Dance Marathon: The Show Must Go On

a person in a black sweatshirt and black mask holding a pink button that says "Saving Kids Lives"A pandemic is not going to stop the annual Pitt Dance Marathon (PDM) from taking place this Saturday, March 20.

Through student and faculty creativity and by pulling in expertise from the Film and Media Studies program, this year’s event won’t look too much different those past: Fun, music, dance routines and invitations to donate money to UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh will all be there in a virtual event that runs from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. This largest Pitt student-run philanthropy effort can be viewed on the PDM  website, YouTube channel, and Facebook platforms.  

Samara Silverstein, community relations development coordinator for Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh Foundation, says the PDM has had a significant impact on UPMC Children’s, a Children’s Miracle Network Hospital. The funds that are raised are used where they are needed the most.

“The money has been used to fund cutting-edge research, provide training for medical staff and to support initiatives like music and art therapy,” she said.

When the PDM committee realized in January that it had to pivot and plan its first-ever virtual event to air in just two months, it enlisted the help of instructor Kevin Smith’s broadcast students in Film and Media Studies. Kaitlyn Dawson, a sophomore and double major in film production and communications as well as one of four technical directors, said it was inspiring to see the team come together.

“It showed how with the right group of people, anything can get done,” she said.

Thanks to a Year of Engagement grant and the hard work of the student crew, parts of the show are produced, packaged and ready to go ahead of time. The rest of the event will feature four live student hosts—Stana Topich, Emma Wooten, Jack Hally and Alex Houdeshell—at various spots around campus. They will introduce packages, interview guests and report on activities at their site: yard games, photo booths and bracelet-making, with all participants masked and socially distanced.

Hosts will explain how to donate money and the donation board totals will be shown every other hour at first, then hourly as the afternoon progresses. A “ticker” along the bottom of the screen will thank donors. In 2019, the PDM raised $338,609.

Behind the scenes

At a Monday night walk-through, Smith guided the student team through their maneuvers in StreamYard, which is like a virtual control room. Smith learned about it through Pitt Studios and Pitt Athletics, and he began using it to make his remote broadcast classes applicable to over-the-air network productions. “The students took to it like ducks to water,” he said.

a student in a ballcap and mask staring intently at a computerThe students practiced running the packages, interviewing guests and getting the timing right. “Bumpers”—or pre-recorded taped messages of support from people ranging from Chancellor Patrick Gallagher to former WTAE-TV personality Sally Wiggin—are also part of the production.

“Stana, you have to ad-lib here,” directed Smith in a comment on the right side of their  screens. “Then toss it to Emma.”

At one point they hit a small roadblock when a clip from a fundraising fashion show seemed to be missing. Smith scrambled to find it. He also wrote some fresh copy for the 400-plus page script, formatted it and fed it into the students’ teleprompters.

“I have the easiest job,” said Smith. “I lay out a format and assign the groups. They do all the shooting, interviews, writing, editing and even filmed one dance group with a drone.”

In addition to the money raised this Saturday, fundraising has been underway for the past year at carnivals, popcorn sales and social media challenges.

Smith said with the exception of live talent throughout the broadcast and the final reveal of the amount of money donated, there was no reason not to pre-package the content for Saturday’s show. Not only does it cut down on errors, he said it’s a “great educational exercise for how most productions are made, be they the Olympics, the Academy Awards or a television program.”

Technical director Dawson said mistakes are inevitable given the 12-hour time frame, but she says Smith has been reminding the team to stay calm. “The main priority is to have fun and remain stress-free, and if that happens the broadcast will be a success.”

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