Behind the Cover Art
Featured: Samantha Chinomona and Isabelle Molinari
March 2020 took the world aback. This year, as we near the one year mark, we are not where we thought we would be either. Everyone had hoped this nightmare would be over and life would be normal again. While the vaccinations available offer hope, it feels like we are getting knocked down again with new strains. But this year, we are more ready. We know how Teams and Zoom work, we have discovered new technologies and capabilities we didn’t know existed, and we are less afraid to try and return to some normalcy, even in an online setting. We may fear that returning to a theatre, a stage, or a museum is far from likely in the near future, but we must look at it as an opportunity to take our new skills and use the creativity characteristic of the arts to create new works, try new things, and take more risks (artistically!). The Calliope team is excited to bring you a new year, full of art content, and hopefully, in the not-so distant future, stand side-by-side with you in the arts world again.
The Appeal of Tragicomedy
Kailee Parsons examines why tragicomedy is the genre that we all need right now
I am certainly not the first to acknowledge, especially in light of the past year, that living in the world is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Life is fundamentally painful and absurd; the incomprehensibility of the world often feels insurmountable. It is difficult not to feel terrified learning to navigate the trials of everyday life, most of us entering our twenties, as we are, in what feels like end times. Like most people, I spent a lot of time in lockdown watching Netflix and YouTube, and at first, everything I wanted to watch was void of emotion: cheesy sitcoms, documentaries, decades-old episodes of University Challenge and Would I Lie to You?. Eventually, though, I wanted to feel something real. I wanted someone to share in the angst and anxiety I was experiencing, something to untangle the complexity of a worldwide pandemic and a life in sudden lockdown. Enter the tragicomedy.
Tragicomedy is the perfect solution for people like me who can benefit from the release of emotion that tragedy offers, but find it just short of insane to watch something sad on purpose. The comic element allows us to enjoy ourselves and let down our guard enough for the story to mean something. Tragicomedy allows us to acknowledge the duplicity of life, to acknowledge the messiness we feel but then to move beyond it, to find catharsis in the humour and whimsy of a broken world.
And, it seems I am not alone. The success of Phoebe Waller Bridge’s hit series Fleabag, for one, seems proof of this. Beyond her mask of witty and sexually charged remarks is a woman who has lost two of the most important people in her life and feels wholly alone in the world as a result. Fleabag is deeply hurting, experiencing loss and shame, and this is really the point of the show. But, it’s funny. Whether you’re tittering uncomfortably at a lewd joke or laughing out loud at a wholly unexpected relational moment (think: Fleabag instinctively smacking her sister when she leans in for a hug), Fleabag is a show that allows you to laugh at its main character as much as you sympathise with her. It is emotionally safe to relate to Fleabag, because there is a level of detachment, and no matter how much we feel we may have screwed up in life, it is difficult to imagine doing so to the extent of Fleabag. In doing so, she becomes a kind of scapegoat: we can release our emotions in our sympathy for her, without thinking about how we experience those painful emotions ourselves.
After a particularly dry quip to her bank manager (Hugh Dennis), Fleabag looks up at him pitifully with mascara stained cheeks. “Is that a joke?” he asks.
“I don’t know.”
Elsewhere, Fleabag’s sister Claire’s laughter disintegrates into sobs that come from pain rather than mirth, and both are somehow equally genuine. It’s such a simple moment, but I think it accurately depicts the dichotomy of existence. Life is not all bad, as it turns out, nor all good, and it is often impossible even to tell where to separate the two.
Bojack Horseman is another tragicomedy of note, which takes a bleak and nihilistic approach to examining the philosophical problem of the unhappy king, here a washed-up celebrity who spends all his time chasing hedonistic pleasures and feeling he has lived an empty and meaningless life. Again, the humour of the show and the fact that the central character is a cartoon horse allows us to feel more comfortable with its bleak premise than we might have done if it were a primetime drama. It’s sad, but because it’s also funny, it’s safe.
My personal favourite of this genre is Channel 4’s Flowers, a programme that remains surprisingly unknown despite its cast led by Julian Barratt and Olivia Coleman. The Flowers are a family of eccentric and unhappy artists, headed by Maurice (Barratt), a struggling children’s book author who is having trouble hiding his failed suicide attempt from his wife (Coleman). Once again, it’s a pitch black premise for a sitcom, but it works. The humour comes from the oddball nature of the Flower family and their neighbours, as well as the building of and consequences of Maurice’s lie, never from the mental illness of its protagonists. It also manages to turn the depressed genius stereotype on its head in that Maurice is a highly creative man who can no longer work because of his depression. It is also an odd show, I admit, as are Fleabag and Bojack Horseman, but it is precisely these oddities and imperfections that make the shows so honest.
For me, the thing that makes Flowers in particular so special is its acknowledgement that art can and does have the ability to connect people across time and space. Without giving too much away, it is the very tragedies of life and the courage to share them that let us know that we are not alone, and that things will get better. Though art cannot solve all problems, it often gives us the courage to face another day.
Tragicomedy is not limited to television, of course. Films like Little Miss Sunshine (Dayton and Faris, 2006) fall into this genre, while directors like Wes Anderson and Taika Waititi have made a career out of it.
“My favourite kind of comedy comes from the awkwardness of living, the stuff that makes you cringe but borders on tragic,” says Waititi. “At the end of the day, the reality is we’re all losers, and we’re all uncoordinated… there’s something quite endearing about that.”
Neither is the appeal of tragicomedy new. Certainly many of Shakespeare’s comedies are actually tragicomedies, like Much Ado About Nothing. When thinking of the popularity of tragicomedy in the past, however, I immediately think of the decades just following the Second World War.
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is a prime example, a stark look at the horror of war and the impossibility of returning to a mundane life thereafter. However, it is also a comedy, as well as a book that captures the rich beauty of being human, forced to recognise that life is completely outside of one’s control. Slaughterhouse-Five also celebrates the necessity of art as its hero turns to science-fiction to grapple with questions of existentialism and loss, as perhaps Vonnegut hopes his readers will with his novels.
Less overtly about the war are the works of J.D. Salinger, a man known for writing about teenage angst who nevertheless saw some of the greatest tragedies of the Second World War. It is perhaps because of these experiences that he is so fascinated with the loss of innocence and naivety, and why young people seem to gravitate toward him today.
Likewise, with the end of the war came the philosophy of existentialism. While some philosophers expressed their beliefs through non-fiction, others, like Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett, channeled them into novels or plays. Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, can be considered part of the movement of the Theatre of the Absurd, a genre that explores a loss of meaning or communication between characters.
Though most of us are no longer processing the horrors of the Second World War, it seems as though the genre is flourishing once again. Journalists have observed a sense of nihilism and dark humour in the Millennial and Gen Z generations, a kind of “laugh so we don’t cry” mentality.
What is particularly interesting is that the genre took off long before the dreaded 2020. There was already angst, perhaps economic, perhaps political, or perhaps simply existential, as we attempt to navigate a world that is more technologically connected, yet emotionally more disconnected than we have ever been. A friend of mine recently admitted to feeling guilty when she could no longer stand to hear the news, or respond to the hundreds of world crises that we hear about daily. We are not built to sustain the weight of so much tragedy alone.
So, we turn to art to reassure us that we are not alone, to sort out complicated emotions, and to distract us, at least for some time. Tragicomedy also allows us to see the beauty and humour in life, and to laugh at our own misfortune.
Looking ahead, it seems probable that we will soon see comedy inspired by the pandemic. In fact, various streaming platforms have already offered me their standup specials on the subject. The sitcom Staged, too, is a great example of how we can continue to create when even filming in the same location is prohibited, as well as a wry look at the struggles of Zoom and the intense insanity of lockdown (David Tennant and Michael Sheen standing in their backyards screaming whilst their neighbours call to check on their well-being strikes a real chord).
Actually, given the current situation of Lockdown part two (or is it three…?), I might have to watch Staged again.
Perfection: An impossibility, an unattainable state, an essential
Sarah Johnston delves into why perfection in creativity is overrated, and mistakes can benefit us all
Creating unique art is terrifying.
You unwittingly become a representative for your art form and find yourself feeling like the sole representative of a genre. You want to do your best, show off the wonder of your creation, and impress people, but often, we go beyond wanting to share what is ours to demanding perfection from our forms.
Speaking as a highly imperfect person, the amount of desire and almost necessity for perfection in the arts today scares me. I remember when I was a child -and even though I sang off-pitch and my dancing looked like someone being attacked by bees – I was proud of my performances. However, as I’ve gotten older and grown up in the arts, I’ve realized that the sheer amount of perfect performances expected from you can be soul-crushing. In my opinion, art is not about achieving perfection – it is about embracing humanity, and that means it is about embracing failure.
It is well-known that achieving a career in the arts is incredibly difficult; it comes with years of training and auditions, rejections and intensives, heartbreak and defeat. It is never something that I could do and I have known that for many years now. In the world of art and performance, you need to not only be good, but be the best. If you’re not a triple-threat in musical theatre why even bother, if hand-painted work is not your forte why try, if your manuscripts don’t make it past the length of a novella what’s the point in trying to publish? The answer is, of course, because you love it, but passion alone doesn’t seem to cut it in the world of arts anymore.
Reviews and critics have always been part of the process as a creative, but in an age filled with social media where you can turn a generation off a show with only 280 characters it’s a lot harder to show off the things that don’t impress people. Are we being too harsh on the arts?
Anyone nowadays with a mobile phone and an internet connection can start a blog, or an Instagram, or a news site. It’s very easy to become a critic in our online society. Critics are often praised for their controversial takes, unorthodox opinions, and for not glossing over the gory details. Their worth as a critic is how many pieces of art they can tear apart while keeping people interested. I think the bravest critics these days are those who aren’t afraid to say that things are bad, but are also willing to admit that they still liked them.
We notice mistakes a lot: celebrities falling at awards shows, Broadway spectacles going bust, music that fails to hit the charts when it should. We see them, we post them, we obsess over them, but we never appreciate the things that are imperfect in the way I think we should. As performers, it is easy to be annoyed with a bad performance because you know whether it is the best you could have done or not, but what do you do when your best still isn’t good enough?
Every artist has a deeply personal connection to their own piece – people don’t put time and effort into things they don’t think are worth it. Regardless of whether it’s a complex cabaret of intricate metaphors or some simple splashes on a canvas, to that creator their work means the world. It is difficult to take something that you’ve worked so hard on and present it to other people, knowing that their first instinct will be to find faults in it – and because we are mere mortals, faults will always be present. Even worse is the culture of self-loathing artists have created with our intensity of perfection; the people who will never show their work, never quote their poems, or perform their pieces because they are so afraid of the reaction that they shut it down themselves.
I remember when I was younger everyone used to be obsessed with the quote “dance like no one’s watching”. It was tacked to the wall of our girls P.E. changing room in sparkly pink letters to remind us when we were doing our lessons to not be self-conscious. It’s a nice message but the problem with it is that it doesn’t matter how many or few people are watching if you’re still critical of yourself. I’ve tried dancing like nobody’s watching and I still end up stopping and berating myself for looking like an idiot.
Everyone tells you as someone in the arts that your first review will be the thing that makes you or breaks you, but I have never cared what other people said about my performances. For me, my make or break moment was the first time I was ever asked to sit down after I sang in a show and my theatre teacher asked me how I thought my performance had gone. I remember staring at her for a minute to make sure she was being serious, and then I started to spill it out – I was pitchy, my emotion sounded fake, I sounded nasal, I squeaked my top note, my hands had flopped limply by my side and I had been so nervous I had stayed glued to the spot staring blankly at the audience the whole song. I remember crying and her hugging me and telling me I was being too hard on myself, that I had done a great job. I vividly remember laughing in her face; the other girls had been so much better than me. And then she asked a question that made me stop and think: why did it matter how everyone else had done? Our performances were all stand-alone, unrelated songs. We all had different voices and different ranges, we all liked different genres. Why was I judging the worth of my performance off of the other performers?
The reason we strive for perfectionism so much is that the arts world has turned into a competition. It’s a battle to secure a leading role, a fight for a spot in a gallery, a challenge to make it onto the shelves of bookshops. But that's a war between professionals. Amateur arts shouldn’t be a competition, we shouldn’t be ranking ourselves. We love to put ourselves against others on ridiculous qualities: who sold the most tickets? Who got the bigger budget? Who had the nicer theatre? This is not what the arts are about. We have become obsessed with the idea that to produce good art we must produce perfect art.
There is something wonderful and magical about imperfect art. There is something so loveable about performances where someone forgets a line, or a dancer misses a move, or a comedian gets an unexpected heckle. These are the times when art lives and breathes. Art is in the moments where we create because we can. If you are creating something and you enjoy it, it makes you proud, it makes you feel, or it just makes your day a bit better, then you deserve to be praised for that. It may not be perfect, it may not be the most amazing thing, but it is wholly and completely one hundred percent you in that moment.
So my advice to all creatives out there, whether amateur or professional, would be to embrace your flaws, your failures, and your mistakes. Belt those bum notes like you’ll never sing again, try for that triple pirouette and fall on the floor then dust yourself off and try again, write that book with the plotline that a thousand people have done before because no one will have done it quite like you. We began in the arts because we love it, and we shouldn’t give up because other people don’t like the way we do things. Art only progresses with innovation, with people who are brave enough to be different and show it. Sometimes art is a leap of faith and sometimes that leap is a swan dive and sometimes it is a belly flop. But the most important thing is that whatever you do, you do it with passion and love.
And in case anyone is wondering about that oh-so-awful performance of mine I talked about earlier, my theatre teacher recorded it and burned it onto a CD for me. I still have it, and every time I get stressed that I am not good enough at what I do when I perform I put it on and sing along. I still sound as bad, but the difference is now I own it.
TikTok as Art
Ella Crowsley dives into the complex world of TikTok, and why we shouldn’t discount the art being produced through it
TikTok, a free social media app created in 2016 allows users to watch, create and share videos with millions of users across the world. Content is varied but often includes dance routines, visual artwork, cooking and music; there’s unquestionably something for everyone on there! For this reason, it’s not a surprise that the ability to create artistic content so quickly and easily is appealing to younger generations. TikTok claims that their mission is to “inspire creativity and spread joy”, but with videos lasting a maximum of a single minute, does the platform actually provide a creative outlet, or limit inventive ideas? More simply, can we consider TikToks as art?
Perhaps the answer to the question lies in our definition of art. The Oxford Dictionary claims that art is “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form”. With this reasoning, TikToks surely fall under this category, visually engaging watchers with the maker’s creative techniques. Yet somehow, something about watching a 15 second clip of a stranger dancing in their living room doesn’t quite feel like the type of art we are used to. I wonder if it is not the videos themselves that make the platform artistic, but the imaginative opportunities and connections it provides.
It feels important to note that the top creators on the app are eligible to apply for the ‘Creators Fund’, enabling them to turn their creativity into a career if they choose to. In a sense, this mimics a professional path, rewarding the app’s top performers and entertainers. For many, TikTok has allowed them to continue earning whilst their normal jobs have been halted due to the pandemic. Stage performers and musicians have been given an outlet to make money when performances have been otherwise cancelled, offering an alternative expression of their art.
However, it seems that one of the aspects of TikTok to be more wary of lies in the integration of art and technology. There is no doubt that in some ways art and technology beautifully combine to enhance creativity, such as film or music production, graphic design or even in the incredible work of tech crews in theatre. Yet there is something in an app, particularly in the data and information that TikTok gathers from your viewing of videos that takes the essence of artistry away from it. The algorithm behind the app tracks which videos you watch, comment on, and like to gather information used to decide which videos to place on your main feed. The developers claim that this is simply used to provide you with content that you will enjoy most, but there is no telling what assumptions and data the app is able to gather from your viewing. So, does this take away from the creativity clearly shown in the app, and in turn, does this impact how we may view the videos as art?
For me, the ingenuity of the content depicted on the app is evident in its ability to be mimicked and developed. Dance trends created by popular TikTok figures allow any person from anywhere in the world to respond and express themselves in their own way by copying and posting their own version of the dance. Viral dance trends such as ‘Renegade’ or ‘Blinding Lights’ seem to reach every user of the app, bringing together creators in a fun and engaging way. During such isolating times, these dance challenges arguably bring art and creativity into the home to be enjoyed by everyone.
Similarly, the collaborative capacity of the app is something that I’ve never seen in any other social media platform. The app allows ‘duets’ or ‘stitches’, a feature that encourages users to actively interact with videos made by others and respond through their own channel. This creates a network of creators who would have otherwise never met, producing art together in various forms. For example, a video of one person’s painting process can be dueted with another’s, comparing their techniques and learning from one another. Or perhaps one person’s choreography to a particular song can be responded to with another’s own interpretation of their choreography. This feature connects artists from any part of the world and encourages collaboration in an effective way, emphasising the artistic nature of the videos produced.
Perhaps the best example of this can be seen in the recent Sea Shanty trend. Postman Nathan Evans initiated a global trend after posting his rendition of ‘Wellerman’, a traditional sea shanty. Despite being a short video simply filmed in his bedroom, Evans’ song has been viewed over 65 million times and users have mimicked and joined in with his original video in their own posts, creating a whole new genre known as ‘ShantyTok’! Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jimmy Fallon and Elon Musk are just a few of the celebrities to have taken part in the trend, as well as choirs and orchestras producing their own versions. Evan’s told his followers in a subsequent TikTok video that since the original cover had been released, he has ‘signed to the biggest record label in the world’ and been able to leave his job as a postman. This cooperative effect, seen in thousands of TikTok videos surely aids the depiction of art in TikToks.
One of the most persuasive examples of art coming from TikTok can be seen in ‘Ratatouille the Musical’, a crowdsourced musical based on the 2007 Disney/Pixar film, originating from TikTok. In August 2020, teacher Emily Jacobsen created a short comedic song, based on the film, in a TikTok video on her own private channel. Just as with Evans’ Wellerman video, other users remixed and added to each other’s videos, eventually envisioning an entire musical. Artists from multiple professions came together to design, choreograph, orchestrate and write a charity benefit concert in January 2021. From just one single video, an entire performance presentation had been made.
It could be argued that it is the production of this musical that is the artistic piece, rather than the original clip itself, but this shows the importance of each homemade video and the incredible things it can lead to. One of the arguments against TikToks being considered art lies in their length. The app limits videos to either 15 or 60 seconds, perhaps limiting ingenuity and creativity as users are asked to create something entertaining in such a short time. However, if films are widely accepted art, it seems hard to disagree with the assertion that short films, even of just 15 seconds can also be considered as art.
Overall, it seems that while a large proportion of TikToks may be individuals making silly short videos, something bigger can be brought out from it. The app provides a platform to express individuality and artistic talent in a free and easy manner. Never before have karaoke covers, dance routines and comedic stories been able to reach millions of people around the world, completely for free. For many people, TikTok provides a sense of communities amongst users and enables artistic collaboration in a unique way. It’s bigger than just individuals, it connects us all through creativity. For this reason, it seems that TikTok videos, no matter how long or how small the budget, can indeed be seen as art.
The Drama About Period Dramas
To be historically accurate, or not to be historically accurate: that is the question. With period dramas being a staple in the UK film and television industry, there is intense discourse over the way in which they should be carried out. Catherine Mullner will investigate the argument for historical accuracy in period dramas, and what shows like Netflix’s “Bridgerton” and Hulu’s “The Great” spell for the future of the genre.
Let me take you on a trip down memory lane. It’s 2007, and after fighting with my little sister over who got to play with the Polly Pockets, I wander into my parent’s room to bother them, as one usually does.
I start to wiggle my arms out to my Mom sitting in her chair and repeating her name like a religious chant.
“Mom, mom, mom, mom mo--.”
“Not now baby, Colin is on.”
Deciding to quiet down, I walk over and sit next to her, Polly Pocket in hand. On the screen, I see a beautiful green meadow, a sprawling estate, and a man in a white shirt.
I didn’t understand it at the time, but I was watching one of the most iconic scenes in television history. Colin Firth as Fitzwilliam Darcy majestically emerging from his estate’s pond in a clinging wet tshirt in BBC1’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice will forever be remembered.
Although many associate history with a subject that is tedious, it is in the world of historical drama/period drama that people can see all the tension and, well, drama of history come to life (especially in the form of Colin Firth in a clinging wet shirt).
In “Fact Through Fiction: A Case Study of Televised Historical Drama’s Influence on Audiences’ Perceptions of the Past” by Katherine Anne Donahue, she references a poignant quote by Robert Rosenstone, “the increasing presence of the visual media in modern culture and the vast increase in TV channels seems to ensure that most people now get their knowledge of the past, once school is over, from visual media.”
Period dramas give audiences the opportunity to see and explore different eras and perspectives at a touch of a fingertip. While it is incredible to have this much information and entertainment on hand, many have made the argument that period dramas have a responsibility to provide historical accuracy as much as they can.
Whether it’s outrage at the liberty taken with historical events, such as with The Kennedys (2011), or anger at inaccurate costuming, such as in Downton Abbey (2010-2015) or recently Bridgerton (2020-), there will always be upset viewers with every period drama.
So, how do we find a balance in creating a period drama with enough historical accuracy while appealing to the appetite for drama and entertainment in general audiences?
Assuming an audience
It was best said by Radio Times writer Gareth McLean in a 2018 History Extra article on the subject of historical accuracy in period tramas: “Audiences are not stupid… They can make up their own minds and if they want to find out more then they can do a bit of research around the subject.”
Every select audience of a genre in media has an assumed psychology around it. For those who enjoy or consume period dramas regularly, there are specific expectations assumed by producers. Target audiences for most period dramas tend to be women ages seventeen to fifty specifically. Traits many associate with these audiences are usually are interests in history, romance, and emotional intelligence.
Therefore, you have audiences and their subsequent shows between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, you have the fear and assumption that if audiences see inaccuracies in costuming and wardrobe (i.e. anyone with side bangs in Victorian England) they will immediately complain, and therefore deem the whole show thoughtless. Yet, thinking back to Garth McLean’s words above, to surrender plot, character development, and theme construction for the sake of historical accuracy is not only pandering to audiences, but detrimental for the show itself.
The study of history, some could argue, is about translating the past to a present mindset. There will be errors in translation and different interpretations based on the translator’s background and
Historical accuracy is not the ultimate end all to a show’s success in translating the themes and story they seek to portray. Period dramas don’t need to recreate 1920’s America brick by brick; they do, however, need to draw us into the world they have decided to set their story in and immerse us into the perspectives of their characters. This is then, as many expect, done through trying to make the set, costuming, and dialogue historically accurate.
Yet, while that is admirable to do, it does not make a series or film ultimately “good”, if we can use that broad definition here. What viewers remember about a show is how it made them feel as people, not whether or not there really were yellow double lines on the road in that one episode of Downton Abbey (2010-2015).
The Issue of Complete Accuracy in the 21st Century
Ultimately, I’d like to offer up the fact that it can not be a period drama without some form of dramatisation.
Whether that comes in the form of modern dialogue in films like The Favourite (2018) or wildly inaccurate but incredibly fun gowns in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) (which can be seen as a trailblazer for the success of such programmes as Bridgerton and The Great), period dramas are allowed to use different methods to dramatise historical events and therefore qualify as a drama, in the theatrical sense.
Furthermore, opening up areas of arts and media that have often been closed off to POC performers and artists is truly more important than retaining absolute historical accuracy. To enjoy the work of POC artists while continually barring them from productions such as period dramas is incredibly hypocritical.
Some have argued in the not so recent past that having a diverse cast in period dramas set in a time when this would have been impossible ruins the integrity of the show.
However, that line of reasoning falls apart when we look at the multitude of period dramas that portray historical figures in a dramatised and romantic way -- i.e. a historically inaccurate way. We are ready and eager to accept inaccuracy when it is within the safe realm of Eurocentrism we know, yet some cannot fathom the idea of a POC actor having a main role in a regency era production that is already completely dramatised.
Let me remind you here too that audiences were completely fine accepting that an actor like Eric Bana (featured below) was perfect for the role of Henry VIII in The Other Boleyn Girl (2008), which quite frankly was like having Robert Pattinson do a biopic portrayal of Danny Devito as the Penguin in Batman Returns (1992).
The reasoning that POC actors cannot participate in period drama productions has the same ring as those who argue that confederate statues should be kept up in the United States because they are “part of history.”
History is living and breathing with us everyday, and the way we portray it is very much about how our society is today, not how it was two hundred years ago
I am not declaring that it is an absolute requirement from 2021 onwards that all period dramas that can do colour blind casting or colour conscious casting have to. To define, colour conscious casting is “...the belief that actors and actresses in major motion pictures, television series, and on stage performances of the theatre ought to be cast in a manner which intentionally considers their race and ethnicity in order to prevent the continuation of the racist traditions of show business that were once completely acceptable”. For more information, check out this article on Color-Conscious Casting – Civic Issue Blog (psu.edu) by Chloe Crager.
So, if one is creating a period drama that’s main plot does not revolve around an issue of racial equality in history (i.e. perhaps a show set in Civil War era America), then I think it is important to consider and think over why you do not want to have a colour conscious cast in your production.
An example of excellent colour blind casting for the time is Rodger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (1997) featuring the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Whitney Houston, Brandy, and Paolo Montalban, where Brandy made history as the first Black actress to portray Cinderella. This film, although not technically a period drama, is today regarded as one of the best versions of Cinderella in modern media, both because of its costuming, strong heroine, and diverse cast.
More recent examples of period dramas that have looked beyond the traditional all-white cast for their renditions of popular Dickens, Austen, and Shakespeare stories are Armando Ianucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield (2013) starring Dev Patel, Belle (2013) starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and now Hulu’s The Great and Netflix’s Bridgerton.
I would put forth the key point here that the argument for historical accuracy is highly dependent on what the show promises to deliver on that front.
For example, the creator of The Great Yorgos Lanthimos has labeled the show “anti-historical”. As a result, the show took further liberties with the history around Catherine the Great, and featured Elle Fanning in a hot pink ball gown and an incredibly diverse cast, including POC actors Sacha Dhawan, Denusia Samal, and Sebastian De Souza.
This is where most of you will now turn against me when I say that here lies my issue with Netflix’s Bridgerton. Whether you absolutely hate Bridgerton or love it, it has reported that it has reached 82 million households globally. With stunning (although notably inaccurate) costuming and explicit sex scenes, Bridgerton is the pinnacle of the modern period drama. However, with a cast that only features a handful of light-skinned Black actors in speaking roles and an otherwise predominantly all-white main cast, producer Shonda Rhimes and creator Chris Van Dusen promising to “explore issues like gender and class and race and sexuality” seems slightly slacking.
Perhaps that is harsh in light of the otherwise successful release of this program, however when compared to other period dramas that have enlisted very diverse casts in similar eras, it still relies on outdated, colourist stereotypes to determine what roles POC performers are constrained to.
For more food for thought, I would check out “Why Bridgerton is Problematic”, a video from the Inclusion in Costuming Panel 2021 that I have linked below. In this video, the women on this panel discuss their specific issues in Bridgerton and the barriers they still see in something that has been declared “ahead of its time.”
Ending Thoughts (I Promise, it is the End)
Representation is power. While white viewers are used to seeing themselves dominating the screen, especially in the typical period drama, there are countless barriers to entry that POC performers, producers, and designers face in trying to get to that same exact spot.
As mentioned in a 2020 BBC article, “Is it time the all-white period drama was made extinct?”, Hanna Flint writes: “A multiracial Britain existed before revisionists and colonialist apologisers began white-washing books and tomes.”
To continue the narrative that POC lives were not autonomous until the twentieth century and beyond is not only ignorant, but harmful.
Everyone deserves to see themselves on screen. Whether or not that’s as Emma in the next production I’m sure will come out in five years, or as Pip in Great Expectations, is up to how much intolerance we as an audience tolerate.
The Muse - Or a Reflection on How Far We Will Go To Forgive Male Genius
Paola Cordova scrutinizes the tradition of turning a blind eye to the sins of genius
If I can’t have you- no one can.
Those words trigger a shiver down the spine, don’t they? They evoke the image (at least personally) of a man about to inflict damage on his partner in a fit of jealousy or rage, a controlling outburst of anger that can largely be attributed to- put quite bluntly- misogyny. Intimate partner violence can be observed on an almost daily basis in a multitude of forms, some on an escalating level that has terrifying consequences.
One of the many ways I have seen intimate partner violence develop can be chalked up to the idea of using a woman with the purpose of discarding her- taking her for everything she has to offer and using and abusing it until she is perceived as “worthless” by her male counterpart. It implies that a woman is an object, something to be used by a subject with an external value determined by a marketplace developed to serve the male gaze. It is also something that artists and creatives have been particularly guilty of doing for centuries, but mainly in the past couple of centuries or so, as they have gained celebrity status in the eyes of the public.
We study and observe the work of Pablo Picasso in awe, even though he exploited and abused most of the women who came into his life. With his famous Goddess-Doormat (something he verbatim stated) dichotomous view of women in general, the man was well known for having a multitude of lovers who spoke out about how horrifying his treatment was toward them after their relationships ended (look no further than former lover Francoise Gilot’s memoir). He would even go on to explicitly say “Every time I change wives, I should burn the last one” and add in a sadistic fashion “That way I’d be rid of them.” It is no wonder two of them committed suicide on account of him.
We forgive the sins of syphilitic pedophile Paul Gauguin, we ignore the deeply exploitative behaviors of Auguste Rodin toward Camille Claudel, and even go as far to pretend that Carl Andre had nothing to do with Ana Mendieta’s “accidental” death despite all evidence pointing to the contrary. These men all had something in common: we label them all geniuses and ignore the connotation of the label itself. Linda Nochlin asked the question in her acclaimed 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” and posits the idea that these “genius” men would be no one and nowhere without the women in their lives and the resources that come with male privilege. This mystical genius is only a genius because he (and it is always “he”) can exploit whatever and whomever he wishes to achieve his goals- and then it is justifiable, because his ideas were perceived as truly being that wonderful, innovative, and singularly belonging to his mind. Ends always justify the means when it comes to the genius, and society has a never ending list of excuses to forgive and venerate the destruction they caused.
To backtrack for a second- let’s return to Ana Mendieta. The successful, revolutionary Cuban American feminist performance artist was at the height of her career in the 1980s when she decided to marry the acclaimed and famed Carl Andre. Neighbors claim to have heard them quarrelling next door- both intoxicated- before hearing the words “No no no no” and a body hitting the ground after falling over 30 stories. She was wearing only blue undergarments, and he had visible scratches on his face.
The 911 call that Andre conducted to the police had him explaining that they were arguing simply because of the fact that she was jealous of his exposure as an artist being a star on the rise herself. He explained that she had “somehow gone out the window” and provided nothing much further- something that aroused deep suspicion in the police as well as Mendieta’s friends. He also claimed not to have remembered what happened, providing the explanation that he was inebriated and that she might just have chosen to jump out of the window of her own volition (despite her well-known fear of heights).
Contradictions were abundant in the interviews held between Andre and law enforcement, and most of the evidence cited by the people defending him in court was related to Mendieta’s art as proof that she was depressed enough to commit suicide. The judiciary system skewed itself in his favor at every turn, whereupon his case was not cross examined by a prosecutor, and he eventually was deemed innocent- the O.J. Simpson of his day if you will. A New York Times article was published following his acquittal in 1988 with statements from her mother and sister providing that Mendieta was “planning to divorce Mr. Andre because of his infidelities and that she had hired a detective to follow him.” All of her family remained convinced he had murdered her in cold blood.
Feminist groups like the Guerilla Girls (see above) were outraged at the response of the legal system after Andre was acquitted of Mendieta’s murder. Even more outrage was sparked at the idea that Andre’s career was relatively untouched by the scandal- with his art being included in exhibitions and museums of great prestige (i.e. the Tate in 2015). Books were written about her death, and the anger continues to burn on in the hearts and minds of all who knew better than to believe the crooked trial Andre was put through, and the question continues to be asked- Where is Ana Mendieta? She’s absent in the first few Google searches of his name, but he shows up immediately when you look her up. We have chosen to ignore her pain and suffering, the violence and double standards that she critiqued so blatantly in her work all under the omissive guise of “separating the artist from the art.” Forgiving Carl Andre’s “genius” simply because he was never outright convicted of femicide seems, in this case, reductive. We make too many excuses for the wrong things and people with the “two sides” narrative, where false neutrality has continuously perpetrated violence to a bone chilling degree.
We say that cancel culture can destroy a man’s career and take everything away from him, that the evil feminists have now made this a woman’s world where men have little to no agency, but to what extent is this true? I echo the sentiment surrounding Brock Turner’s 2016 sexual assault trial- where news outlets were putting a rapist’s swimming career before the humanity and basic dignity of the woman whose life he heinously affected. Why do we pick and choose with such liberty at the expense of those who suffer? Why are we okay with Chris Brown continuing to make music and letting his albums top charts despite his (not so distant) past with domestic abuse? More than anything- what don’t we know? We normalize intimate partner violence to the degree at which even the vilest things are excusable, and all in the name of the “genius.” Changing that is something we owe Ana Mendieta and all the other women who have suffered at his altar.
Cooking: An Art or a Science?
Erica Ostlander and Vanessa Silvera investigate the history and creative expression of cooking.
Image(s): Web Gallery of Art , Andrea Commodi, Young woman in kitchen, 1600s
The preparation of food is essential for survival, allowing people to safely feed themselves and store enough energy to perform tasks throughout the day. On the face of it, cooking is a science of chemistry and physics, where amino acids and sugars combine to create browned bread and vegetables are ripened for a nutrient-rich snack. However, people have been known to enjoy taking creative liberties in the kitchen and have an intrinsic need to satisfy both our physical and mental needs. This overlap between heart and mind is seen in the role food plays in culture, with dishes varying around the world and across small communities. The opportunity to blend taste and presentation to create a sensuous showpiece demonstrates how personal food preparation can be to the human soul. The differences between science and art are clear and distinct, but the similarities found in cooking have the ability to bring out new ways of analysing ourselves and what we create.
Erica: I have always been fascinated with how people can take a basic rule of survival: to eat, and create a profound experience that is inseparable from our daily existence. I think the way we prepare food is a practice that is unique to ourselves, as it combines what we learn while growing up and watching others, with our own values when it comes to what we present on our plates. For example, I believe everyone has their own distinctive way of preparing eggs that I have not seen perfectly replicated once. The way we grease the pan, the choice of whether to scramble the yolk or leave it sunny-side up, and the cooking time all are personal to our environment and instincts. My definition of art is simple: anything that expresses human creativity and imagination, and this includes creations that may not fall under the traditional categories of art. Under this loose definition and through my belief that anything we create is art, then maybe our breakfast gets to be the art we wake up to every day.
Vanessa: I certainly agree that a ritual as simple as making scrambled eggs in the morning can be a very personal experience, not only in terms of tastes and preferences, but also in how we think about memory. Most people can probably recall at least one family recipe that has been passed down generation from generation. In my case, my parents are Colombian and one of our favorite meals in our household are homemade arepas (cornmeal cakes), but every Colombian family prepares their arepas differently, and mine is no exception. Arguments can be made for whether cooking is an art or science, but I’d like to propose it can be either or both depending on how you look at it. However, I think there is a hierarchy within the arts and cooking is usually left out of that conversation entirely. We don’t have to look much further than food art to realize that it is equally meritorious and deserving of recognition as other artforms.
Erica: I agree that food as art often goes overlooked in the professional arts community, but it has also proved to be an effective inspiration for experimental art and movements in performance art. For example, in 2015 the Getty Research Institute opened “The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals,” where sugar models decorated the halls and bread was accepted material for architectural sculptures. Peter Nadin, an artist famous for using his resources from his farm in creating his art, hung up cured meats for his contribution to comment on the state of the food industry. These artists made political statements with food, some to bring forward issues in food production, while others worked to push forward the discussion on feminism and cultural divides. One of my favourite examples of this is Sarah Lucas’s work entitled Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, where food was used to represent the female body on a table to reflect back to the viewer society’s derogatory view of the women as a sex symbol. By comparing our need to consume food to a human body, Lucas was able to make a statement by building upon our complex relationship with food. Although this type of art is mostly shown in a small space in the artist community, it gives us the chance to see how our relationship with food changes our perception of the world. Cooking is a key part of our lives, and amidst the current pandemic, we are given more chances to explore how we can treat our meals differently
Image(s): Prestige Online
Vanessa: I’m not sure if you’ve picked up on this, but since the outbreak of COVID-19, there’s definitely been a surge in the number of recipes going viral, in part thanks to social media. I remember at the start of lockdown, for some reason it became really popular to make banana bread and Dalgona coffee, which began as a Tik Tok trend and has become the defacto beverage of 2020. Would you say that more time spent indoors has provided the opportunity for culinary experimentation?
Erica: I think our daily routines are changing in many ways, especially in the ways that people are preparing food for themselves. Isolation has forced people to find new ways to channel their surplus of energy into tasks that so often go ignored under normal circumstances. A beautiful presentation of food on a plate was once a privilege few could have, but now that time is being granted in excess, more people are allowing themselves to experiment with their meals. I have also noticed more people documenting their meals on social media along with a rise of home-bound food businesses like cake decorating services and meal kits. Some of my personal favourites of these accounts are @cakes4sport, @cookingaesthetics_, and @doofmagazinewhich all help showcase how food can be experimental, intimate, and imaginative, all of which describes the fundamentals of a work of art.
Vanessa: Couldn’t have said it better myself. There’s really something beautiful about an emerging foodie online community during a time of hardship, it kind of reminds us that despite coming from different backgrounds or walks of life we are all brought together by this common experience. Even if you’re not much of a chef, there is still plenty of creative license to be had even if that decision is as simple as adding salt or no salt. But in my opinion, just about everything tastes better with a bit of salt.
From the moment we wake up, we’re thinking about breakfast and within hours we’re ransacking the fridge for a snack or two. However mundane fixing a quick sandwich on your lunch break may seem, it is an integral part of our daily routines and the human condition. The art of cooking lies in the unique choices we make from its very inception; beginning with the idea, followed by the ingredients all the way to the plating. Like a series of performances of the same play, no two plates will ever be executed identically. In sum, the kitchen is our studio, food is our medium, and the sky’s the limit in how we choose to express ourselves. Bon appetit!
Muse of the Month
Griffin Godsick discusses one of Broadway’s most promising luminaries
My muse is… Rachel Chavkin, artistic visionary and theatrical titan.
She is… a trailblazing musical stage director who has risen to prominence with her work on shows such as Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 and Hadestown, and as the founding Artistic Director of the Brooklyn-based performing ensemble The TEAM. She specializes in developing pieces in their infancy in collaboration with the writers, which truly gives her works a unique synergy with the music/lyrics, and the actions occurring on stage. As there is a dearth of prominent female directors working in theatre today, with Diane Paulus and Julie Taymor perhaps the only other household names, Chavkin’s meteoric rise has been all the more significant. In the span of three years, she has garnered two Best Director Tony nominations, one of which she won, directed a feature film, and used her platform to make an impassioned plea to the industry for more female and POC representation. Not too shabby for someone who only just turned 40.
I first learned about her when… I attended a performance of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 on Broadway in 2016. This electro-pop opera, based on an 80-page slice of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, was mesmerizing to me, with a seamless fusion of a myriad of different musical styles, from Russian folk to traditional musical theatre, from dubstep to jazz. The Imperial Theatre, where I had attended multiple shows previously, was completely overhauled, with over one hundred seats being strategically placed on the stage itself. I was lucky enough to be situated in the front row of the stage, which allowed many of the cast members to interact with me as they sang and danced. This immersive experience wasn’t limited to the audience members on the stage however, with the chaotically beautiful choreography reaching even the heights of the mezzanine. The staging had a raw dynamism, with every actor in the 20-something person cast in a constant state of motion or action, always giving the audience something engaging to follow. Every character had distinct ways of moving, further visually enthralling the audience. While the production marked Chavkin’s debut on the Great White Way, the meticulous planning of every aspect of the blocking indicated the eye and mind of a creative auteur.
I am obsessed because… Chavkin approaches the staging and bringing to life of musicals in a completely fresh and original manner. Theatre has been an essential aspect of artistic culture for hundreds of years, and rarely has it been reinvented in such striking fashion. Chavkin’s style of directing somehow combines the intimate exclusivity of immersive theatre with grand spectacle rarely seen on-stage. The works that she chooses to develop tend to be bold re-imaginings of existing pieces of literature, further appealing to the English student in me. For my money, she is the only current Broadway director who is as much of an attraction as the lead actors or composer, and I can’t wait to see what kind of genius she unveils next.
My favorite work by her is… Hadestown, the recent Tony-winning Best Musical retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Euridyce. This is ancient mythology by way of industrial New Orleans blues, which although might sound like a strange pairing, actually serves to bring out the best of each individual aspect. A central turntable platform is utilized to great effect in enhancing the mobility of the actors and giving levels to the staging. In Orpheus’ plea to Euridyce, ‘Wait For Me’, four swinging lanterns are manipulated by chorus members to intensify an already incredibly energetic number. Chavkin’s decision to place the orchestra visibly on-stage as a Muse-like band omnipresent in the proceedings is a clever device in order to complement the meta-theatrical framing of the show. When Broadway inevitably re-opens, hopefully sooner rather than later, I urge everyone to go and witness this spellbinding artistic achievement.
The work by her you absolutely have to check out is… the recent A.R.T. production of Moby Dick in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This musical adaptation of Herman Melville’s famously long magnum opus reunited Chavkin with Great Comet composer, lyricist, librettist, and orchestrator Dave Malloy, another one of New York’s most exciting creative minds. While it had a relatively short run, and there isn’t currently a cast album to listen to obsessively, the show received fantastic reviews, and was primed for a Broadway transfer before the pandemic hit. Here’s hoping that Ishmael and Co aren’t dead in the water, as I will be the first person in line if it opens in New York.