rehearse for the Ole Miss Theatre production of ‘Assassins,’ which runs this weekend in Fulton Chapel. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – If it’s true that one of the functions of performing arts in society is to help us confront and grapple with complex and challenging issues, then Ole Miss Theatre and Film’s second full production of the season would appear to come at an appropriate time.

“Assassins,” a musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman, opens for a short run Friday (Nov. 9) at the University of Mississippi. Performances are slated for 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, all in Fulton Chapel. The Sunday matinee is already sold out.

The story brings together a diverse group of presidential assassins from history – both would-be and successful – ranging from John Wilkes Booth, who shot and killed President Abraham Lincoln, to John Hinckley, who shot and injured President Ronald Reagan, in a revue-style series of vignettes that explore their motivations and the nation-shaking results of their actions.

Director René Pulliam, associate professor of theatre arts and longtime head of the Department of Theatre and Film‘s BFA program in musical theatre, said that “Assassins” was among several options considered when the department set the 2018-19 lineup last year, but she felt that some of the others were too similar to plays the department had staged recently.

“I thought it was time to give the students a chance to do Sondheim,” Pulliam said. “He’s a master, and not just musically, but with lyrics, too. His lyrics are not your traditional rhyme patterns, and … he has a lot to say.”

Pulliam, who is retiring at the end of the school year, said “Assassins,” her last Ole Miss Theatre production to direct, will go down as one of her favorites. Others include “Drowsy Chaperone,” “Cabaret” and “Company,” all of which she described as “concept musicals.”

“Concept musicals have a point to make,” she said. “For a director, that gives you a chance to look into the meaning. First, you look into what the creators are trying to say; then you figure out how to make it fit today.”

“Assassins” is nearly 30 years old, and Pulliam has introduced directorial innovations that felt current to her. For example, Pulliam cast a woman as one of the male assassins, giving another female actor a chance to appear onstage in a show that has few female characters.

“This show is traditionally all male except for two females,” she said. “Academically, for us, this is not right – we have more women than men.”

Senior theatre arts major Kaelee Albritton, of O’Fallon, Illinois, will play two roles, one of which is Lee Harvey Oswald, whose assassination of President John F. Kennedy has captivated history buffs – and conspiracy theorists – for decades.

“Being a woman stepping into the shoes of these two characters, who were originally men, has opened my eyes in more ways than I could imagine,” Albritton said. “Diving into the depths of (Oswald’s) physical and psychological reality has granted me a reality check of my own.”

Sophomore theatre arts major Gregor Patti, who plays John Wilkes Booth, viewed the musical format as an opportunity to strive for a very specific kind of historical accuracy in his portrayal of one of our nation’s most infamous killers.

“At the beginning, I focused a lot on vocal training for the voice of Booth,” said Patti, of Jackson. “Him being from Maryland in the 1800s, I found clips and read articles on articulation and such for people of that area in that time.”

Getting the voice just right wasn’t necessarily easy, Patti said.

“Until this semester, I never had a vocal coach or teacher to really help me locate and use my voice safely,” Patti said. “It’s been nice to have our music director, Paul (Marszalkowski), be so patient with me and all my questions, and Micah-Shane (Brewer, instructional assistant professor of musical theatre) has been a great help with voice lessons.”

One directorial choice Pulliam felt strongly about was the use of real guns that fire blanks onstage, rather than using toys or lookalikes paired with sound effects, for some 37 shots fired throughout the performance.

“One of the themes, to me, is this idea of, ‘If I have a gun, I am all-powerful, I can create my own law,'” Pulliam said.

“If my theme is to talk about guns being a thing of power, and we have this” – Pulliam waved a pistol-finger and said “bang” in a mousy voice – “the theme is ruined.”

Numerous safety measures have been taken with regard to the weapons, she said. All the guns have either been modified to fire only blanks or are replicas that don’t fire at all. For the guns that fire blanks, small ammunition will be used, so shots won’t be as loud as they would in a real-life scenario – maybe as loud as a firecracker, Pulliam said.

“The singers need to be able to sing after they fire, and if it’s too loud, they can’t hear,” she said. “So that’s ear safety.”

Besides these onstage precautions, the crew includes “gun wranglers” who maintain control of the firearms, which are never taken into dressing rooms by cast members and are locked away at night. Campus security is aware of the performances and will be present in the area.

Finally, the department brought in an expert fight choreographer, Jason Paul Tate, who goes by various titles, including “firearms consultant” and “special-effects coordinator,” to oversee and implement the use of weapons and make sure that protocols are in place and followed.

Albritton emphasized that although working with weapons can be challenging, it’s valuable training for a future in theater.

“Both of my characters are very accustomed to the sound of guns going off, which is the complete opposite of my experience,” Albritton said. “Even though handling these weapons has been difficult, I am grateful to be able to get the experience now so I can be prepared for shows later on in my career.”

Besides simulated gunfire, the production also contains smoke and strobe effects.

The score is a century-spanning survey of American popular music, with tunes modeled after the prominent style of each character’s era and covering everything from Sousa-style marches and barbershop to folk ballads and cheesy pop-rock duets. In the songs, the assassins air their grievances and express what they believe these acts of violence will do for them.

“The message here is that if you do something like this, you become famous,” Pulliam said. “Each assassin had their own reasons for doing what they did, but underlying that is ‘I want to be remembered.'”

Tickets for all performances except the Sunday matinee are available at the UM Box Office or by calling 662-915-7411. Friday night’s performance will be followed by an opening reception at the Oxford-University Depot.

Broadway’s ‘Jersey Boys’ Comes to the Ford Center

One of the longest running shows in Broadway history set for Nov. 9 performance

The Broadway smash musical ‘Jersey Boys’ comes to the Ford Center on Friday (Nov. 9). Portraying the members of the Four Seasons are (from left) Chris Stevens, Corey Greenan, Jonny Wexler and Tommaso Antic. Photo by Joan Marcus

OXFORD, Miss. – The University of Mississippi’s Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts will feature the national touring production of “Jersey Boys” at 7:30 p.m. Friday (Nov. 9).

The musical chronicling the career and successes of the Four Seasons is the 12th-longest running show in Broadway’s history, having been consecutively performed for 12 years from 2005 to 2017. The national tour launched in 2006.

The musical was written by Academy Award-winner Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice and features music by Bob Gaudi, an original member of the Four Seasons, with lyrics by Bob Crewe and choreography by Sergio Trujillo.

The Grammy and Tony Award-winning performance about the New Jersey quartet features 33 songs, including the chart hits “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” and “December 1963 (Oh What A Night).”

Kate Meacham, Ford Center marketing director, said she is looking forward to music by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Ford Center officials have been working to bring the show to Oxford for years.

“The Four Seasons made some great music that had a huge impact on their generation,” Meacham said. “I hope (the LOU community) gets to have a good time and learns a little about the history of the era and the enormous cultural shift that was taking place in the 1960s.”

The show is not recommended for children under age 12 because of profanity, smoking, gunshots and strobe lights.

Tickets are $75 for orchestra/parterre and Tier 1 Box-level seating, $69 for mezzanine and Tier 2 Box-level seating and $63 for balcony seating. A 10 percent discount is offered to Ole Miss faculty, staff and retirees at the UM Box office. Student tickets are $35 for balcony seats only.

Tickets can be purchased at the UM Box Office at the Ford Center or online at http://fordcenter.org/. Discounted and student tickets are available only at the Box Office with a valid UM ID.

For more information about the performance, visit http://fordcenter.org/event/jersey-boys-national-tour/.

Lambda Sigma Society Earns National Recognition

Iota Chapter receives prestigious distinction

OXFORD, Miss. – The University of Mississippi chapter of the Lambda Sigma National Honor Society has been named as an Honor Chapter by the organization’s national board.

Lambda Sigma is a sophomore honor society based upon four main ideals: leadership, scholarship, fellowship and service. Among 38 chapters nationwide, the Iota Chapter at Ole Miss received the Honor Chapter distinction “based upon the chapter’s service to the community and the overall functioning of the chapter,” according to a letter from national President John R. Hauser.

Iota Chapter adviser Ryan Upshaw was quick to praise the student members for this prestigious recognition.

“This work is all the students” said Upshaw, assistant dean for student services in the School of Engineering. “It’s really the students’ work in terms of what they are doing in the organization. They’re the ones who should be commended for any awards and recognition.”

Membership in the society is limited to just 50 second-year students who not only excel in the classroom, but who are actively involved in the campus community. New members are initiated in April, as the chapter operates on an academic calendar.

Upshaw and new chapter president Cade Slaughter point out that the award reflects the job of last year’s group of chapter officers.

“Branden Livingston, last year’s president, deserves credit for this distinction,” Slaughter said. “Moving forward, I hope to continue this year of service and fellowship in the same way that last year’s group of Lambda Sigma members at Ole Miss were able to do.”

When it comes to the chapter sustaining this level of success, Upshaw said he isn’t worried. He knows the stellar reputation and commitment to the organizational ideals will keep students interested.

“One of the things I think that makes our chapter really strong is the commitment to service,” he said. “It’s been really outstanding, and I think it’s what helps us stand out.

“We also typically attract students who are leaders on campus, such as ASB President Elam Miller and Black Student Union President Jarvis Benson. It distinguishes Lambda Sigma because people see a lot of leadership potential coming out of the members.”