I meant to start this project yesterday. Which is nice and ironic. But also it’s an excellent lesson in not giving up when you hit a smol mistake. Or judging yourself too harshly. And thus: my blog.
A 30-Year-Old Attempts to Glow-Up After Graduating an MFA Program Post-Pandemic
I’m A Brick House, and I’m Putting Myself in Order
Mondays w/ Maggie
…the title is still being workshopped.
Ok so anytime I say the words “glow-up” or “cottagecore” my boyfriend is like “i don’t know what that means” and I say “well cottagecore is an aesthtic or sense of style – very visual. Glowing-up is basically the same concept as leveling-up, but usually with a focus on beauty or physical attributes.” And like. Good job me. That MFA in theatre really came in handy with comprehension and communication skillz. So I was bopping around on the social media sphere and was like “I want to try…what could I try?” And then I was like “oh a glow-up” but then I was like “wait I’m already pretty and also do I WANT to like go on a weight-loss journey aren’t I a body positivity queen wait wait wait” and thus the existential spiral commenced.
Weight as a topic generally feels really loaded and tense for me to confront critically. It was one of the things my first-ever boyfriend helped me realize: that I was bigger but still sexy, still desirable. That “but” didn’t turn in to an “and” for me until 5 years later at 29, after unchecked years of deep, subconscious self-loathing and an unfortunate anonymous rape that sent me spiraling and certainly landed me at my heaviest-ever weight (no numbers from that time to confirm, but the pics say my face was rounder and the bod was padded and it was DEFINITELY because I ate a pork burger nearly every day for like 4 months….typing it out loud makes me p sad, but ya know: truth is truth and vulnerability will set me free.
I am also not my current boyfriend’s ideal figure of femininity, either. We’ve been friends for a number of years, and a few summers back this revelation sent me spiraling into a few months of self-hate and refusal to wear shorts through the sticky end of an East Coast summer. When we were discussing the possibility of dating this time around, this opinion came up again and is more a challenge we’ve agreed to work on together, from opposite perspectives (he’s doing internal work to dismantle ‘ideal’ while i really consider what kind of habits are contributing to my overall health and this body / beauty).
This obviously comes with its own set of issues and tough days, but we talk regularly about healthy-for-my-brain goals that are adjacent to weight loss and generally encompass it as a side-effect: eating choices, more regular exercise, energy level and sleep, physical health goals as the scaffolding for progress rather than body weight numbers, etc. I say frequently that I may *not* lose weight…this could be what he gets, and he’s quite a lovely partner in those moments. He encourages me in my health goals AND helps me know he finds me sexy (in spite of not being an ideal *facepalm).
And so when I think about a ‘glow-up’ and watch through a couple YouTube videos of really beautiful women giving other women advice on how to glow-up in their 30s, I’m a little like ‘…I’ve already got a savings account. I’ve already got a therapist. I am already invested in my skincare. I am already pretty darn social. I already more or less like myself. ‘ … It really seems like this sphere of the internet, focused on self-examination and advice-giving, is in a “grow-up” vein rather than “glow-up.” Like…I want to get to polishing this gal that I got rather that starting from relative scratch.
Besides. Every large endeavor usually feels like you’re starting from scratch (insert facepalm emoji).
All this to say: I think I will try documenting progress here in blog form and MAYBE get a vlog-format going? We’ll try. One of the big things I’m trying to glow-up is my consistency and commitment to personal projects. So here is where I will list some goals, and you can maybe check back to read about them if you have time and desire:
Lift some impressive amount of weight (tbd with help from boyfriend) by end of summer
Run 1 mile by end of summer
10 push-ups by end of summer
Yoga for 30 days during July
Eat a plant-based diet for weekdays during July
I’m sure there are non-health / physical fitness goals to be added, but let’s start here shall we? ❤
Good mooooorning everyone, my name is Velonia, but you can call me Velly Clit. All my friends do…at least they did until I left our Quarantine Cottage on the eastern shore last week. This morning I certainly had an ~aim~ of giving you an entertaining, scintillating yet quaint show today. Normally a “brunch” should would be in person with a uniform selection of pancake-like breakfast options and pork products…and I do hope you at least have some coffee, but here in my town I’m not able to perform in public without a mask yet until I’ve been fully vaccinated. So here I am in limbo…Someone broke up with me recently. I can’t quite remember which one it was, though … I feel like his name started with an ‘R…?’ Rrrrichard? Rrrrobert? Rrrroger? Mmm, yes, it must have been Roger. Richard’s dick was too thick and Rob’s knob was a slob…literally it wouldn’ stay hard unless I dressed like a sow and rolled around in the “mud” … which I can’t imagine is kosher, but then again when has fecal-play ever been considered “kosher?”
Takes a drink
Well, let’s get going.
Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off Things have come to a pretty pass Our romance is growing flat For you like this and the other While I go for this and that Goodness knows what the end will be; Oh, I don’t know where I’m at… It looks as if we two will never be one Something must be done
(Chorus 1) You say Havana and I say Havahna You say banana and I say banahna; Havana, Havahna, banana, banahna Let’s call the whole thing off!
You like potato and I like potahto You like tomato and I like tomahto; Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto! Let’s call the whole thing off!
But oh! If we call the whole thing off Then we must part And oh! If we ever part Then that might break my heart! So, if you like pyjamas and I like pyjahmas I’ll wear pyjamas and give up pyjahmas For we know we need each other So we better call the calling off off Let’s call the whole thing off!
(Chorus 2) You say vanilla and I say vaneela You say Corona and I say COVID; vanilla, vaneela, or chocolate, strawberry Let’s call the whole thing off!
You say Johnson and I say Johnson You, got Pfizer and I got Moderna; Johnson and Johnson, or any fucking vaccine on the market really! Let’s call the whole thing off!
But oh! If we call the whole thing off Then we must part And oh! If we ever part Then that might break my heart! So, if you go for oysters and I go for ersters I’ll order oysters and cancel the ersters For we know we need each other So we better call the calling off off! Let’s call the whole thing off!
it’s been about a week since Roger has broken up with me, and it’s completely and totally thrown me off balance. My gravitational pull is out of whack now that I don’t have him in my orbit…i’ve been lying down a lot for who knows why … that was Roger’s favorite way to use gravity. Spin me around, knock me over, and suddenly we have a black hole exploration out of nowhere. Or sometimes honestly just the right little fuzzy ball in the mouth at the right time…you end up on your back for weeks…
Takes a drink
In case you were wondering…Roger broke it off because I signed up for my vaccine last week. There have been vaccines out for a while now, but of course most of our friends have been laughing it up off the eastern shore waiting for the offices to open back up to go back to brokering stock portfolios or reviewing divorce case files. We all grew up in Fairmont and most of the boys became white collared and red faced while the rest of us girls spent 1-2 years doing honorable service as artists models before becoming fresh-baked pies or perfume bottles or hand-embroidered toilet seat covers. It’s not that hard being a peach pie during a pandemic, especially when jam is in demand.
***THE NEIGHBOR WHO CAUGHT COVID – re-write (WEBCAM)
I, as a mere woman, a peaceful female, who, when it comes to difficult situations in life, has also proved to be harmless and accommodating to men, of a contemplative, may I say philosophical, nature, really have nothing to do here in person, although urged by an irresistible compulsion, to appear amongst you with that dignified composure and scientific meekness, fraught with the weighty earnestness of the moment, here at this abyss of manifold and unheard-of symptoms which seems to be clad in known treatments, but in reality is decked out (to speak pictorially) with deceptive blossoms whose roots have poked out of their spherical manifestation and revealed themselves to be a destructive poison, for nothing in this world, not consideration for my own physical safety nor the fear of future persecution nor any particular idea of a moralistic, intellectual, material or even purely aesthetic sort will restrain me from revealing the truth: it may begin with fever or chills and develop into a shortness of breath or an overall difficulty breathing, whereby your body will fatigue and ache requiring an amount of stagnant rest that is met with a drumming in the head, a pounding persisting on your skull that ultimately overrides your sense of smell and consequently or convolutedly your sense of taste; the pounding in the head will shift and morph to a sore throat that will be met in like-minded fashion by a running nose in tandem with congestion, reigniting the pounding in your head to the point of nausea that your fatigued body cannot comprehend as a sound or logical response to its growing weariness; perhaps this weariness will infect your mind and new confusion settles in across your forehead as your lips and nails pale and shrink back from the rose-tinted normalcy we all knew a year ago. Perhaps your skin will turn blue as my heart and you’ll need assistance breathing, because catching your breath during heartbreak is nearly impossible. What if you go to the grocery store and you pass the passion fruit on your way to a six-pack…is that crown you’ve stumbled upon a cursed object – a guest entering our home that we never invited over to begin with? You’re the bell of the ball, and your breath will be taken away.
Roger said he was afraid my peach pie would shrivel up into a pit pocket. He said he was afraid that any future progeny with me would have two heads or an extraordinary ability to count. He said vaccines are the modern equivalent to a witch’s brew and that the doctors who concocted them were footsoldiers of the devil. He said that a microchip gets implanted with any shot handed out by the government, and until i could afford to purchase a designer doctor, I didn’t deserve his company.
It’s a real pickle when the man you want to fuck openly rebukes science.
Smile though your heart is aching Smile even though it’s breaking When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by If you smile through your fear and sorrow Smile and maybe tomorrow You’ll see the sun come shining through for you
Light up your face with gladness Hide every trace of sadness Although a tear may be ever so near That’s the time you must keep on trying Smile, what’s the use of crying? You’ll find that life is still worthwhile If you just smile
That’s the time you must keep on trying Smile, what’s the use of crying? You’ll find that life is still worthwhile If you just smile
Would you all mind if we took a small break? If there’s one thing a year in isolation has taught me it’s that being sad is a sort of spiral that lands you in a way of life full of no bathing eating cheezits and repeated episodes of the Golden Girls. It may be time to investigate a bit of an antidote. Standby, please.
Play TikTok “Mood” by 24k Golden video or “Supalonely” by Benee
Yes, We Have No Bananas
There’s a man in my DMs Who goes by “Mr. Yeet” Says he has “good things to eat” But you should hear him speak! When you ask him anything, he always answers “no” Or “IDK” or “yeah, I guess” and then I slow my roll I tell you
“Yes, we have no bananas We have-a no bananas today We’ve string beans, and onions CabBAHges, and scallions And all sorts of fruit and say We have an old fashioned to-mah-to A Long Island po-tah-to But yes, we have no bananas But try me the week after next!
Business got so bad for me that I wrote home to say “Mom and Dad, be glad for me, I’ve found another way. Men are trash is my refrain; I mean it don’t you bet.” A buzz in here, a plug in there, and I am heaven-set Because, boys:
Yes, we have no bananas We have no bananas today Just try those coconuts Those walnuts and doughnuts There ain’t many nuts like they We’ll sell you two kinds of red herring Dark brown, and ball-bearing But yes, we have no bananas We have no bananas today!
Getting a little naked and a little drunk is usually fine, right? When you’re hiding from how the man you “love” doesn’t love you enough to get vaccinated so we can reach herd immunity so we can go out in public again to actually see our friends and family? Can I have another shot, though? Is that allowed?
Takes a drink.
Listen, y’all. Men are garbage. It’s like first they want you to be disease-free and then when you try to take steps to *be* disease free they accuse you of being a witch. It’s like the market value is so low that the simplest things – showering, a compliment on how my eyes look nice, the smallest interest in my clitoris – they become these insanely rare collectors items! And if we’re all honest: aren’t we just trying to find someone to snuggle up for the end of times with? That’s what I did, and look how it turned out for me! Drunk and alone. Well. Not totally alone, I mean, you’re all here! Or there…
I didn’t think I’d actually be this excited for two shots in my arm. I never thought I’d be this scared of people. I never thought I’d be this scared of the air.
We’re very near something, though. Who’s to say which something will be best?
And if that isn’t the very DEFINITION of fun, then…i mean, isn’t it evidence that our dictionary is failing us?
Ain’t We Got Fun
Every morning, every evening Ain’t we got fun Not much money Oh, but honey Ain’t we got fun The rent’s unpaid dear And we haven’t a car But anyway dear How lucky we we are
In the winter, in the summer Ain’t we got fun? Times are bum and getting bummer Still we have fun. There’s nothing surer The rich get rich and the poor get poorer In the spring time, in the meantime Ain’t we got fun
Every morning, every evening Don’t we got fun Sins and cares dear Come in pairs dear Still we have fun We owe the butcher, She says it ain’t free Meanwhile please put your Lovin’ arms around me
Men are mad and getting madder Don’t we have fun Times are bad and getting badder Still we have fun And here’s the joker The rich get rich and the broke get broker In the meantime, in between time Ain’t we got fun
I’ll tell you, one time I was in the most dreadfully dull conversation with a theatre critic over that confounded musical and they kept yammering on about the inflation rates in Weimar, Germany that John Ebb and Fred Kander were so *smart* to put into that fucking *musical* to illustrate the INFLATION and how exotic a fucking pineapple MUST HAVE BEEN at that TIME and how the SONG contributes to the overall WORLD BUILDING of the PLAY.
And here I am, in the 21st year of the 21st century saying: good sir, it is just a PINEAPPLE, MAYBE a stretched metaphor about two old dotty fuckers falling in love and using FRUIT as a EUPHEMISM for sweet, old, boring, geriatric sex that we are all doomed to if we live to 60. Please. Move forward with your life. Find your geriatric sex partner.
Takes multiple shots
You know, I would trade the devil something very very valuable if he would just make Roger believe in vaccine science and get the goddamn shot….Nudes maybe. Or my entire political belief system…
Goebbels Propaganda Ordinance – COVID variation
I would indulge in cheap and frivolous vilification of the conditions of public life entailed by the necessity of a pandemic. It is imperative that so-called political jokes offer open *or* covert criticism of politics and the economic and cultural leadership of the Administration. How else will we win back the hearts of those well-hung members of society laced with vaccine hesitancy. They scoff at the informed characteristics of public health officials’ unique assessments and thereby contribute to imperiling the inner unity of the nation…and yet the dick. We cannot live without it. Which is the most important prerequisite for the victorious termination of this disease’s spread…herd immunity through unprotected sexual encounters with the unvaccinated population.
Is anyone actually *that* dick starved?
Considering that my repeated, earnestly enjoined admonitions of this particular brand of man have obviously borne no fruit and the old defects and liberal-democratic style of government continue to surface afresh, I find myself compelled more than ever to take decisive measures at protecting my own lung and labia capacity, limiting each’s proximity to the ignorant masses:
Comments by the proletariat, including the allegedly well-meaning, on circumstances and events of public life pertaining to the health and safety of the population are forbidden on my news feed.
It is forbidden to play one race off against another. All the forces of public life must be directed to the unity of the people. Problems which needlessly inflame emotions and which are of subordinate significance to the victorious carrying-out of the vaccination of the population will be barred from public discussion within my channels of influence. This decree represents an ultimate, earnest, and urgent admonition. Transgressions will be punished with the harshest penalties.
Get. Out. Of. My. D.M.s ROGER
I’m sorry this took such a turn. You’ve no idea how jealous I get of my fellow citizens, sitting outside under the sun close together, pretending that the air we exchange didn’t betray us. I spent the last year on the eastern shore with a man who chanted “Down with fascists” at my dear friend Dolly while throwing her grandmother’s banana bread recipe because she dared suggest we look into mask-wearing.
And really, it’s not so much the man I’ll miss.
I wish we could hold hands and exchange superficial pleasantries and … not have to commit to such a long termed shacking-up with someone you discover is an idiot in the midst of a quarantine.
I wish I could see you all. My mother was meant to come today.
I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone
All I know is that I’m in love with you Even though you say that we are through I know without your love I just can’t go on I wonder where our love has gone
Always thought you’d love me more and more Never dreamed you’d ever let me go I know without your love I just can’t go on I wonder where our love has gone
Oh what did I do, and what did I say Never could lead you to treat me this way If I’ve been untrue I’m willing to pay Darling, if that’s not enough I’ll do anything you say So darling, please, wherever you may be Hear my plea, hurry home to me I know without your love I just can’t go on I wonder where our love has gone
Oh what did I do, and what did I say Never could lead you to treat me this way If I’ve been untrue I’m willing to pay Darling, if that’s not enough I’ll do anything you say So darling, please, wherever you may be Hear my plea, hurry back to me I know without your love I just can’t go on I wonder where our love has gone
This thesis project ended up being a larger reflection of the journey I have taken on the rollercoaster that is graduate school in theatrical and performance design. When I began my time at Carnegie Mellon, I was firm in a mentality shaped not only by white supremacy but a consequent stigma against mental health disorders. In beginning my graduate studies, I experienced a massive shift in intensity and variety to my schedule. Then the past approximate year and a half provided an intensely surreal and disassociated experience due to COVID-19 quarantine protocols and the Black Lives Matter protests sparked the emotional and intellectual growing pains that have been specific and necessary. Though it is perhaps atypical to couch academic exploration and research so firmly within personal experience and anecdote, I feel it is important to understand the end result of my time, as the culmination is not only that of this year’s discrete effort of research and development but also of a personal revolution offered to me by this institution of higher education. I went from firmly holding on to the conviction that I would not seek medicated management for my Bipolar Disorder Type 2 to running through a year’s worth of trial and error to end in a balanced mixture of a mood-stabilizing anticonvulsant drug and an antidepressant. My tendency toward perfectionism and an implicit desire to have heavily structured social contracts has also been reframed in the way I have learned from my costume design cohort as well as the reflections made available through our A.R.T. classes last fall and the personal education made available in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor last spring. The amount of space and grace necessary to let go of embedded white supremacist values is immense, and it can be painful when my success has been couched in how “good” I am by any marker of societal productivity or (more common in the arts) public compassion. I have been guided by my classmates in a personal revolution to own my past problematic behavior and reach for a unified conception of how I want to lead, collaborate, and exist within this fragmented world in need of artistic expression.
I do not want to feel intense anxiety at the premise of being five minutes late; I do not want to assume I am more worthy of an opportunity than another designer or artist because I have a specific cultural background or am of a particular demographic makeup; I do not want my conception of power to be inherently hierarchical and rigid in structures of responsibility or accountability. I want to embody an artistic practice of curiosity, empathy, and welcome. I want defensiveness to be a final necessary resort once discussion and reflection have been fully processed. I want to celebrate other artists instead of envying them. I outline these major artistic and personal philosophical goals because I believe they are the foundation that makes for good research and synthesis of information. This project has offered a compassionate, critical assessment of our Western theatrical origins, and particularly of the homogenous populations that bore many of the artistic foundations we have integrated into our postmodern performance traditions. We are indebted to white men in our western theatrical tradition. Through the last year, this debt proved to be heavier than I necessarily knew; The lessons the arts have learned through this year in particular are broad and deep. One area in particular that I felt acutely aware of throughout this research project was how these origins that are ingrained in our theatre history books are asking to be exploded so that the full picture of performance tradition can inform the foundation we build on. Though I personally focused on the Western Theatrical tradition as I’ve learned it, further research and synthesis must find those black and brown founders of all different gender representations and cultural backgrounds so that their discoveries and legacies can be integrated into a wider whole and richer performance tradition.
This aim is a personally integrated foundation I hope to approach in this and in future iterations of my performance. For this “inaugural” performance as Velonia, I had a number of goals. First, to develop a performance persona that I could explore and expand upon in my future artistic practice. I have maintained for a few years now that, while I do not like acting, I do like attention, and performing as an activity holds an amount of appeal for me. I do identify as a fat woman, and the question about what types of performances, personalities, and opinions fat women are “allowed” to hold publically is one I contemplate frequently. Between stereotypes of being “sassy” or ignorant or depressed, many of celebrities and media productions have created room for fat women to occupy multiplicity in a way that has not been available before the 21st century. I also identify as mentally disabled and prone to addiction: two realities that do ground me in a legacy of messy, complex women who have been easily misunderstood and dismissed as stereotypical (i.e., hysterical). Though I’ve remained relatively sober throughout my time in grad school, in my younger years, I relied heavily on alcohol to act as a social lubricant and to tap into/encourage an amount of uninhibited behavior that made me feel powerful and alluring in the moment. Velonia is an opportunity to play out the behaviors I find myself wanting to engage in, be it drinking to the point of heavy intoxication or openly and broadly discussing sexual activities and preferences. Her personality is loose, ribald, and indecorous. These characteristics offer a wide margin for experimentation and error.
I wanted to look at a topic that paralleled socio-economic and political events from roughly 100 years ago, such as: the 1918 influenza pandemic compared to the current COVID-19 pandemic, the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S. and the tense presidential election between former President Trump and current President Biden, or the fall of Weimar Germany / rise of Nazism and the deeply energetic movement of Trumpism. While considering these topics in the fall semester, I realized quickly that planning out tightly historical and referential sets would become moot pending the literal history being made around me at the time. In the end, the final topic of the inaugural show necessarily became about the influence of a pandemic on a personal relationship. Its lasting impact on not only my life but my immediate community, industry, and the global citizenry has exposed various approaches and points of inquiry. This year as I’ve lived in a semi-state of isolation, closely interacting with a limited number of people and being able to physically touch even fewer people, my thoughts and plans for a future life partner and family quickly became a consistent topic of reflection. The limits of physical intimacy were heightened and apparent, and luckily, I was able to maintain emotionally intimate relationships not only in town but across the county.
As vaccinations went through trials and the potential to return to a level of normal interaction started to shine as a silver lining, I began thinking about my own endeavors into pandemic dating that happened toward the end of summer. The risk of meeting someone new is physically high, and the more obscured fallacy of diving into an emotionally intimate relationship relatively quickly to counteract the potential sunk cost of wasted time and attention is difficult to avoid. Though the inherent risk of spending time with and attention on someone you do not “click with” is during the best of times a scary enterprise for many of us under 40, the heightened national discourse of the last year (and truly, the last five years) makes the risk feel exponentially larger. Though this personal reflection is how I spent most of my quarantine, there was quite a lot of media coverage over couples who necessarily had to commit to living in close proximity or sudden excessive time together. This gave me my point of inquiry for Velonia to interact with the COVID-19 pandemic. She is meant to embody an uninhibited spirit, and the premise of coupling up with a person I am physically attracted to at the top of the pandemic fit well into that base characterization. However, the real contention of discovering that Velonia does not necessarily hold the same values as her sex partner offers a sublimated, hyperbolic metaphor and examination of the national discourse of public safety guidelines and efficacy/safety of the FDA approved vaccinations.
In terms of designing a costume for Velonia, I came across an article outlining the rise of the radio in Weimar Germany which ultimately became inconsequential to the development of my script. However, within this article, I learned that the 1923 song “Yes, We Have No Bananas!” originally written by Frank Silver and Irving Cohen had a German translation and was quite popular globally. The immediate association I had with this song was Josephine Baker’s infamous banana skirt, which is discussed in the 2016 Vogue magazine article by Morgan Jerkins, “90 Years Later, the Radical Power of Josephine Baker’s Banana Skirt,” as being part of the costume plot in a musical revue entitled La Revue Negre starring Baker in 1926.
The riff on Baker’s banana skirt and the legacy of exposing a body not within the societal norm of beauty demanded a ‘take’ on this costume. Through a series of my own synaptic associations and the result of living within the 21st year of the 21st century, the eggplant emerged as a relevant phallic symbol to create an appreciative version of this skirt. The continuation of this riff had me delighted at the prospect of singing, “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” while literally using a food item that is not a banana within the garment, ideally sparking an association for the audience to Baker’s original costume. The next interest I had in developing Velonia’s visual trajectory was thinking of a second “reveal” so to say, because cutting short at what essentially shakes out to be a decorated bikini begged the question, “why aren’t you going further?” The question about comfortability and exposing my plus-size body to what extent inspired me to scroll through Etsy and look through a selection of nipple pasties before landing on a set of rhinestone pineapple pasties – inspiring me to include in my script-writing an aside about “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” from the seminal Kander & Ebb musical Cabaret. The final piece to source was a “brunch dress” to open the act, positioning her as the upper-middle class trashy socialite who is a “pioneer in the experience of having manic depression and clairvoyance” (to quote my own practical check-in presentation). I chose a pale blue bias-cut dress recalling the early to mid 1930s, and I plan to pair it with curled hair, victory red lips, and dramatic eyelashes.
There will be a brief pause in the show to accommodate for a quick change that I hope to cover by a TikTok video of me lip syncing to the song “Mood” by 24k Golden. The lyrics to this song resonate with me as a person with Bipolar Disorder 2 because, when interpreted in a self-reflective manner, they bring out themes of self-criticism, coping mechanisms (compartmentalization and dissociation being the most operative and observable in my life), and an amount of self-destruction/actualization that can coexist within one body in one moment of time. I’m interested in including this interlude because it creates and highlights a grey space where “Maggie” and “Velonia” exist in tandem. The dismissal of a preciosity toward one’s “feelings” and an irreverent disillusionment with reality occupy the middle-ground between myself as a person and Velonia as a character. If this particular media moment is unable to be filmed, I will use “Supalonely” by Benee to cover the change. This same attitude and twisting of interpretation will appear throughout the “brunch” set.
My major emotional arc to Velonia is one of sadness. Sadness is a dangerous goal to play toward because it can become boring quickly. However, with the context for this performance being one of the final vestiges of “Zoom Theatre” in the guise of a brunch show before the world is fully open again, the layers of sadness I have experienced alongside my fellow citizens constitutes reflection. The “Zoom brunch” set helps mirror the position cabaret spaces were in toward the end of the 1920s and beginning in the 1930s, and the distance necessitated through our reality provides a framework for Velonia’s overall existentialism, melancholy, and disillusionment as she comes to terms with her sex partner abandoning her right before the dawn breaks and offers connection to other people in the same physical space. I hope to highlight that frivolity and shallow detachment can be defense mechanisms in the face of great personal strife and turmoil. When we look toward defining our personal goals and philosophies (for Velonia, this would be placing human connectivity as the most important thing) and honor those in response to hardship (be that a pandemic or a breakup), we’re left with a sort of mental fortitude and open vulnerability. To allow myself to be vulnerable and value emotional processing are two of my personal core goals. Though I plan to end on a sad song about heartbreak, the acceptance of that heartbreak and redefinition of it to include more people and more experiences than just Velonia’s sex partner will hopefully center that vulnerability and emotional processessing. My lived experience differs significantly from Velonia’s fictional one, but the feelings of loneliness, disillusionment, and grief are common to both of us. They deserve attention and time from performers and audiences alike. The cabaret of the early 20th century prioritized emotional processing by artistic experimentation throughout global and international tragedies; I hope to build upon that tradition with the development of my persona.
While Senelick and Appignanesi outline the origin and trajectory of the ephemeral idea of “cabaret’ performance, my primary aim is to expand upon this foundation to create my own persona and to root my performance endeavors in resonant source material. Though I am personally disappointed in the lack of women Senelick includes in his compendium, particularly in the nascent stages of the German cabaret, I nonetheless found a lot of joy in some of the texts contemporary to these German venues. From lists of House Rules to a parody of A Doll’s House (performed 3 ways, with different endings in different styles of famous theatre directors) to a singular woman named Margaret Beutler who performed feminist poems and songs under the psyeudonym “Revolver Mitzi,” it is clear that the ingenuity and lightness of spirit in conversation with sharp, satirical performance art was rooted in a burgeoning sense of existentialism. A number of pieces outline this existentialism and communal expectation of ironic detachment, particularly Ernst von Wolzogen’s House Rules for the Buntes Theatre (70) and the tongue-in-cheek “How to be a Humorist” by Otto Reutter, which outlines advice on how to get started in cabaret.
Senelick’s second volume begins by outlining a general social context on continental Europe for cabaret to thrive within. He quotes Russian poet Aleksander Blok in a 1908 diagnosis of “what is wrong with society today” and comes away with the central culprit of Irony. The parallels of Blok’s criticism to Kierkegaard’s tirade against apathetic consumption of mass media draws a golden thread from 1838 Denmark to 1908 Russia. Kierkegaard’s perennial relevant work “On Media” resurfaces at major culture shifts throughout time since its publication, and its core argument is on the blase, uncritical yet voracious consumption of media while still maintaining an ironic detachment. A similarly strong thread reaching through time from 1908 to the 21st century is the ironic detachment found in the manic arrested development of Millenial/Zillenial humor and the unaffected, precise criticism on socio-economic/political institutions and structures by Gen Z. The “omnivorous” quality that Senelick attributes to the cabaret is an imperfect analogy to the voracious appetite of social media performance subjects, particularly on platforms like the extinct Vine, TikTok, and the dissemination of screenshotted hot takes on Twitter, Tumblr, and Reddit. The bounds to topics explored or iterated on do not exist. Subject matter from literary modes/genres to gender representation/inclusion to tirades against capitalist systems/the redefinition of labor exist here among our non-physical corridors of intellectual exchange.
Though Senelick’s main point about the non-discriminate appetite of cabaret was primarily defining the bounds of what type of artistic experimentation flourished there, a more tightly parallel art form that mirrors our own prolific and broad sphere of discourse is that of dance. Senelick defines an absolute “craze” for dance halls and the activity. Part of this proliferation so agitated conservative citizens that one person ended up postering Berlin’s advertising kiosks with a flier reading, ” ‘Berlin, your dance is death.'” (7) This dance craze took off post-World War I and extended the expressionistic exploration of the body by seeing an uptick in nude public dancing, which Senelick analyzes as a product of three factors, two of which he does not elaborate on: healthy living groups and a juvenile reaction against Wilhelmine moralism. However, his third, most stirring analysis deals with veterans returning from war: “maimed war veterans were to be seen begging on every street and prostitution of all kinds throve as an economic necessity, the body objectified was regarded as a fitting medium of entertainment.” (7) This ‘body objectified’ analysis demonstrates disillusionment and danger when it comes to a nihilistic integration of observable realities. Anita Berber, a young silent film actress and model who ultimately died incredibly early due to drug use, is a prime example of these dangers. The tales of her life suggest a model for which to base the anecdotal character ‘Elsie’ off of in the Kander & Ebb song “Cabaret” featured in the titular 1970s musical.
However, the treatment of the “body objectified” as a reclaimed source of power has been a contentious and painful paradigm shift that we in the Millenial-and-younger generation are triumphing. Within the last few months, we saw a parallel outrage to the 20th century Berlin nude dance craze in the Top-40 hit WAP by Cardi B & Megan thee Stallion, produced during a time when bodily connection was discouraged due to a global pandemic. The fetishization and perceived degradation of the female body and source of self-esteem is a criticism public-facing, famous women must contend with no matter what their artistic aims. Artists who embrace this type of body objectified power receive heavier negative criticism than others. I draw inspiration from Anita Berber, Josephine Baker, Cardi B, and Megan thee Stallion because the power to claim and control one’s body is a postmodern revolution in the way of female agency. This inspiration helps to serve as a foundation for my persona’s costuming trajectory.
In the early 20th century, we see the iteration on Morgenstern’s Gallows Songs and the invention of the cabaret song, with a few cheeky and unique theatrical conventions, such as the Advertising Agency Affair by Nikolay Agnivtsev. This performance art piece, written by a Russian ex-patriot, highlights a few parallels we can make between our respective centuries. First, the refugee status all over the world was and is consistently on the rise. Second, the capacity for advertisements to mimic art has been integrated into such media platforms as YouTube, TikTok, and Spotify that this play by Agnivstev parallels quite comparably. It is an interesting critique on the proliferation of advertising materials, and it eerily predicts their integration into venues that encourage artistic exploration.
A second experimental theatrical piece I found particularly interesting and useful in my conceptions of a modern performance was The Neighbor by Hans von Gumppenberg (110-116). This semi-symbolist piece consists of a singular sentence, where a neighbor proclaims the taboo and shameful secrets the family have been living out to comedically dramatic effect, that ends up killing the members of the family through embarrassment. My approach will use a similar structure yet detail the contraction and ultimate death of someone who has gone through COVID-19. The Neighbor also highlights the general interest of artists in bodily experience and expression that allows for an exposing of hidden social taboos or mores that, when taken to the logical extreme, become clearly contrived and position us in an existentially reflective mode. There’s a paradigm shift within these experimental sketches that divorces explicit meaning from the visual and verbal content being watched that I shall explore. My initial instinct is to divorce the musical content from the spoken, verbal content that Velonia will perform.
The frenzied artistic movements of the early 20th century envisioned a “better world,” but it is impossible to separate that dream from the inherent racism and sexism defining the western world these artists were dreaming of. In particular, Wedekind’s work (and in even further particular, Spring Awakening) highlights the disparity between conceptions of sexual liberation as related to education offered to boys versus girls. The tragedy of the women he displayed calls into question whether the utopia envisioned could have been egalitarian toward all human life or was more likely reactionary and firmly under the conceptions of social hierarchy as outlined by race and sex. More accurately, the manifestoes and interests offered by many male cabaret artists simply lamented the futility of change rather than proposed any concrete visions for an egalitarian future.
The Futurists and Dadaists offer an interesting examination of the limits and boundaries of humor and comedy. By examining the trajectory of my persona’s performance and how I may define and propose any type of concrete change or shift in individual perspective, it’s curious to consider how the seedlings and sprouts of surrealism attempted to denote freedom in the world. By the time the Nazis began gaining power in Germany, the censorship applied to such movements was a top priority to reinforce cultural homogeneity. Allowing for a meandering and sometimes nonsensical approach will honor and utilize the philosophies laid down pre-Third Reich. With the current state of the country out of the Trump Administration and on its way toward majority population vaccination, it seems that the potential for joy, slight distraction, and decrying potential political ruin is more useful to Velonia’s development than waxing on about the parallels between the Third Reich and Trumpism.
It is from these cabaret spaces and the sense of play, and consequently, a more concentrated divorcing of spectacle and unified theatrical storytelling developed. Further serious-minded artistic movements were born out of these modernist techniques. Three such movements include the Futurists, the early Expressionists, and the Dadaists. The Futurists began in Italy at the behest of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and his 1913 manifesto. In line with Bierbaum’s introductory manifesto from just over a decade before, it purports the virtues and theoretical soundness of variety theatre. Giving public audiences distraction in the form of humor, eroticism, and highly imaginative creative spectacle, the manifesto encouraged a philosophical dismissal of ” ‘worn-out prototypes of the Beautiful, the Grand, the Solemn, the Religious, the Ferocious, the Seductive and the Terrifying, the Variety Theatre … destroys the Solemn, the Sacred, the Serious, and the Sublime in Art with a capital ‘A.'” (85) A breakdown between audience and entertainer highlighted these aims in the Futurist movement with the new expectation that popular/low culture could be the subject of “serious artistic experiment and socio-political critique…” (85)
An aggressive quality in Futurist performance reflected the dissonance that distraction as a fundamental component of performance art demanded. Between cluttered visual components and cacophonous sonic elements, Futurist aims and philosophical alignments can be found amongst many modernist art movements (examples include music compositions like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the experimental literary forms utilized by James Joyce’s Dubliners). The evenings organized by the Futurists included manifesto declamations, outlandish costumes, mobile and static works of visual art, polemics and “quasi-political action.” (86) These evenings would encourage participation and ultimately utilize surprise to agitate crowds of spectators which would only be comparably replicated by the Dadaists in years to come (86).
A kind of foil to the Futurists in Italy were the early Expressionists in Germany and other European countries further north. Their interest in promoting a heightened appreciation for art and authentic, rich culture was exemplified by Kurt Hiller’s manifesto of the Neopastische Cabaret: “…it is especially because philosophy for us is not an academic discipline, but something with vital meaning…an experience, that it seems to us infinitely more suitable to cabaret than to lectern or quarterly journal…” (105) Appignanesi assesses their self-proclaimed aim as strictly high-brow and “self-consciously modernist.” (105) Appignanesi notes that “Through art and literature, these young Germans…were trying to bring a new world into being, turn the unjust old order topsy-turvy and create a revolution of the spirit which would give the sexualized body a home.” (106) Expressionism in literature, drama, and visual art shifted the paradigm of artistically valid subject matters that could be appropriately termed culturally relevant. Rather than strict adherence to classical motifs or the “universality” being linked to a Platonic ideal of truth, the expressionists and modernists repositioned “universal” as relating to human lived experiences and the values observed in and derived from human endeavor. Thus, the human endeavor of creating within an artistic medium forces a philosophical unification by enabling artists to consciously and inclusively validate their subjects. This focus on unification of philosophy and practice ends up necessitating “self-conscious” as a label.
As we contemplate the shifting landscape of the early 20th century, we cannot look away from the ultimate modernist performance-meets-art movement: the Dadaists. They were born out of the Futurists and were aggressively anti-war, illusory, and of-the-moment, which meant their technical aim was to provoke the audience into action through the creation of raucous, over-the-top happenings and to attempt revolution through laughter. The name origins of “Dada” rival that of modern slang:
“Who invented the name? What did it mean? The answers are as different as the members of the group. Dada, the Slavic affirmation, a grand ‘yes’ to life to life and to freedom? Dada, ‘c’est mon dada,’ the French hobby-horse, and individualized pursuit for individualistic enthusiasts? Dada, daddy? Dadadadada, a madcap, nonsense syllable, a child-like discarding of any attributable meaning? Dada was all these thing, an incarnation of the unsystemizable spirit of creativity.” (109-110)
Dada stepped into the limelight in Berlin amidst an increased tension between governmental indecision and complete cultural nihilism in the wake of post-WWI inflation and unemployment. While German civic structures were breaking down and attempting a rebrand, German Dada would attack the propaganda machine, and anti-bourgeois sentiment would develop into a more “militant” approach to agitprop than the later surrealists. The battle cry of these Dadaists was “‘Death to German culture.’ Battling against a mental attitude that could accept and rationalize the carnage of war, Dada unleashed its weapons of aggressive nonsense.” (117) Ultimately, the shock-value that these avant-garde movements had upon their contemporary audiences dwindled with the dissent of a vocal population to make room for new extremists (i.e., the Nazi party in our German case study).
As the German cabaret moved on through the 1920s and into the 1930s, the coarsening Senelick mentioned earlier began to take place after the fall of the Kaiser and ending of WWI. WWI left most of the western world disillusioned and downtrodden, and in Germany that disillusionment broke down to a middle-class crisis and embrace of moral ineptitude and taboo social practices. Senelick notes, “[amid] this breakdown, the cabaret, once regarded as the haunt of a certain type of liberated individual, now lured a bourgeois as well as a bohemian audience. What New York in the 1920s was to jazz and speakeasies, Berlin was to cabaret.” (24) This loosening of what was “acceptable” made way for public consumption of avant-garde art forms and cults of personality (Trude Hesterberger ends up claiming the ultimate spot as the chanteuse of the Kabarett, rivialing Yvette Guilbert in audience adoration and charisma). Senelick early on asserts that the cabaret allowed for new audience consumption of the avant-garde. Though the avant-garde was a short-lived form of resistance analogous to our 21st century redefinition of identity politics to encompass more esoteric forms of self-identification, Senelick’s assertion can be considered within the context of the 20th century audience’s access to such spaces, and it begs the question: what marks avant-garde creative expression, and is it possible to anticipate those markers as successful or definable? The “new” forms explored and developed in cabaret spaces included: “shadowgraphy, puppetry, free-form skits, jazz rhythms, literary parody, ‘naturalistic’ songs, ‘bruitistic’ litanies, agitprop, dance-pantomime, and political satire.” (9) The conventions Senelick outlines here that translate through time as forms still in use that we can observe today in the social media spheres include free-form skits, musical experimentation, literary parody, aggressive grass-roots agitprop, and political satire. Through the last year and a quarter, new modes of performance that parallel puppetry (such as filters that alter the user/performer’s appearance or a redefining of commonplace items to puppet parody/recreate culturally relevant selections from radio, TV or film) came into play as we retreated into our homes (Sourpatch kids, 2019). Similarly, popular social dance-crazes on TikTok, reframed compositions by companies of dancers to be distributed on managed social media accounts, and new interpretations of culturally relevant works all parallel the dance-pantomime experimentation Senelick mentions as finding its footing in cabaret spaces (Scribner & Rowe, 2020).
Many texts documenting the people and events within the cabaret sphere exist. One of the more amusing tasks in reading these texts is deciphering the attitude and reverence (or lack thereof) with which the author is approaching the subject. Two of the more useful texts are Laurence Senelick’s Cabaret Performance dual volumes and Lisa Appignanesi’s The Cabaret. Appignanesi takes a more linear, narrative-based approach while Senelick compiles extant materials, demonstrating core principles and personalities of popular performance in cabaret throughout Europe. To begin the documentation of my persona creation, we must begin with the understanding of the cabaret spaces that served as a metaphorical watering hole where artists seeking community and philosophical unity sparked so much foundational creativity to the performing arts as a whole. In his two volumes of Cabaret Performance, Laurence Senelick aims to provide both context and extant examples of the types of materials performed in the cresting art form/space known as the Cabaret Artistique. He begins his series by noting how the end of the nineteenth century saw “an encroaching imperialism, a hardening nationalism, a swelling militarism” from most of the major countries playing on the global stage. (7) This nationalism and consequent affinity for cultural identity and pride played out in the arts by a move toward representing specific, individualistic perspectives. This expansion of centering new perspectives through both artistic subject and form was achieved by many groups of creatives, including the expressionists painters, modernist writers, and dramatists interested in naturalism and symbolism. As Senelick succinctly puts it: “It condensed the artistic experience into a quintessence meant to have an immediate impact on the spectator. The performance cabaret was an offshoot of this reaction.” (7)
We, as citizens in the 21st century, are experiencing a similar simultaneous imperialism and nationalism on our global political stages, and the social processing of the different manifestations of that imperialistic nationalism is apparent within the social media engagement we can observe in our present time. Popular culture and technologies both reject and demand nuanced engagement with social processing. A direct descendant from this intention of a “direct impact on the spectator” is the social media content that demonstrates this collective processing of demanded/rejected reckoning. This content is molded by the complex off-shoots of advertising and marketing as they simultaneously leverage cults of personality and advance the state of performance modes to new, avant-garde usage. In particular, I am thinking of Chelsea Hart’s TikTok videos critiquing vaccine hesitancy, COVID misinformation, and the intersections of those things with sexism. The fast-paced, fact-based tone of her videos and anti-persuasion tone reject methods of advertising: she leans in to heavy criticism rather than appealing dialogue in responding to consumers who do not share her views. (Hart, 2020) In contrast, a number of social media personalities pair with brands to create content in alignment with those products. Both Hart’s rejection of advertising as form and the branded content provide opportunities for personalities to act as the primary draw to modern content.
Senelick also quickly points out how the Cabaret totally embodied the zeitgeist and aim of most art forms taking shape and shifting at the turn of the century as: “art that is minor not in significance on intentions but reduced in scale to its essential components. It partook of the aesthetic atmosphere of its time to no small degree.” (8) This assertion is explored by both Senelick and Appignanesi, and we see it paralleled in our own time. From the origins of digital art at the turn of the 21st century rose the social media platforms that revolutionized “content creation” (a term for experimental performance art that can double as advertising and sponsored art aimed at a unified message). These social media platforms came forth and developed in the second decade of our current century and, in no order of significance, include: Youtube, Vine, Snapchat, Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram.
Senelick does a meandering job outlining the different groups of artists, establishments, and types of performance done in the Cabaret Artistique. He provides contemporary examples of scripts, reviews, and accounts of the cabaret spaces throughout continental Europe. Lisa Appignanesi’s The Cabaret is a highly readable and engaging history of cabaret’s performance-meets-art space. She outlines clearly, the trajectory of different countries’ engagement with cabaret venues, and how artists utilized these meeting grounds to experiment and connect together. Senelick begins with the Hydropathes – a group of artists who met and performed at the Chat Noir. Their primary mode of performance was epic, employing extremely beautiful shadow plays accompanied by monotonous recitation of the plot, while underscoring and sometimes adding sung musical accompaniment. These shadow plays became popular at the end of the 19th century and inspired groups of artists across Europe in a micro-cultural exchange. Appignanesi begins by detailing the Quatre Gats in Barcelona as an example of a precursor to cabaret focused primarily as an artist’s salon and gallery. The Quatre Gats took form at the turn of the century between 1890 and 1910 for the shifting artistic movements launching out of the Catalonian Renaixena that lasted roughly between 1813 and the 1880s. The artists who exhibited at the Quatre Gats served as the vanguards of the shifting visual art landscape in Spain, ushering in great works of impressionism and laying the foundation for the modernism exhibited by Pablo Picasso (who himself exhibited at the Quatre Gats in February of 1900) and the surrealism of Salvador Dali. This example portends the impact of the nightlife spaces as containers for some of the most influential creative minds of the Western art tradition that will hold true through the first quarter of the 20th century.
Part of the cultural exchange that took place between Barcelona and Paris at the turn of the century included the interweaving of recitations, shadow plays, and live-painting that built the platform for performance art to expand and shift through the next 50 years. These demonstrations not only made way for experimentation but also highlighted the propensity for broad, popular, and rough forms of art that led to heightened, somewhat fantastical subject matter frequently pitted against epic and/or satirical modes of storytelling. In terms of making way for artistic experimentation, recitation and live-painting inherently expose the process of creation and revision. Rather than revealing a work of art at the end of a process, displaying the act of selecting colors on a palette and their position on a canvas or reading out loud works that could be left for silent reflection opened non-theatrical artistic process up to an audience exchange. An audience exchange opens new, blurred lines and an inherent incorporation of public reaction and discourse into artistic creation. When public reaction and interest is introduced to an artistic process, more plebeian subject matter or interests become elevated to a new level of examination. Shadow plays are an example of this; puppets as a primary technique for storytelling became increasingly interesting and useful to modernists/experimental artists for their ability to combine traditional visual elements from a given culture with innovative representation modes (35). These elements suggest an interest in “low” or “popular” forms, influential to Picasso and emblematic of the atmosphere created by these artists:
“Like the rest of the group, part of Picasso’s modernism lay in his willingness to turn his hand to ‘poor’ and popular artistic forms, to allow the street with its crude colors, omnipresent signage and print, its speed, its raw energy (indeed vulgarity) to invade his ‘art.'” (34)
Throughout the early blossoming of cabaret performing venues, the creative collision ended up making way for experimental art movements that would set the stage for the paradigm shift that would lead to our current zeitgeist of digital performance and art. Nowhere was this creative spark of the avant-garde more palpable than at the Lapin Agile:
“The painters and writers who flocked to the cheap living quarters of Montmartre at the turn of the century extended the definition of artist so that it incorporated the entirety of the individual’s life-habits…With a humorous elan, they interiorized the cabaret spectacle and lived it out on life’s stage. The period’s headquarters for the planning of far-ranging artistic schemes was Le Lapin Agile.” (74)
Apollinaire’s 1913 poem “Zone” illustrates the energy of that contemporary moment. Truly, the Lapin Agile is the origin locus for such movements as the Futurists, Dadaists, and Expressionists. Apollinaire is famed for terming “Cubism” and “Surrealism” and demonstrates embodying his artistic principles utilized to create his life’s work as a writer poet. This legacy implies our 21st century freelance culture and the idea of an integrated, fully aligned life. Particularly within the last ten years, there have been myriad examples of tweets, tumblr posts, and generic meme forms redefining the way we understand a freelance “hustle.” There has been discussion about taking on work that aligns with personal values as well as the importance of setting boundaries. These meme forms are, from my view, 21st century manifestoes proclaiming the tools to live life in a way analogous to those early Expressionists and Surrealists.
The development of “variety” theatre – in the latter half of the 19th century through the beginning of the 20th century – is frequently categorized in history classes down to specific genres (examples include ‘music hall’ ‘circus’ ‘vaudeville’ and ‘burlesque,’ to name a few). This variety is the foundation on which cabaret is built – and became a genre that converged variety into one form under the philosophy that “…art did not have to be uplifting or earnest…” This conviction carried Western experimental performance through the first 30 years of the 20th century, where theatrical innovation, the beginnings of popular music, literary parody and political satire all existed in a genre soup that allowed for personal anecdote to seed the beginnings of stand-up comedy, artists working quickly in noisy bars, and the roots of performance and installation art.
Senelick notes that this cultural climate and the artists working within cabaret spaces saw that “The components of pop art were to be the medium of high art. And in the process, a new audience would be won for the avant-garde.” [sic] (pg) This “stew,” if you will, mirrors our current moment to a T. We find once again, the blurring of lines between low, medium, and high art. Though the term “pop art” is a more modern one being applied to the past, the component parts that we have identified as hallmarks include reproducibility, cheap materials or time/effort matrix, and inflammatory/provocative subject matter/personalities. We find those elements readily available to those of us engaging on social media out of a desire for creative self-expression. “Avant-garde,” as a term, demands recognition of newness and innovation, and the very conception of newness becomes more nuanced as we move forward in time to include processes of reference and recombination. This method of innovative recombination seems especially successful today as people are more and more situated in isolation and connection within digital platforms offers the tools to experiment with recombination easily.
Most of the parallels available to our examination of cabaret performance and modern experimentation within social media involves analyzing the highly adversarial position most public persons engaging in this type of performance took in the past or are taking today. Though in the past, the adversarial position was directed firmly against the governmental establishment that (usually) coincided with the “bourgeois prejudices and values, conventional morality… and capitalist economy,” these aims translate over time to the users and creators active in our non-profit/community-based theatrical practices as well as on social media platforms (9). Today, critique and call for the demolition of the establishment over reform end up becoming hyper specific rather than generic parody, likely due to the widespread dissemination of information and capacity to converse/connect across distances and platforms. A particular inspiration for this project’s Persona development is Chelsea Hart, a comedian who found particular success on TikTok utilizing different performance modes to criticize COVID conspiracy theorists, sexist behavior, and vaccine hesitancy.
Senelick ends his introduction by exactly noting the arc that ends up dismantling not only the cabaret space as it flourished, but also certain social media platforms. The homogeneity of the audience lent itself to the creation of cabaret spaces; it helped reinstate a heightened experimentation and exploration of art and entertainment (necessarily defined here as a convergence of performer and audience, creating a space of communal experience tied to a time and place). As salons and early establishments began morphing into cabaret spaces, communities founded in common ideals and interests emerged to support the trajectory upward. However, as Senelick notes, “The introduction first of guests and then of paying customers coarsened the ambience and, eventually, the technique of the cabaret; so that the cabaret’s avowed original intention of refining the music hall was betrayed as it turned into a music hall itself.” (10) This coarsening of creative space parallels, from my perspective, the short-lived popularity and availability of Vine as a social media platform. In review of Vine compilations on YouTube, it becomes clear that the community was undoubtedly homogenous in terms of age demographic (i.e youthful, ranging from adolescent to young adult). Though there are many other factors that play into social media platform success, this particular correlation is worth mentioning. A second pseudo-parallel correlation to the nascent dismantling can be found in the critique many social media platforms encounter when introducing new features either inspired by or in competition with other platforms. This is frequently a marketing ploy and effort under capitalist expansion to provide supply to a perceived demand and thus expand user bases. Specific examples here can be found particularly on YouTube, when the company launched a streaming platform for both music and TV/film produced externally to the independent content creators that YouTube is famous for. They also recently launched a variation on the TikTok formula, allowing users to create “bite sized” content and sync music, filter backgrounds, and edit together multiple clips into videos no longer than 75 seconds.
The characteristics of early cabarets, as identified by Senelick, involved a conferencier and chanteuse, two personalities that would serve as the hallmarks of the Cabaret Artistique in Paris. Chief among these founding archetypes were Alphonse Allais and Rudolph Salisas as leads/conferenciers, and Yvette Guilbert, a singer offering a refreshing counterpoint to the “usual music hall singer was a plump beauty with opulent curves and deep cleavage; [in opposition] Guilbert was scrawny, red-haired, chinless, and long-nosed.” [sic] (39) Guilbert was not only famous for her ability to subtly and expertly perform songs but also for providing one of the famous faces of posters painted by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Though Guilbert did not go on to have a cabaret-fueled career, she did set the standard for the cabaret song through her charisma and timing rather than the technique and quality of her voice.
The pinnacle of the host | variety act (which encompasses the popularity of cabaret singers alongside some of the more obscure theatrical endeavors) could be found in Germany as the micro-cultural exchange spread east. Spain and France were fueled by a creative energy and tradition that had been born out of the different cultural revolutions each country experienced toward the beginning of the 19th century. A somewhat parallel progression to these 19th century revolutions can be tracked through Germany’s socio-political trajectory nearly a century later and suggests a sort of counter-origin to Germany’s kabarett. Appignanesi characterizes Wilhelmine Germany as highly structured and “disaffected.” (36) For all of our modern humor surrounding German sensibilities (characterizing these citizens as humorless, rigid, austere, and repressed), the kernels of truth within these stereotypes likely come from the Wilhelmine socio-economic and political atmosphere:
“While a sombre sense of duty to family, church, business, and state was the prized attribute of the German burgher, this only thinly veiled that desire for material gain which constituted success. Kultur was something one recognized and respected when its high tone induced a state of incomprehending awe akin to boredom.” (36)
There was a common practice of censorship, so that most of the art and literature available was highly sincere, unironic, and far outside of the realm of satire. By the turn of the century, however, humor and a certain amount of Dionysian abandon began to make their way into more seriously regarded Kultur. A more wide-spread consumption of Friedrich Nietzsche’s prolific writing and critique of ironic detachment became foundational to artists seeking a more serious and deeply truthful kind of art. This burgeoning shift toward existentialism coupled with an interest in the latest gossip/news from Paris about the types of salons (i.e the Chat Noir) helped to first inspire “Simplicissimus,” an experimental literary publication, first printed in 1896 and edited by Arthur Langen, that would later lend its name to a cabaret venue composed of a wine bar presided over by Kathi Kobus in 1902.
Between the first publication of Simplicissimus and the opening of the bar, Ernst Von Wolzogen and Julius Bierbaum founded the Buntes Theater or Überbrettl. This space had a clearer delineation between the stage and audience, whereas the Chat Noir had everyone all together within a three-story smoky salon, with audience members and artists interacting boisterously with performers. The artistic community in Berlin that made way for the Buntes Theater had quite a bit of overlap (for example, Christian Morgenstern debuted his ‘Gallows Songs’ at Buntes and just a few months later was the beneficiary of an inaugural performance orchestrated by Max Reinhardt to help balance out money needed to send him to a sanatorium – this group would later turn in to Schall und Rauch, another cabaret venue in Munich). Bierbaum also published “Deutsche Chansons,” which served as a sort of hybrid indictment/manifesto in the preface before compiling the most current writings and documentation of performance art within the Berlin cabaret scene. Appignanesi notes how Bierbaum’s assertion of “Applied lyric – that is our battle cry” is in opposition to the “perennial German tendency to look on culture as an orthopedic appliance…” (37-38) The specific aim of “ennobling…’Tingletangle’ or popular variety show” ended up acting as an attack on the exact philistinism that Nietzsche criticized in German culture. Variety, as a means of not only inclusion but attentive enjoyment and engagement, seems prevalent in Appignanesi’s assessment of the underpinnings inherent to German cabaret. She notes that the popular saying went: “‘Freedom is tingeltangel,’ …linking artistic freedom with…variety spectacle.” (38) While Berlin served as a pseudo-Parisian hotspot for artistic and social experimentation, Munich saw a different bend to Kabarette. Appignanesi suggests that the underpinnings of the Munich cabarets were in Fasching, a carnival that took place before Lent with all of the inhibition and performer | voyeur ambiguity of carnival celebrations across the globe. The exploration of the ambiguity between performer and audience member began with one of the most notorious performance groups called “Die Elf Scharfrichter” or “11 Executioners,” a group of artists performing in protest against the Lex Heinze (a set of morality laws serving primarily as a means to censor artists, with punitive measures that could extend to imprisoning artists). Appignanesi notes that, “These hangmen of the status quo knew that if they performed publicly they would be harassed by censorship, and so they called themselves a ‘club; which played only to ‘invited guests,’ one night a week.” (44) The clarity with which this ‘club’ communicated accessibility and an evening’s programme outlines the way performativity in acting as an audience member blurs the line between artist and spectator so that the creation of the event becomes the act of protest. This groundwork would be built upon by the Futurists and Dadaists in the 1920s.
Die Elf Scharfrichter opened on April 13, 1901 (which, of course, was a Friday) and the opening playbill consisted of dramatic entrances and song contributions of the eleven core members, a giant puppet play, a parody of Maeterlink, and a notorious performance by Marya Delvard, made famous not only by her notoriety as a performer but also by her image appearing on many advertisements for the Executioners. Appignanesi describes her on April 13th as the “…first stage vamp of the century. Thin, tall, pale, red-haired, wide-mouthed, wearing the expression of a grand tragedienne, and clad in a simple, high-necked, clinging black dress, she intoned with tired melancholy the words of Wedekind’s ‘Ilse.'” (46)
Frank Wedekind is one of the more famous figures who found his footing initially in the cabaret. Wedekind, as a writer and performer, was interested in themes of sexual desire and subjects relating explicitly to the body, inviting into his purview the world of circus-like spectacle and alienation, examining people and places well outside of the realm of “Wilhelmine respectability.” (51) Appignanesi describes Wedekind as “plastic, drastic, and above all diabolic…harshly ironic, satanic tone, brittle and abrasive,” which helps summarize the way Brecht described Wedekind: “[He had an] intense aliveness, the energy which allowed him to defy sniggering ridicule and proclaim his brazen hymn to humanity, that also gave him his personal magic.” (49-50) Though the ethos of artistic liberation and satirical attack of social norms was purported to be the foundation of the German Cabaret Artistique, and is consequently aligned with much of Wedekind’s and Brecht’s contributions to the western theatrical tradition, most of the documentation and primary source examples Senelick provides are skewed toward male authorship and performance. For a progressive community at the time, the participation of women seems highly limited or reserved for performance as symbolic embodiment of larger concepts of sexual liberation, destruction, beauty, moral failure, fragility, etc.
The 11 Executioners disbanded by 1903, but many of the members traveled performing throughout Europe. Marya Delvard travelled with Marc Henry and composer Richard Weinhöppel to open the Nachtlicht in Vienna in 1906, which shifted its name to Feldermaus in 1907. Appignanesi says that:
“Vienna was in many ways a ‘natural’ city for cabaret. In the nineteenth century with dramatists and actors…it had its own national tradition of popular comic theatre…and was [also] the city of the operetta and of song. And finally, aphorism, verbal wit and topicality – the very ingredients of cabaret – were also the elements of Vienna’s most popular written art form, the feuilleton.” (53)
The written publication most popular for the feuilleton (an early example of an “op/ed” essay in a published work) was called the “Neue Freie Presse.” Two of the most notable writers of the feuilleton were Peter Altenberg and Egan Friedell. The natural evolution of the written feuilleton is a spoken-word version that is referred to by the same name (the spoken feuilleton preempted extemporaneous speaking as a form of entertainment). Altenberg’s and Friedell’s writings and recitations highlight the observational parallels to our own interaction with social media writing and performance. For Altenberg, “Existence for the modern man…consists of atomized glimpses into the lives of others and bits of conversation overheard,” (53) while Friedell “claimed that the philosopher begins to exist just at that juncture where the man ceases to take himself and life seriously.” (56) The fragmented nature of our social media spheres mean that the “atomized glimpses” cauterize into the absolute hyperboles of existence represented for our consumption in digital space. Altenberg’s attention to “bohemian loneliness” and Friedell’s unrelenting attention toward every demographic conceivable in Vienna implicitly underscores the potential for creative expression available at the time. Freidell’s attention toward philosophical actualization and observation of diversity within the Vienna landscape highlight the social justice bend many social media users turn toward today, treating weighty subjects with irreverence (i.e., “ceasing to take life seriously”). Appignanesi notes that “Cabaret as an art form encouraged native-language reclamation and a brand of rebellious, radical nationalism / cultural pride…”(58) The “radical nationalism / cultural pride” is referring to the numerous ethnic and religious groups that lived in Vienna and other nearby cities the farther east the cabaret tradition moved. Between Austian, German, Polish, and Czech nationals of either Jewish, Christian, Agnostic, or Aetheist faith mixing within these artistic spaces, this rich diversity and cultural exchange was ultimately redefined as a threat with the rise of the Nazi party.
Unstuck in Time: A Reflection on Our Theatrical Origins and the Parallel Personal Disillusionment of My Self + Generation By Maggie McGrann
When I began this venture, my conception of this project was to create a persona stemming from the early 20th century cabaret tradition and progressing forward through time as I myself aged. She would begin in the 1920s and would be tightly rooted chronologically in a specific year, and I would create performance content that would center around songs either contemporary to the year I was ‘in’ or reimagine modern songs referencing popular styles of the same vintage year. The major goal of this persona would be to connect and parallel the century-separated zeitgeist in order to posit and reflect on the ways we have grown as a humanity and the ways we have remained the same.
As I began my research on cabaret spaces and consequently began thinking through a kind of persona to occupy modern performance space, it became clear that the tight rubric I had at the beginning would be not only limiting, but fall apart rather quickly under dramaturgical scrutiny. If the present year and historic year were the strict guidelines for any performance material, they would pose some complicated restrictions on what could and could not be referenced within a given bit. This realization, coupled with my propensity to have a rambling, synaptic understanding of the world, and the way different events and realities affect our present moment, has led me to redefine this persona’s positioning as “Unstuck in Time.” This phrase originated in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and has been translated into a trope within the sci-fi genre to describe a character who “possesses Mental Time Travel, but is unable to control it, resulting in them skipping around to random time periods.” (tvtropes.org) A nuance I would add to this definition is that usually, the character inadvertently travels to moments from their own lives or to moments in an implied reincarnated continuity.
The concept of “Unstuck in Time” became foundational to my reconciling the research I did on cabaret spaces while developing a performance persona resonant with our current moment as well as my lived experience. Throughout my reading, I discovered that the philosophical underpinnings of the artists and vagabonds that created and gravitated toward cabaret spaces in the first half of the 1900s parallel many of the performers I find myself inspired by. Not only are the personalities in a tight venn diagram, but the digital and virtual creative performance spaces that have cropped up in the first two decades of the 21st century clearly echo cabaret spaces. The “content creators” on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook and the rise (and fall) of Tik Tok (and Vine) frequently engage in surrealist and often satirical/parody-adjacent humor. The subject matter they build on plays with and alongside deeply analytical social commentary. Their facility with this type of bite-sized content with high-impact messaging encourages critical engagement and response from the content consumers. This give and take between artist and audience in digital space is a near-perfect analogy for the cabarets that gained popularity in Europe between 1890 and 1940, particularly in Germany. I aim to develop the same kind of critically engaged content with a persona drawing from past personalities and forms in present digital spaces.
I’d like to begin by thanking the entire Costume Department within the School of Drama at Carnegie Mellon University, particularly Susan Tsu and Brian Russman for engaged conversations and joyful encouragement. I’d like to thank Hugh Hanson, Tiia Lager, and Kate Bagin for their support during a densely busy time and their support and encouragement elsewhere in my studies. I also want to thank Suzie Silver and Scott Andrew for their time and advice, freely and generously given, as well as Chris Jovinelli for swift and enthusiastic help in sourcing the hardware for my brunch show. I’d like to thank my costume design cohort and dear friends for their support: Morgen Warner, Oona Natesan, and Jean-Luc DeLadurantaye. Other members of the School of Drama community who helped: Sean Leo for a tutorial on live streaming; Travis Wright for advising on sound equipment; B Esfahani for running the software; Brandy Carie Marrah and Rebecca Wahls for reading and responding to my script; Tanner Pippert, Perry Lowder, Sarah Meyers and Satvika Neti for their general good energy and friendship. I want to thank the entire creative team of I Hope They Haunt You for the honesty, encouragement, and camaraderie; the entire GSA Executive Board for similar support; my mother Katy McGrann for teaching me how to write through socratic discussion, my aunt Sarah Locher for enthusiasm and encouragement, and my father Dave McGrann for just being around. A final thanks to Nicholas Wasilewski for pair programming with me to get all the things done.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
I RESEARCH: ORIGINS AND DEVELOPMENT OF CABARET II RESEARCH: MOVING INTO SURREALISM III METHOD & RESEARCH: SYNTHESIZING INSPIRATION IV METHOD: DEVELOPMENT OF VELONIA V SCRIPT: “Velly Clit: Unstuck in Time” BIBLIOGRAPHY