The Scarlet & Black

The Student News Site of Grinnell College

The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

How the Grinnell CNN town halls came to be

A team of CNN workers as well as College staff worked throughout the week to transform Roberts Theatre. Photo contributed by CNN.
A team of CNN workers as well as College staff worked throughout the week to transform Roberts Theatre. Photo contributed by CNN.

For most Grinnell residents, the recent CNN town halls hosted by the College took two days—one for each of the two visiting candidates, Tom Steyer and Joe Biden. But for some members of the College faculty, the total setup for the events happened over a little more than a week of fast-paced planning and organizing that led to the rapid transformation of Roberts Theatre into the site of a live CNN broadcast.

On Friday, Nov. 1, CNN contacted Rachel Bly, director of conference operations and events for the College, to find out if Grinnell would be able to host two town halls on the 10th and 11th of November. The nine days’ notice “was not a ton of warning, given the enormity [of the events],” Bly said. “But we were able to do some stuff over the weekend … check with all the appropriate people.”

Two of those people were Erik Sanning, technical director for the Theater and Dance department, and Kate Baumgartner, post-baccalaureate fellow for theater and dance. Sanning and Baumgartner’s input was necessary to determine if holding the events in Roberts would be feasible.

When they first heard about the possibility of Grinnell hosting CNN, “We said, ‘we’ll think about this,’” said Sanning. “We decided that if we were going to make this happen, which sounded really exciting, this was about the best time that they could have chosen.”

The previous show held in Roberts had just finished, and “We were in great shape for the next show,” said Baumgartner. The upcoming performance was the Dance Ensemble/ACTivate’s Hey Lilith!, and performers and crew moved their rehearsals to the Bear dance studio during setup for the town halls, because Flanagan Theater, the show’s location, was filled with CNN equipment.

As told by Sanning, the decision to go ahead with the town halls had “a huge ripple effect into other departments,” including the need for catering services, special security measures and Facilities Management employees to move furniture and fixtures in and out of Roberts. “It would not have been possible without the enthusiastic participation of a lot of other departments on campus,” he said.

Bly contacted city officials to get approval to block off a section of Park Street, which allowed CNN to park vans and trailers containing critical infrastructure for the set. The network brought in generators to provide additional power to the theater during rehearsals and broadcasts, as well as a complete lighting scaffolding and a podium, curtains and branded backdrop for the stage.

Beginning on Thursday Nov. 7—three days before the Steyer town hall—the CNN technical crew moved in the lighting and constructed the set on the Roberts stage, including a custom covering for the floor. Under blue and red lighting, the theater became a convincing studio with a few touches reminding viewers of the town halls’ location. (In one shot during the Steyer event, the crew used a Catering laurel-leaf tablecloth as a Grinnell banner at the back of the theater, because the College didn’t have any pennants that were large enough.)

Bly communicated with the Grinnell Police Department and the Poweshiek County Sheriff’s office in the days before the town halls. “For safety and security, it was a big deal, because the requirements for security were incredibly high,” she said. “It was a big impact on [Campus Safety’s] office.”

The Theater department also took the chance to observe a major news network at work. “For the students who normally work with us it was a great opportunity,” Sanning said. “We had a couple of classes come in and watch the process of ‘What’s it like to do television?’”

CNN hired students on Saturday, Sunday and Monday to act as audience-member stand-ins in rehearsal, run errands and maintain the crew snack table, among other roles, and Dining Services catered crew meals and kept a tea-and-coffee station running backstage.

Baumgartner said that the whole process was “awesome.”

“We’re kind of gushing about how great it was,” she said.

Sanning added, “To a person, the hundred-and-some-odd people that [CNN] brought with them were very generous and easy to work with. … I think [CNN] had a very positive experience, we had a very positive experience. … A lot of us had to work long hours to make it happen, but it was well, well worth it.”

He thinks that the network would be interested in returning to Grinnell in the future.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover
Donate to The Scarlet & Black
Our Goal

Comments (0)

All The Scarlet & Black Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *