Student performers find space to perform at Illini Union through Coffeehouse Series

While the Champaign-Urbana community provides a diverse set of performance spaces, it can be intimidating for students to pursue them among schedules boasting professional headlining acts. However, the Illini Union offers an accessible opportunity for student performers of all skill levels to own the spotlight.         

“A lot of students that wouldn’t normally have a space to perform are able to have their own space,” said Jennifer Mendez, director of arts on the Illini Union Board and senior in LAS. The “space” she is referring to is the Illini Union Coffeehouse Series, a diverse performance event put on by students a few times each semester on Thursdays in the Courtyard Cafe. The series gives a stage and spotlight for all students interested in expressing themselves. Students are able to display their various talents on an encouraging and empowering platform with the support of their fellow peers. Thursday evening performances included singing, guitar playing, dancing, rapping, spoken-word poetry and even Chinese yo-yo acts.

One such performer was Youyou Zhang, freshman in Applied Health Sciences, who sang melodies and twirled under the dim spotlights, weaving through the audience with her smile and carefree attitude. The registered student organization Taiwanese American Students Club Special Ops performed an intense, fast-paced Chinese yo-yo act, tossing yo-yos in the air and spinning them around their waists. Ricardo Plaza, freshman in LAS, read a few heartfelt self-written poems to the quiet audience. Desmond Shuford, junior in LAS, rapped a few originals and captured the audience with his beats and rhymes. The “Wedding Singer” musical cast, who are members of the RSO Illini Student Musicals, gave everyone a glimpse of their upcoming production with a few numbers of energetic songs and dance numbers.

Previously, the Coffeehouse Series has been open-mic, but this semester Mendez implemented sign-ups as well as an open-mic format in favor of a more structured event. Starting at 7 p.m., the event is scheduled to last until 9 p.m. but varies event to event, based on the number of performers. It is Mendez’ first semester being director of arts for the Illini Union Board, and her biggest goals for the series are expansion, exposure and for more performances. Singer-songwriter Reva Karkhanis, sophomore in Fine and Applied Arts, strummed and sang a few originals as well as a Fall Out Boy cover. Karkhanis, who started performing her senior year of high school, believes that the Coffeehouse Series “is a good place to start off” for those who are looking to perform but might be hesitant to do so. 

The Coffeehouse is meant to provide students the opportunity to build new relationships and network with others who might have similar interests. Karkhanis and Zhang spontaneously collaborated after meeting each other that night and ended up performing a few Taylor Swift songs together later in the event. 

Mendez would also like for more students to know that the Coffeehouse Series is a safe space for them to express themselves through performance. Jay Castañeda, freshman in DGS, attended the event in support of his friend who was performing, but said he would consider performing as well in the future. 

“I really liked it, and I wish more people would come here,” he said. 

An event such as this provides an outlet for the many talents of students on campus. Mendez said the series is always trying to gain more exposure. This is still a challenge within such a large campus, as many students do not know the majority of the resources the Illini Union provides for them. 

The series takes place every semester, and for the spring semester series, Mendez will continue putting her effort into forwarding the Illini Union’s mission to provide a space for students to share and to create experiences together.

Victoria can be reached at [email protected]