Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications
The desire for trivia won’t be doused by a global pandemic.
It might look different. It might feel different. But the Great Midwest Trivia Contest will kick off its 56th annual edition on schedule Friday night, its team of trivia masters balancing a love of tradition with the realities of pandemic protocols that have forced a reimagining of the beloved weekend.
The passion and creativity of Lawrence University’s trivia weekend remains, even if some of the contest’s staples—the WLFM studio, the on-campus phone bank, the shared spaces of sleep-deprived participants—will not be in play.
The contest is being streamed on Twitch beginning at 37 seconds past 10 p.m. Friday and will continue until midnight Sunday. The action questions, a popular slice of the weekend, will continue but virtually—think variations of digital art—and answers through the weekend will be received in a mix of phone calls and a virtual phone line on a Discord server, all facilitated by 11 trivia masters scattered near and far.
“We’re nervous but excited to be trying new things this year,” said Head Master Grace Krueger ’21, charged with bringing all this together amid challenges unseen in the contest’s first five and a half decades.
“I’ve been challenged to maintain 55 years of tradition without access to most of the tools we use to make it happen.”
Much of the weekend will be recognizable, keeping to traditions that have carried forth since the contest was first broadcast on WLFM in 1966—more than 300 rapid-fire and obscure questions over the course of 50 hours; teams organized to seek out answers via digital sleuthing or ingenious snooping; the awarding of weird and mostly useless prizes; the Super Garuda, the impossible finale question that returns as the first question of the following year’s contest.
But other elements have to change due to the COVID-19 restrictions. Trivia masters cannot be huddled together. Teams can’t physically gather as they once would, on or off campus. The campus radio station is off limits.
“We are entirely virtual this year, which means I’ve been challenged to maintain 55 years of tradition without access to most of the tools we use to make it happen,” Krueger said.
But there’s a will to make it work despite the obstacles, and in the process of finding new avenues, some pluses have surfaced. For one, the ability to interact in the moment will be greater.
“Our Discord server allows me to answer questions as soon as I see them, and it gives teams an avenue to connect with each other,” Krueger said. “And we’re excited about the inter-activeness of the Twitch chat because trivia masters on air will be able to read the chat and interact with players directly.”
Trivia players should make a Twitch account if they want to participate in the chat during the contest and a Discord account if they want to be connected with the trivia masters throughout the contest. No account is needed, however, for players who just want to view the stream.
Krueger, a theatre arts major from Branson, Missouri, called the adherence to tradition wherever possible a high priority as she and her team have pulled together the contest over the past few months. Once it became apparent that we’d still be deep in the throes of the pandemic when late January rolled around, it was time to explore what was and was not doable.
“It’s very difficult to balance the needs of the contest with this year’s restrictions, and, in some cases, we have had to make changes to trivia that go against tradition,” Krueger said. “Our main focus is making sure the contest happens this year and that it can be a positive experience for everyone.”
Bringing trivia weekend to life has always been a lot of work. Doing so amid the pandemic, with nearly half of the student body studying remotely and safety protocols forcing most interactions to be virtual, has added to the strain.
“Since the trivia masters and I meet virtually, it’s been hard to build the same sense of community because there are few opportunities to simply hang out and get to know each other,” Krueger said. “Additionally, all of us are under more pressure than usual because of current events. I’ve had several trivia masters drop out of the contest for personal reasons, which puts the pressure on the rest of us even more. However, we’re still super excited about the contest and we hope that everyone will be able to see all the hard work we’ve put into making it happen this year.”
Krueger’s team of trivia masters include Ellie Ensing ’21, El Horner ’21, Cristy Sada ’21, Mikayla Frank-Martin ’22, Riley Newton ’22, Riley Seib ’22, Caroline Rosch ’21, Mary Grace Wagner ’21, Nick Mayerson ’22, and Finn Witt ’22.
Krueger said she’s already heard from a number of long-standing players who have said they’ll play this year even if they can’t get together in person. Others, she said, will surely opt out. The contest typically draws upwards of 100 teams, but hitting that number might be difficult this year.
Tim ’10 and Molly Phelan ’10, die-hard trivia players since their Lawrence days, say they’ll be playing from their Chicago home. They know they’ll need to roll with the changes.
“While our team is often just the two of us, we usually have friends who come by and play on our team for a few hours throughout the weekend, but obviously this year that won’t be the case,” Molly said. “But we’ve had remote players on our team before and usually we just ask other players to text the group the second they get an answer and then everyone on the team tries to call it in, and the second someone picks up, everyone else hangs up to prevent jamming. In a lot of ways this contest will be the same for us as it has been in previous years—just two old alumni, hanging around our house glued to a computer.”
That, Krueger said, is the attitude she hopes other teams will take. She knows they’ll lose some teams, but she remains hopeful many of the veteran teams will still jump in.
“On one hand, a lot of teams who usually gather together for trivia weekend will be playing at a distance for the first time, and I’m not sure that’s a sacrifice they’ll be willing to make,” Krueger said. “On the other hand, the new virtual setup for the contest makes trivia much more discoverable to people on the internet, so we may see some growth in new players this year, especially since there are fewer activities happening generally due to the pandemic.”
Molly Phelan said she’s throwing nothing but love and support to this year’s trivia masters. A former trivia master herself, she has a pretty good idea of what they’re up against.
“As a small team, we come for the chaos, the search, and the comedy,” she said. “I’m a first-year choir teacher in an all-remote district, so I have nothing but respect when new technology works out, and nothing but understanding and sympathy when it implodes.”
Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org