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”