Mary B. Hendon (left), Katheryn Juarez (center), and Megan R. Adams are the first slate of officers for Penn College Theatrics.

The Blooming of Performing Arts

Published 08.30.2023

Dr. Thomas Ask

by Dr. Thomas Ask

Professor, Industrial Design

Fall 2023, Volume 32, Number 2

I pushed the “play” button, and the engineers slumped into their seats. Music filled the lecture hall.

Playing music at an engineering conference is weird – but I needed music. I was wrapping up my research on using rule-based techniques and artificial intelligence for creating art and music. When I presented the research, I wanted to demonstrate a process for converting poetry into song. I had written a song but lacked the talent to perform it. I needed to find musical talent among the nitrile gloves and metal sparks on campus. When I asked some students, “Can anyone sing this song I wrote?” Katheryn Juarez and Niko L. Ratjavong stepped forward and quickly brought the song to life.

Katheryn Juarez, an industrial design student, performs at Penn College Music Makers' first Music Fest, held in April.

Juarez sang the song, while Ratjavong flooded the production with his musical mastery. In a few days, they took the song further than I could envision. They harmonized the vocals and added layers of sound and flourishes that gave the song a distinctive voice. I was amazed at what talent and technology can accomplish.

I wasn’t alone.

Our song was a surprise hit for a stodgy engineering conference, and it reinforced the potential of rule-based art and music. The song, “Whisper Sweet,” laments the decline of the Lycoming Mall with an allegorical connection to the “empty nest.”

Whisper Sweet

The performing arts are a great complement to the maker culture at Penn College.


Soon after this project, Juarez and Ratjavong gathered with Trevor P. Boyce, who along with Megan R. Adams developed a new club called the Penn College Music Makers. They pooled their instruments and equipment to create a music studio. The small studio tucked into the College Avenue Labs building is illuminated by purple LED strip lighting to make it feel like a separate place – a place where music is created and enjoyed.

Students pooled their equipment and instruments to outfit a new music studio in the College Avenue Labs building. Photo courtesy of Thomas E. Ask

Boyce, Music Makers vice president, summarized their goals: “We want to create an environment for those interested in music at PCT, where students can collaborate and share in the enjoyment and love of music and music creation. We’re working to not only create this space for current students, but also to build a sustainable and resilient community so that students in the future can continue to engage creatively with one another and with the greater Penn College community.”

The founding officers of Penn College Music Makers, from left: Niko L. Ratjavong, Katheryn Juarez, Trevor P. Boyce and Megan R. Adams.

Music Makers worked with the Wildcat Events Board to organize a music festival. They auditioned talent, set up a program, and by April, they were ready. Callous springtime weather drove the outdoor event into the Klump Academic Center’s auditorium, where skillful sound design echoed off the ornate plasterwork. The attendees were immersed in PCMM’s inaugural event with performances ranging from original piano compositions to rock bands. Matcha tea with tapioca pearls added sensory joy for the musically minded audience.

In their first year of operation, the Penn College Music Makers not only produced a music festival, but they have also met weekly to share music compositions. They also provided short lectures on topics such as music production and song writing.

Forest technology student Aiden R. Devanney-Nance performs original works during Penn College Music Makers’ inaugural Music Fest.

Greased Lightning takes the Klump Academic Center stage.

Anthony S. Fiorello, a civil engineering technology student, performs as part of punk rock band Bus Stop Minister during Music Fest.

Welding & fabrication engineering technology student Spencer H. Doughty and Dishwater fill the auditorium with garage rock.

Photos by Conor P. Fry, unless otherwise credited.


At the same time as the Music Makers were gathering steam, Mary B. Herndon had an idea for a theater company. She has a long history with theater and wanted to bring it to Penn College. Mary is the president of the Penn College Society of Inventors and Mad Scientists, which has made props and costumes for Lycoming College’s theater program.

Herndon’s love of theater compelled her to bring performances to Penn College. Following soon behind the formation of Penn College Music Makers, she organized Penn College Theatrics.

Niko L. Ratjavong, a student in software development & information management, performs as Venn.

“Our goal is to produce one large-scale production per semester,” Herndon said. “We also want to respond to club members’ ideas connected with performing.”

The club, which is in the process of becoming an official student organization at the college, gathered interested students and evaluated plays. They worked to strike the right balance between casting and production needs before finally selecting the character-driven play “Arsenic and Old Lace” for their first production, to be performed in the coming months.


After the crush of COVID, something fresh has arisen: students wanting to work shoulder to shoulder and breathe the same air as other makers and creators. The hidden talent of our students emerged from shutdowns and isolation. They created a community and pursued the wonder of creating something from nothing.

The Penn College Pep Band kicks off the Music Fest in the Klump Academic Center auditorium.

The visual arts are well-represented on campus; now the performing arts have grown – from student passions, not an orchestrated plan. Students were drawn by the sweetness of fresh ideas and love for creating.

The performing arts are a great complement to the maker culture at Penn College. Now we can do more than turn ideas into physical things: We can also turn ideas into music.

A flyer shows the set list for Penn College Music Makers’ first Music Fest, held by the new student group in April.

Lyrics for “Whisper Sweet”

by T. Ask

Darkened glass once held color
Silent corner once held laughter
Hands held hands and feet gathered
A place to be alone together
An old man reads a book
His wife looks at things not needed
Gather all their little shopping
Memories of children aisle hopping
Take a darkened corner
Memories flower among the walkers
Thinking days of joy and laughter
Now taken with here and after
Won’t the memories play/with dancing mind/in every loving way
Won’t they sing to me/and ring to me/in gracious children’s play

Kiss my air and whisper sweet  
Stories when I was the king
Kids would listen and I sing
We loved to do everything
Hopes of promised days waited
Cause today was fully weighted
Sing with me every day
Memories kiss my air

Won’t the memories play/with dancing mind/in every loving way
Won’t they sing to me/and ring to me/in gracious children’s play  

Copyright Thomas E. Ask, Kathryn Juarez and Niko L. Ratjavong

Listen to "Whisper Sweet"