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.