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LIVE Entertainment in a Virtual Semester

A drive-in concert was one of many unique performances and events organized by NC State LIVE during an unprecedented fall semester.

Vehicles in the parking lot on Centennial Campus for the Rissi Palmer drive-in concert this fall
Vehicles in the parking lot on Centennial Campus for the Rissi Palmer drive-in concert this fall

On a beautiful evening this fall, country music artist Rissi Palmer performed for the NC State community on Centennial Campus. But when Palmer finished each of her songs, she didn’t receive cheers and applause. Instead, she observed more than 100 vehicles flash their lights and beep their horns enthusiastically across the Spring Hill Park and Ride Lot.

The LIVE@the Lot concert was the first of its kind for NC State LIVE, and one of the few in-person events the organization was able to host this fall. In fact, it was the first time that many students and members of the Wolfpack community had been able to attend a concert in person since March.

“It was my first time attending a public event since the pandemic broke out,” said one student attendee. “I really enjoyed just feeling connected and the vibe of positivity, and it was a small sparkle of light in all the darkness we have right now.”

Organizing an in-person concert during a pandemic was no small feat. NC State LIVE and Visit Centennial began collaborating earlier this year to consider the feasibility of a drive-in concert, since those were exempt from the state health guidelines that prohibit outdoor gatherings of more than 50 people. From there, NC State LIVE reached out to more key partners across campus, including public safety, transportation, the student radio station WKNC 88.1 FM, and Emergency Management and Mission Continuity for help in areas ranging from managing traffic to parking to navigating the use of FM transmitters.

From its earliest promotions about the concert, NC State LIVE clearly communicated safety guidelines that would be enforced at the event. Some of those included requiring patrons to remain in their vehicle unless using the restroom, leaving additional space between vehicles, and frequent cleaning and disinfecting of restrooms and other touch points. Concessions also adhered to strict health guidelines, and food trucks were on site to provide contactless service through the use of the Street Food Finder app. Patrons ordered with the app and staff from the food trucks delivered the food directly to their cars. Each space had been hand-numbered with sidewalk chalk by NC State LIVE and Visit Centennial staff earlier that day to help ensure delivery to the correct vehicle.

Vehicles in the parking lot on Centennial Campus for the Rissi Palmer drive-in concert this fall
Vehicles in the parking lot on Centennial Campus for the Rissi Palmer drive-in concert this fall

Admission to the concert was free, and NC State students were given a two-day priority window. Once tickets opened to the public, all of the spaces filled up within just a few hours. In the end, 196 people, half of them NC State students, attended the show.

“The advance planning paid off,” said Sharon Moore, director of NC State LIVE. “Everyone seemed perfectly content to remain in their cars, windows open to the balmy night air, enjoying a concert in person for the first time in many months.”

Showcasing Talent

LIVE@the Lot was just one of many in-person and virtual activities and events hosted by NC State LIVE this fall. Earlier in the semester, NC State LIVE partnered with the University Activities Board, Arts NC State, PACKTV and Wellness and Recreation for Wolfpack’s Got Talent. Wellness and Recreation accepted video submissions from students, faculty and staff who showed off their dancing, singing, instrumental and other unique talents. The entries were posted on the WellRec YouTube channel, and the Wolfpack community voted for their favorites.

Gabriel Montague won the student competition with his soothing vocal and piano performances, and Chernelle Jones won the faculty and staff contest with her powerful vocal skills. Both were invited to perform a live-stream concert at Stewart Theatre. 

Entries in the final round of the Wolfpack’s Got Talent competition

“The response we received from the campus and surrounding community was incredible,” said Liza Green, associate director of NC State LIVE. “It was a really beautiful way to kick off the semester and highlight the amazing talent of the Wolfpack.”

NC State LIVE has maintained a connection to international touring artists through very personal, digital events, and has been able to build new connections with local artists as well. Specifically, the organization created a residency program to connect NC State students with artists dedicated to social justice, including cellist Shana Tucker and choreographers and Culture Mill co-founders Murielle Elizéon and Tommy Noonan. Most recently, these artists were welcomed into two Scholars Forum sessions where they live-streamed a performance to hundreds of students from the Haw River Ballroom and discussed a past collaboration which centered on value and race in Alamance County.

NC State LIVE has provided regular concerts featuring local artists throughout the semester as well. However, scheduling during a pandemic has been especially challenging.

“We usually plan our programming with artists, community and campus partners about a year in advance, so this semester has been a major shift to our process,” said Green. “We are trying to remain nimble and patient, while supporting our students, our artists and our community — creating programming that responds to their needs during the COVID-19 pandemic and our nation’s reckoning with racial injustice. To that end, we focused the bulk of our budget on serving local artists and we’ve made all of our events free for everyone. We also commissioned a season poster, which was a first for us, by the local artist and NC State alumna Dare Coulter.”

In addition to planning relevant events and performances for students, NC State LIVE has also focused on its outreach efforts to a wider audience, including alumni, university employees and the general public. One example was the digital block party featuring the popular Chicano band Las Cafeteras, which was moderated by a current student and a recent graduate. 

“The feedback we’ve received this year in post-event surveys and conversations has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Green. “Participants seem genuinely grateful to have experienced these artistic moments. It seems like our events have been an avenue for folks to create human connections in a very isolating time.”

NC State LIVE also helped keep spirits up on campus throughout the fall with its unannounced pop-up concert series called PackPops. Musicians have performed across campus in central locations like Stafford Commons, Hill Library and Talley Student Union. The artist lineup has included Autumn Nicolas, George Hage and Sonny Miles, and the final performance featured Jennifer Curtis, who offered a violin serenade to the long line of voters on the first day of early voting at Talley Student Union. 

A Fall Finale and Looking Ahead to Spring

Although the semester is winding down now, NC State LIVE still has one last Digital Happy Hour Conversation on creative collaboration with saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin and violinist Regina Carter on Tuesday, Nov. 18 at 5:30 p.m. And for a season finale, Shana Tucker will offer a Year-End Soiree and Concert on Thursday, Dec. 10 at 5:30 p.m.

Following those events, staff will turn their focus completely to the spring. 

“This semester reminded us of what we’ve always known — our artists and our Wolfpack community are resilient, creative and generous,” Green said. “We are really looking forward to the spring semester. With the return of students to campus, our wheels are turning to develop safe, inspiring events to foster healing and celebration. Not only do we hope to continue our drive-in concerts and #PackPops series, but we also hope to expand into more creative, outdoor performances and workshops — think concerts in a parking deck, hybrid in-person/digital live-streams and more — and create digital opportunities to share perspectives with artists across the world.”

In the spring, NC State LIVE will be announcing new events every few weeks and encourages its fans to sign up for the newsletter and follow them on Facebook and Instagram. Some of the international artists and groups that will be featured digitally next spring include Ephrat Asherie Dance, Ballet Hispánico, American Spiritual Ensemble, and the kathak and tap artists of SPEAK. NC State LIVE will also collaborate with campus partners to design events with resident artists Shana Tucker, Murielle Elizéon and Tommy Noonan, including performances and restorative justice workshops. 

“You never know when or where our #PackPops performances may emerge on campus, so be on the lookout,” Green said. “And, of course, we’ll be back out on Centennial Campus for more free outdoor concerts to spread joy with some of North Carolina’s finest musicians.”