Let me begin from afar. These days overt Orientalism has become uncivilized. People now mostly understand the added weight of racism and colonialism it bears. (Or at least they pretend to understand.) But Western culture still needs the Other to imagine itself in comparison to. So they take a vague Eastern Europe, populate it with by in name Slavic monsters and play Orientalism to their content.
Nobody, they think, is offended. Eastern Europe is, for better or worse, majority white land. It was not colonized, either (well, it mostly was, just not by Western Europe). The idea that distorting cultures of several independent nations into one blurred and distinctly supremacist trope is bad with or without added burdens doesn’t (it seems) cross their minds. For example, that’s why in a quite good series of books the Ottomans are presented in a balanced light while the commonplace Orientalist narrative is instead shifted to (presumably white) Orthodox Romanians.
I do not presume that balanced approach to foreign cultures is somehow bad, mind you. On the contrary, I insist that there should be no supremacy narrative, no cultural appropriation, no Orientalist fantasies at all. Because each and every of them has this toxic touch of Ubermenschen observing exotic yet not fully human barbarians.
Then and Now
Of course, it didn’t start yesterday. Shakespeare created his seaside Bohemia in XVI century, after all.
Blurring the line between the human West and inhuman East in depicting Eastern Europe was commonplace. The difference in religion made the gap even more pronounced. Germans chided the Czechs for being natural barbarians; English travelers mused that Muscovites were naturally dark-skinned but apparently bleached by cold. Before the great colonization Eastern Europe had provided those in need with an Other.
With time it evolved into two distinct imaginary places: a Ruritania, more down to earth and realistic, and its dark and full of terrors twin, the Uberwald. For some reason, they have two perfect twins in the Orientalist narratives, first focusing on simplified/imaginary daily life of an “exotic” country, while second ensnaring with imaginary terrors of foreign land.
Today the constant conflicts in South-Eastern Europe (Balcans, Moldova, etc) and frequent incursions of UN and NATO corps there give the missing colonialist/conquerer vibe to the narrative. Like in classic Orientalism, the hero comes with a sword to encounter the cunning, honor-less yet in the end power-less adversary (as seen in MCU).
But this was a broad picture. Let me get to the monstrous specifics.
Horror genre has always been…let’s say not too progressive. It thrived on the fear of the Other, on exploiting gender violence and femicide, racial violence and racial myths. No surprise, horror authors couldn’t help themselves from allure of Eastern European exoticism.
But if the XIX century used compartamentalised Austro-Hungarian something under the guise of Romanian, now the trendy moniker is “Slavic”. Almost anything from this corner of Earth is “Slavic”, be it Romanian, Hungarian or Estonian (neither of those has anything to do with Slavs).
Romanian traditional embroidery is “Slavic”, vampires are “Slavic” (they are vaguely akin to Romanian folk monsters, but mostly are Western European fantasy), Maksimoffs’ Roma mother is “Slavic”, everything is “Slavic”.
They have a cadre of common “Slavic” monsters: Baba-Yaga, Vampire, Rasputin. To compensate for lack of knowledge they even invent their own monsters, with vaguely “Slavic” names. Mummy cartoon gave us “gogol” (which is either a duck or a Russo-Ukrainian author), while J.K. Rowling invented “a pogrebin”.
All this constitutes something known as “cranberry storytelling” in Russia–name apparently hailing from some French adventurer of old, describing his encounter with peasants sitting under a giant tree-like cranberry and waiting for the berries to fall because they are too lazy to climb and gather them. (Cranberry being a really big thing in Russian traditional cuisine.) Cranberry storytelling means you take something from a culture, engorge it, decorate it with as many tropes as you can, remake it according to your cultural stereotypes and sell as ethnographic truth.
Combating the Cranberry
So, what’s wrong with the traditional cadre?
Well, nobody out here sees Rasputin as anything but a historic figure (well, apart from small group of those who see him as a religious figure and even a saint). Baba-Yaga is hardly something “Slavic” either: she is of Iranian origin and more importantly is hardly present in most of the Slavic cultures. Both are Russian specialties, that’s true; but “Slavic” has to be something more.
There are many Slavic nations and there is little in common between them. Their cultures sundered too long ago and went through too different processes to be close. Yet there is a small amount of folk monsters that are truly and distinctly Slavic.
Here they are, for your use or for your interest.
The Master of Waters
Fish-like or frog-like Master of Waters is a common figure throughout Slavic folk lore. He has no distinct origin story; mostly he just is, and from a scholar’s perspective what he is, is ancient god. And his godlike qualities linger the longers of all Slavic “Masters”.
He has a sacred mount: Master of Waters is usually imagined riding a giant catfish. In some regions there was even a taboo on fishing “devil’s mount”. He has a long and sad tradition of human sacrifice. Even in XX century there were places where people hesitated to save a person from drowning, considering this a will of Master of Waters.
Less terrible sacrifice was commonplace. Especially those owning a water mill would throw some amount of money to the pool—it was thought Master of Waters loved those pools and had his council with millers.
Among his peers he is the most powerful, the most respected and the most godlike one.
Master of Woods
This one is less pronounced in some cultures, as lush forests are less common thing among Slavic nations. Yet the spirit of trees is there. He has less gravitas than his water friend, though.
Mostly this one is a trickster, a changeling playing his pranks on the unknowing people who wandered in his realm. If you lose your way in the forest, it’s his job. He can also turn everything you hunted or gathered in the forest into pine cones or filth, make you tire too quickly or feel sudden panic. Sometimes he turns into a bear or a boar to hunt those behaving badly, or to woo a beautiful maiden.
If you are a good person, respect him and never take all berries or mushrooms, or kill a doe or a suckling, the Master of Woods can reward you greatly. But if you try to fool him, you reward will turn into pine cones.
Those have many names. Like, “every nation has one or two of their own” many names. Among them is “veela” (or “vila”, or “wiła”) of Harry Potter fame, “samovila”, “samodiva”, “rusalka”, “mavka”, “kikimora”. Still it is the same creature: an unmarried woman who either died unchristened or committed suicide, transformed into a beautiful, dangerous and sometimes benevolent fairy.
Those fairies like to be in the air. They sit in the branches of the trees, or fly, or both. They are also linked to water–traditional gendered method of suicide being self-drowning. They are immensely beautiful yet have something inhuman in them. Some drip water, some have green skin, or horns, or hoofs, or wings, or lack their back.
Northern variant is relative to Scandinavian huldras; Southern took much from Islamic peris, and Central borrowed from Western fairies, yet they still share their common distinctive roots. They don’t like men much, even though they can be made into wives. They have mighty charms and pity maidens and small children. They can punish women for bad weaving or laziness, though. But usually they punish lustful men.
Chort means “Devil”, but nothing is further from that frightening religious figure than chort. Devil is powerful; Chort is almost powerless and even a self-told witch can make away with him. Devil is vicious; Chort is a mere conman, always conned by his potential victims.
Devil is something to fear; Chort is something to make fun of.
His closest Western relative is “Imp”, but Chort tries to be more respectful figure than that. He fails. He always fails, really. Of course, he has his small victories over bad people (like over Metternich on the picture above) but any decent Christian has no problem outwitting poor bad guy.
To think of it, Chort is a stormtrooper of Slavic folk lore.
And… That’s About It!
We really don’t have much in common. Actually, each Slavic nation has more common folk lore with neighboring non-Slavic nation than with some distant Slavic cousin. We are all really different. And that is great, because diversity is what makes the world so interesting, isn’t it?
Who is the Man Behind the Camera?
In our current media sphere that so often focuses on either the actors, the director, a producer, or writers, it’s easy to lose sight of all the other people behind the scenes who help make your preferred television or digital shows, and movies, actually watchable. Perhaps one of the first lines of “make your pictures look good” is the cinematographer, and I recently had the opportunity to sit down with an up and coming man-of-all-trades, Lilton Stewart III to learn more about his path to Los Angeles.
When I meet Lilton, it’s at a regional theatre chain, on a Monday night. Lilton and I are standing at opposite ends of the theatre trying to spot each other, before finally making eye contact. He’s a warm, open man, quick with a smile and a laugh as we find a clean table to set up shop. Originally hailing from St. Louis, Lilton earned his media chops first through sound editing. Starting out as a rapper in 2008, he’d owned his own music studio before deciding to pursue his passion for film full time. Selling his business to fund his film school education from the Art Institute of St. Louis in 2012, Lilton took a deep dive into cinematography and never looked back.
However, first, he had to make the move across the country. “I was networking and sending my projects into film festivals and was getting traction from that. Some people put me on to a couple of societies out here, one of them being the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), and I realized I wanted to really get into cinematography. So I got some money together to pay for a master class out here, came out and made a bunch of connections, and then started doing work. I’d fly out and do work and go back to St. Louis. The last time I flew out was January of this year, for the ASC awards, where Rachel Morrison (Black Panther, Mudbound) was nominated. My mentors told me ‘Hey if you really want to make this work, you gotta make the move.'”
Lilton took their advice. “At first it was just me, but then I couldn’t be away from my family for that long, so we had to make a plan for all of us to get out of here. At the end of April, we hopped in the car and road-tripped here.” I ask him how he and his family have adjusted to life on the west coast, and whether they’ve faced any difficulties in adapting to a new city. “It’s been a struggle, but not like it was in St. Louis. You know, St. Louis doesn’t have the market like LA. Most companies will outsource to studio production companies. They’d just have them do all of their stuff, so what work was left was almost all commercial and corporate training videos. Not a lot of narrative, and it wasn’t challenging. Being out here I get a lot of freedom with projects, and it’s been awesome.”
Still, Los Angeles sees thousands of would-be creatives flock to its city limits, from actors to writers to directors all hoping to make their mark. How does that journey differ when you’re making a career as a “crew” member? “Out here I’ve been blessed enough to be on the opposite side of ‘being an actor or a director,’ I think I’d be having a harder time. Cinematography is kind of a unique skill set, and there aren’t a lot of us. There are a lot of scammers out here, guys with cameras calling themselves cinematographers or DP’s, ripping people off who don’t know. You get a lot of newer actors coming out here and getting ripped off, because they don’t know what the costs are, or the technical breakdowns of a shoot. I hate that type of hustle, like photographers you see who shoot their clients in “auto” instead of manual because the client doesn’t know any better. I try to show everyone the same type of integrity I would want to be shown on set.”
As far as networking goes, Lilton has found his hustle in forming relationships. “For me, it’s been a lot of word of mouth; I’ll work with one person who recommends me to another person. I try to go for people who I feel I could call family later on. I’m real personal, I’m kind of a goofball, so I like to work with people who I can have fun with. It’s a blessing to be able to do something like this.”
I ask him about the type of equipment he’ll use, the many different cameras on the market, and how he approaches his tools. “I had a situation where there was someone who didn’t know what they were doing with a professional camera, and it looked like they were shooting from a Wal-Mart Canon T3i. They didn’t understand the color science of the camera, or what the manufacturer was looking for when they made the camera. They’re all tools. But the tools are only as good as the brain behind it. You know, I have a cinematographer’s bible, and I go back and read through it to refresh myself. I may shoot with an A6500 SONY, but I’d call SONY up and ask for a diagnostic spec of the camera’s sensor. I’d make sure I know how to get the best out of that camera, and where my boundaries are, and what I can and can’t do with it.”
It reminds me of the award-winning indie film, Tangerine, which was famously shot using an iPhone camera. Lilton smiles and nods, saying “It’s the perfect example of someone knowing how to use the tool they had.”
When asked about his filming techniques, he describes his approach that he’s dubbed as “method cinematography.” “I want to be invested in whatever I’m shooting. Everything the camera does is just another way of telling the story. Everything has to make sense, why are you taking those shots? I want to be loose and get into the same energy the actor is in. I need to feel what’s going on, and what’s happening.”
As our interview progresses, I ask him what he’s noticed working in the entertainment industry as a Black man, and where he thinks the needle is moving for progress as far as diversity behind the cameras is going. “The biggest struggle I think I have, and this started back in St. Louis, is people trying to take advantage of my worth. They think you don’t know, when they look at you like ‘Oh, he’s a Black guy trying to do this, that’s cute, we’re going to do him a favor by letting him shoot our stuff,’ as opposed it to be mutual respect for each other. Or people assuming that because I’m Black I should be doing only “Black” projects. I always have to prove myself to everyone I meet. They might look at me like “you don’t look like you know what you’re talking about,” but then they’ll see my work and say ‘Oh, you’re actually a DP!’, you know?”
In his personal workspaces, Lilton says he’s fortunate enough to be working with diverse crews. In fact, one of his current projects has nearly an all women crew. “It’s a melting pot! I’m loving it!”
Speaking of current projects, there’s one, in particular, he’s very excited about — a television story idea called Dredgewood. “It’s a straightforward approach to a horror story, dealing with Native American folklore in a small town. I describe it like Stranger Things with actual lore instead of made up monsters. We’ve got a letter of intent, a great cast, and we just came back from shooting the teaser trailer, we’re getting to pitch to Netflix. I’m just really, really psyched for it.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s not working on projects of his own. Currently, he’s in the process of refining a script of his own creation. This leads me to ask him just how many skillsets he has. “Cinematography is my skill, but directing is my passion. I can do my own editing, too. I have all of this background in sound because I was a studio engineer with my recording studio. I can create sounds, I know Foley work, I have a trade in business technology and management, I can do graphic design. I can make music and compose music, and I can do these with fast turnarounds. All of my life feels like it’s been training for this. You know, if I can’t do it at 100%, I won’t do it. I’ll let my work speak for itself.”
So ultimately, what’s the dream for a man who seems to be a master at all trades? “I want to be one of the first writer/director/DP/editors. Make my own projects and fully be in it from beginning to end. You know, daydream here, make a movie and be nominated for both directing and cinematography and editing. I want to push the industry forward. I don’t want to pass the bar, I want to be the bar.”
Images courtesy of Lilton Stewart III.
*The above interview has been edited for clarity.
On Fans Knowing Better
As you may know, many of my articles here consists of me complaining about things that vex me. This one will be a little bit different. Today, I will complain about people who complain about things. Specifically, the tendency I’ve noticed for unhappy fans to act like we know better. Like if we were in charge, it’d all be so simple. Such fan reactions ignore issues of resources, time, executive decisions, and so many other factors we don’t know about.
Note that I say “we.” I have done this, many times. I will probably do it again in the future. Still, I’ve become more aware of it and I feel as though it’s becoming more rampant. Whether or not it is becoming more rampant and although it is a controversial topic, I still feel like it merits attention.
Many of us who read and write for this portal are familiar with “fixing X,” or “how I’d write Y,” and such. Most of the time, it’s harmless fun. But as with all such things, it can cross into harmful territory. I’m going to discuss some examples I’m familiar with, though of course there’s more. Steven Universe, for example, seems to have a legion of people claiming they’d do a better job writing it than the actual Crewniverse, but this is not a pit I’m willing to descend into.
Let’s start with a different example that is very familiar to those of us here: Legend of Korra. Many of us love it, some have a more complicated relationship. Regardless, in my interaction with the fandom over the years I have seen many “what ifs.” Recently, in fact, I saw such a post. I gave it a read and mostly moved on with my day, but it got me thinking. I started looking back other such takes I had seen and others I had written myself. My experience concerned itself mostly with the first season, which seems to draw such “what ifs” more than the other seasons.
The first conclusion I drew was that none of the rewrites mentioned would fit into less than twenty episodes. Which, as we know, none of the show’s seasons got. And they were, in all likelihood, never going to get. We can rail against such unfairness and point out the likely racial and gender-related reasons why it happened, but that’s what showrunners have to work with. As well as many other reasons that we will simply never know anything about.
Beyond the matter of time constraints, when I see people “fix” television shows, not just Korra, I just keep seeing plots that would change the whole story or be far too mature for the intended audience. Or, very commonly, simply not be suitable for television. A medium has its demands, and some things just won’t fit. One can argue that the first season’s plot was just too ambitious to ever work in this medium and this writing crew. That may very well be true.
Does knowing such constraints or complications exist mean that we shouldn’t criticize shows or point out how something could have and should have been done better? Hardly. But it’s a fine line to tread. I am a staunch opponent of not doing creators’ work for them and making things up to explain holes in the story. But at times, playing too much ‘script doctor’ becomes the opposite extreme of that.
I feel like the underlying sentiment behind many such ideas is a wistful desire for more. It’s comforting to believe that our beloved but flawed show could have been great if only something happened. It’s more difficult to accept that what we got may have been the best we were ever going to get.
A lot of this is just for fun, of course. There’s no harm in letting our imaginations run wild. But sometimes I feel like it moves beyond that and becomes mean-spirited. I saw it from the other side of the equation, as it were, after the series ended. A number of people were unhappy with the finale, particularly Korra’s relationship status. What followed were many “fix-it” fics and proclamations of how the writers don’t own the characters because they ‘didn’t treat them right.’
I’m trying to keep my personal opinion to myself here, but this feels like a similar, if perhaps more emotional, reaction to playing script doctor. People feel that a show they loved, or could have loved, let them down in some way. So rather than simply move past their anger or disappointment, they begin searching for reasons it could have been good. But it wasn’t, such reactions claim, either because the writers were incompetent or actively took it from us.
In order to really delve into how such behavior is more common, though, we need to leave television shows behind and enter the land of video games. Here, the concentration of people who think they know how to make the best game there ever was increases considerably.
The games I’m most familiar with this happening are Dragon Age and Mass Effect, two flagship franchises of a company that some think isn’t long for this world. With Dragon Age, it’s similar situation to Legend of Korra and many other television shows in many ways. Which is to say, people simply don’t account for budget, time, effort, and technical limitations. This works itself out in in Dragon Age by demanding more race-specific and class-specific content.
This isn’t to say that the world reacting to us differently depending on our character’s race and class is a bad thing. But there’s a reason games with multiple choices in this regard only have occasional interactions. The most I’ve seen was perhaps in Pillars of Eternity: Deadfire, which has the advantage of having a substantially simpler style. And some of them even applied to my human fighter/rogue, which is a plus, even if most of them were for godlike. The reason such interactions are rare is of course that every such divergence costs time and effort. The more we diverge before returning to the main conversation/interaction tree, the more expensive it’s going to be to make.
To be fair, the Dragon Age series set a precedent with its very first installment, which has several eponymous “origins.” Our hero’s story starts in a different place based on their race and station in life. Which is great, but once the origin story is over, most of it disappears – though it does sometimes come back in big ways, such as when a human noble can marry Alistair and become Queen, but a non-human or human mage Warden cannot.
I suppose when you put them next to each other, Origins might have more race-specific content than Inquisition. I’m not sure. I’ve heard rumors that the latter game may have been planned to be human-only, like Dragon Age 2. I don’t know how true it is, but the game does rather center on the human Chantry, whereas Origins had the Grey Wardens as a deliberately “unifying” element. Whoever you’d been before the joining, you were a Grey Warden from there on.
One way or the other, while it’s perhaps unfortunate that our race and class don’t matter as much as they could, it probably isn’t because the writers just didn’t feel like it or had it out for one particular option. Nor would it be easy to have done it otherwise. Inquisition is a much bigger game, and unlike Origins, it involves a fully voiced and animated protagonist.
The other franchise where I saw this phenomenon balloon to mountainous proportions was Mass Effect. Now, let’s not mince words here. The endings to Mass Effect 3 were bad. Who was to blame and how much of it was inevitable is a discussion that people have had ad nauseam. What I’m talking about is the fan reaction here, particularly when Andromeda came out.
What was it that fans would rather have happened? Well… I’m honestly not sure, to this day. A re-release of Mass Effect 3, only with a proper ending? A Mass Effect 4 to replace it? I once had a conversation with someone who seemed to honestly believe they should have canonized the “Indoctrination theory.”
For those unaware, it’s a very peculiar fan theory, according to which everything after the final charge towards the Citadel beam is a hallucination due to Shepard succumbing to Reaper indoctrination. But the person I spoke to claimed it could have and should have been done in game.
“They should have” and “they could have” keeps coming up here. Once again, I’m not going to begrudge people for being angry about the endings. But this is a different kind of feeling. It’s more personal. It’s not “this game ended poorly,” but rather “this game could have ended great, but it was taken from us.” Alongside spinning theories about how easy it could have been to make it great, that kind of thinking turns incompetence into malice.
Tying it to my Legend of Korra examples, I think that, strength of emotion aside, it’s a similar reaction. A series we loved turned out disappointing, so we try to imagine what could have been, which some turn into being angry about how the authors denied us that. Because it’s so obvious, to us, that it could be great. We create an idealized image and cling to it.
I’ve talked about story before, but it applies to gameplay as well. If you’ve participated in any online multiplayer game, you’ve no doubt noticed how after every patch there’s a deluge of opinions by people who are apparently experts at game design and competitive balance. They clearly know more about the people working on those games, anyway.
I feel like there’s a personal element here as well. Many such complaints focus on how a given player’s favorite character or class is clearly being unfairly treated. Players tend to focus on a small corner of gameplay that concerns them, personally, and miss the big picture.
Every change made to a game causes ripples. Balancing a competitive experience is an incredibly delicate affair, one that we can’t quite properly judge from our perspective as players. Even if developers make mistakes or are bad at their jobs… well, it is a job.
Sometimes, though, it’s the big picture that’s the problem. Here is where I need to loop back to resources. I mentioned, while discussing television shows, that people have grand ideas that don’t really fit into realistic budgets and timeframes. Well, it happens in games as well. I once witnessed a rather… interesting perspective where someone insisted that Pillars of Eternity: Deadfire should adopt the D&D model of attributes. According to them, it would be easy to make different attributes useful to every class, which is a big problem with D&D.
The solution? Weave them into dialogue, so that having low attributes penalizes you and takes away options. Easy-peasy, really. Just a massive amount of work for writers and programmers that would likely just result in raising the minimum attributes a bit. If having a strength of 5 makes us fall over when trying to open a door, just leave it at 6 if our class doesn’t demand it.
Here’s the brutal truth of it – ideas are cheap. It’s easy for us to imagine our ideal show or game, but an idea only has merit when it’s been tested, rejected, reworked, tested again, and so on. And even then it might turn out it’s good, but simply not very realistic. Whereas we often lose ourselves in our great concepts without ever having to put them to the merciless grindstone of reality. There’s an element of nostalgia, too. We want a game that matches our idealized memories of the games we used to play.
To bring it all back, I want to stress once again that I’m not unilaterally defending creators. Sometimes, frequently even, they do make mistakes. They bungle their own plots or make mistakes in execution. Even if they don’t, creative works fall victim to bad management. All of it deserves pointing out, criticism, and honest, sometimes harsh, discussion.
It’s a fine line to walk, to reiterate. Providing alternatives and suggesting what someone could do better is the cornerstone of constructive criticism, rather than complaining. But sometimes there’s only so much criticism you can provide without knowledge of the subject. And consuming media doesn’t necessarily make us experts on it. I think the increasing engagement between creators and audience makes some of us lose sight of that sometimes.
Images courtesy of Nickolodeon and BioWare
The First Laugh of the Audience For a Monstruous Regiment of Women
Comedy, at its core, is a performance intended to make an audience laugh. To, for a few glorious minutes, focus on the scene in front of you and forget about the fact that rent is due, a family member is sick, a fight with a partner just happened, and more. For however long the scene goes on, you can step away from reality and focus on a person or group of people who want to entertain you.
Which is all well and good, but what do we actually know about the people who want to make us laugh, who provide us with this release? Specifically, what do we know about those who are stepping up on stages night after night and carving a space for themselves in what has historically been a white and male-dominated industry? Have we at all thought about how much of themselves they’re putting into this task, how open and vulnerable they make themselves to stake out their own spot on stage and chase our laughter? Do we leave any thought to this type of defiance in the face of potential public pillorying as this new breed of comedian continues to break down barriers and carve out their own space?
I had the privilege of profiling three women in the Los Angeles improv/comedy scene last month: Ashley Holston, Rose O’Shea, and Allie Jennings. All three are currently cast members at the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) in Los Angeles, California, and are part of the monthly improv show Queer World. Each of them also performs on a UCB “Harold” team. Who’s Harold you ask? I had the same question. But as I tried to answer that question, on my own, well… things got a little confusing. For the non-comedy educated, trying to internet research comedy theory is akin to trying to casually read up on quantum harmonic oscillators. In short, clear as mud. The lack of clarity, however, did lead me directly to the series of meetings and live shows that led me directly to these three up and coming comedians.
I spoke with Ashley Holston first. Hailing from Virginia Beach, VA, Ashley moved to Los Angeles after earning a degree in non-fiction writing. “It’s the entertainment capital of the world!” Elaborating, she says, “There aren’t as many opportunities to be on stage in Virginia, so it was either New York or Los Angeles for me, and admittedly the weather was a big portion of that. There’s no way I would be doing the things I do now, going to college shows and having a monthly show here, or performing in front of those UCB stages.” I found out that Ashley is also infinitely patient, as she had the unenviable task of trying to explain to me what the improv setup “Harold” actually was.
Harold, she told me, is a formula, not a person. She also said (prior to our interview) that the best way to learn was to just go an watch a “Harold Night” at UCB’s Franklin theatre. “It’s a lot easier to understand if you can just see it.”
So I did. A Friday night trek up to Franklin and two performances from Harold teams Leroy and Vulture (Ashley’s team) later, we were then at our meeting at the UCB cafe off of Sunset Blvd.
Ashley is very tall, but when she walked into the cafe where we arranged to meet, her posture was casual, friendly, and a wide smile graced her face as I walk up to meet her. Poised, polite, still infinitely patient, we begin our conversation reiterating what I’ve learned from “Harold” as a form of improv comedy. “It’s like a formula, where you start with a concept and then loop back to it throughout.”
In layman’s terms, “Harold” is a form of comedy sketch where an audience member throws out a word, and the team on the stage then has to improvise an entire half hour set based not only on that initial prompt, but they also have to keep looping back to it, sometimes tying in their other scenes as they go.
Oh! Women do this, Black women do this, I can do this!
There’s the rub. Sure, anyone can tell themselves it’s easy to come up with a line on the spot. We all improvise every day, but imagine having to do it for a half hour, on stage, in front of a judgmental crowd, and staying consistently funny for the duration. And not your personal brand of humor, either. Everyone can think they’re funny. No, I’m talking about the brand of humor that a room full of people watching your every move will find hilarious. If you bomb, that’s all on you, on stage, in the spotlight, as the audience boos, gets up and leaves, or remains completely stonewall silent.
Yet despite these pressures, Holston is up on that very stage performing regularly, either with Vulture or her sketch comedy group, Obama’s Other Daughters. Initially, however, comedy, let alone improv, wasn’t her primary focus.
“I came out here for writing. I went to school and did a lot of non-fiction essays. I fancied myself to be a David Sedaris, and I was gonna come out here and live in the sunshine, write, and gain experiences.” That all changed, she said, once she took her first improv class. “Right before I left, as I was finishing up my degree, my boyfriend at the time suggested I take an improv class, to help me with my writing. And I thought, ‘alright, I’ll do that,’ not realizing that I had been doing improv my whole life. I just didn’t know what it was called until then. So I took this class and it clicked. I thought ‘Oh! I’m going to try and do this as well when I go to LA.’”
When asked if she feels any pressure, especially being a Black woman in an industry that has historically been dominated by white men, Holston smiled, clasped her hands, and rolled her eyes.
“Oh yeah, do well for all women!” But then she relaxed a fraction and continued. “I wouldn’t say all the time. When I first came into improv I didn’t know what it was and that it wasn’t something that I thought I could do until I came to UCB and saw women, specifically Black women, on stage. And then I thought ‘Oh! Women do this, Black women do this, I can do this!”
Still, she acknowledges that at the beginning there were some preconceived ideas to work past. “When I first started making my way through UCB, I think I felt a pressure to be really good, and to, on the Black side, not mess up in a way that was going to make people upset. There are different takes that we all have on different principles we live by, and different views we have, and I had wanted to make sure I had the “right” view.”
That being said, Holston also admits that she’s been fortunate to study and perform at UCB when she did. “I wouldn’t say I always feel the pressure of being a woman all the time. I came in [to UCB] at a time when there was a big push for diversity and to add women to teams. They were cutting back on individuals who would relegate women to being moms, or nurses, or wives. I’ve been lucky to have more opportunity to be who I am and not be put under pressure of ‘you’re a woman so you need to be this,’ or ‘you’re Black so you need to be this’, or ‘you’re queer so you need to be this.’ I feel like we get this opportunity, so let’s rock it and show them that we should have been here the whole time.”
I asked her why she believes it’s so important to have a feminine, or at least non-masculine identifying energy in comedy.
“We offer a different perspective than a man is going to offer. A scene about going to a mechanic is going to be different when a man does it, then when a woman does. Women have a different experience, typically. We are thought to not know as much so we can be taken advantage of. So when you only have men on stage, you have these very limited stories.”
During this discussion, we eventually began to talk about her future career goals. “I have an all Black, all female team Obama’s Other Daughters. We have the show Black Girl Magic where we have Black stand up, improv, and now we’re trying to get into sketches.” Beyond UCB and Obama’s Other Daughters, Holston has also appeared on College Humor, and was part of the online series “We Crush Wednesdays,” playing a news correspondent discussing current political events from a feminine lens while sometimes going on impassioned monologues involving mutated astronaut DNA and gremlins.
In her live performances, Ashley has a wide range to tap into. During a Harold show with her team, Vulture, Holston plays a devastatingly effective straight man, reacting to strings of patently absurd events with genuine outrage and exasperation for her scene partner to build off of. Yet, a new scene later and all traces of indignation are erased as she’s now playing a very affectionate pet coming between a couple’s relationship. At a different performance, Queer World’s Halloween special, she recounts that the scariest thing to happen to her had she not come out as queer would be being stuck in Virginia, teaching English. Her tale of would-be woe elicits perhaps the loudest screams of terror in the entire group. And then they start a new scene, and she’s awkwardly trying to pick up a cashier from a convenience store.
There’s a dry, yet often joyous edge to her humor. Hard to pinpoint, but finely threading a line of “I know better than you” sarcasm and absurd glee.
“It’s all about your perspective and your specifics. My perspective comes from being the oldest child of a Black family in the suburbs, and being a taller, bigger girl… not having the best high school experience. All of those things inform how I would see a character. My perspective shows me the fun things that I wanna play. Comedy has been something I’ve used in my life to deflect, so I’ll be a little harder, a little self-deprecating, a little sarcastic.”
We talk about balancing performances and the daily hustle, how to compromise between paying the bills and juggling that fourth comedy team. “Well, I knew my job wasn’t going to be cut, so something has to give. You’re either going to kill yourself doing everything you love, or you figure out what isn’t serving you.”
That said, UCB teams aren’t guaranteed. Ashley recounted the annual UCB “Purging” of house teams where, once a year, every team is put on notice. They then wait for an email to see if their team will survive another year or be forced to disband. Holston’s team from last year, Dollhouse, did not survive. After that happened, it was just a matter of waiting. If you get to stay on as a cast member, you can make it onto to another, new team. (Spoiler: That would be the aforementioned Vulture team). Some former teammates aren’t assigned to a new team, and have to wait for auditions next year to try again. New teammates have mere days to meet and try to build a rapport before they’re set to perform on stage. “It’s a little heartbreaking,” she said,”you spend a year creating with these people, and then it’s over.”
Ultimately, Holston would like to take her comedy on the road. “Solo stand up. That’s my next move. Improv was a starting point, let me gain my confidence, to see if I can do this and if I have any stage presence. And I’m finding that I do, so I definitely want to try stand up. Just to be writing material and traveling, that’s my biggest goal right now.”
After our interview, Holston was nice enough to put me in touch with the second woman I interviewed for this article, Rose O’Shea.
When Rose strolls into the cafe to meet with me, there’s an instant feeling/aura/air of confidence about her. O’Shea, a director who also works under the moniker of Lady Astronaut, is frank yet casual. She leans forward, draping herself halfway across the table with an ease that has me thinking her stage name is a misnomer. She’s not an astronaut so much as someone who commands their own orbit.
A Seattle native, Rose studied film at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. After graduating, she was faced with the choice between moving to New York City and moving to Los Angeles. “When I was in college,” she said, “it was all about my film major, but the only extracurricular thing I did was my improv team, and I was obsessed with them. After school, I knew I was either gonna be in New York and LA to pursue direction, but after four years in Massachusetts, I was just like ‘I gotta be in the sun’”.
The road to performing as a UCB cast member, she says, isn’t a “show up and you’re on” process. “I had to take classes at UCB for two years before I could get on a Harold team,” she recounts. While she talks about her beginning at UCB, I ask her about her moniker, Lady Astronaut.
“I’ve been doing the Lady Astronaut thing for five years at this point. When it started I was making videos and thinking that you gotta have a name, and it all just kind of made sense. I liked that combination of words, and now all these years later it’s always felt good.” It’s a similar process, she says, when naming a Harold team. Her current team, Protect Our Nation’s Youth (PONY), came about after a long discussion ended with the suggestion to make PONY an acronym. “Improv team names should never have anything to do with anything.” (It didn’t stop the team from taking a group photo with actual ponies during an outing earlier in the year.)
I ask her about UCB’s diversity push, and she tells me that her first Harold team, Rococo, had an even gender split, and was, at the time, the most diverse Harold team in UCB. Classically, teams had been divided into two women and six men. “I think the push for diversity is only having positive rewards for everybody. The audiences love it and our best performers are also our most diverse performers. I can’t imagine this space without that diversity.”
O’Shea works on many projects within UCB. “The improv theatres here are great. This is like, my whole world, it’s so wonderful. I get a lot of opportunities to direct.” Beyond her house team, she’s also the host of Legit Goddamn Theatre at UCB Sunset, which performs original one-act plays, as well as a member of Queer World. It’s Queer World, something Ashley participated in as well, that piques my interest.
A once-a-month improv show made of up queer-identified UCB cast members, Queer World features a variety of people from all sorts of backgrounds, all having different understandings of the queer experience. “One of the demographics that wasn’t represented were queer identities. And we were all looking around and realizing that there are more of us than there have ever been. So let’s be a team!”
I’m able to catch a show the night following this interview, the same one Ashley told her scary story in, and the entire cast was dressed in Halloween costumes. It’s during this performance that Rose’s thoughts on “game” shine through. O’Shea believes UCB has developed an approach to improv comedy that is intuitive. When she coaches, she tells her students that while your comedic voice is important, it’s unreliable. As everyone knows, not everyone is funny every time.
“So we have this anchor of “game,” and in a scene, everyone is putting their comedic spin on it, but we’re all agreeing really quickly what the joke (game) is. I tell my students to rely on game, it’s your life raft. Don’t put all that pressure on yourself. It takes years to trust, but game will work. Game will hold me up, game will make this scene work, so I can just be funny and rely on it.”
O’Shea muses that a scene with others who are all using game must be how athletes feel. “It’s really satisfying and really fulfilling to play game with other people who know how to play game well. This must be how athletes feel. I’m at the fucking peak of my ability to hit this ball, god it I would love to play with somebody who could pitch this ball really well. We all know the rules and we don’t have to stop down every time someone throws a ball. It’s like taking drugs, it feels so good.”
The ability of game to carry a performer, even if they’re not feeling like they’re firing on all cylinders can come in handy for a multitude of reasons. On the day of the interview, O’Shea had just come back from a comedy tour down in Texas. She had a show that night, and one the night after that. “Even if I’m not feeling it at the beginning, I can play game and I’m having a great time by the end.”
I think the push for diversity is only having positive rewards for everybody.
During the Queer World show, the cast is all systems go, flitting from scene to scene with cast members jumping in like a well choreographed Broadway number. O’Shea herself is more akin to a comedy sniper. While she takes center stage in a few scenes, she also observes from the edges, marking her time to jump in and add that extra bit to take a scene from already funny to absolutely hilarious, whether it’s a well-timed put-down, or pretending to be a sentient seal mocking humans from San Diego.
Since I’ve begun watching several of the shows UCB offers, I’m struck by another thought, which I ask Rose about, namely, how to recover from a “rogue” audience member. At one performance, two audience members get up and leave mid-show. At another, the show is opened up to audience participation and one such audience member seizes that time to turn the performing ensemble into their own personal relationship therapists.
“I’m personally not a huge fan of audience participation because of that unpredictability (improv is already an unpredictable form.) That being said, if it’s a show that does involve the audience in some way, I suppose the best strategy is to keep it short and sweet, recognize some people will purposefully disrupt the show if given the opportunity so stay wary of someone who seems like they are looking to bring that energy.”
She’s also quick to establish audience consent during a show. “Never let someone’s friend volunteer them for something – it should always be the individual’s choice to participate.”
Speaking of improv and unpredictability, I ask her about the dreaded UCB “Purge” Ashley had mentioned. “I’ve been relatively lucky and unscathed in that process, but I’ve still had the devastation of a team that was beloved to me being broken up and scattered. It’s so hard! But improv is a collaborative art, so it’s good to be able to stretch those muscles.”
As for her future goals, Rose wants to continue with her career in directing. She already has a number of projects under her belt. From a series she wrote and directed called “On in Five,” to a number of short films, to projects such as “Vanishing Act” (which is currently being submitted on the film festival circuit), and “Manic Pixie Congressman.” “I love directing, and I’m always developing new projects to direct. My favorite thing to do is work with writers. I love to direct projects other people have written.”
After I end the interview, Rose holds her chin in her hand, cocks her head to the side, leans forward, and begins asking me about this project. It’s a good few minutes before I realize she’s completely turned the tables on me and I’m suddenly in the spotlight for a different sort of interview entirely. To my delight, she offers to help me find a final woman to profile. It didn’t take as long as I expected.
Rose, taking charge as she’s been through the entire conversation, has been listing other women she works with and points out a woman leaving the cafe. “That’s Allie, do you want me to go grab her?” After a few moments of hesitation on my end, Rose helpfully adds, “It’s now or never!” and I find myself agreeing. Then, Rose literally runs out the door, dragging Allie Jennings back into the cafe and vouching for me all the way.
The conversation with her is entirely off the cuff, though she’s a terrific sport about it. Allie, who I learn is from Winnetka, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago), seems, for lack of a better description, to be a perpetual motion machine pretending to be human. While Ashley was relaxed and open, and Rose was a commanding yet easy-going presence, Allie practically vibrates in her seat, alternating between boisterous, full body gestures, and a quieter but nuclear level intensity. I’ll learn later that this bleeds throughout her comedy.
Her start in improv came early. The high school she attended had improv teams, and she attended camps at Second City. “I’m a control freak, and I like how improv challenges me to let it go.”
College saw her attending USC to study theatre and screenwriting, where she was a member of the university’s oldest improv team Commedus Interruptus. It was also where she experienced two years of being the only woman on the team. “At one point there were 11 people on the team, so it was 10 men and me. Those years really formed my sense of humor and taught me a lot about the weird gender politics that sometimes come up in improv. I played a lot of wives for a while.”
During her junior and senior year of college she found UCB. “I remember my mind kind of being blown that I could play men, and objects, and animals. There’s a lot of freedom here to take on new roles.”
Allie is currently on the Harold team City Hall. Her previous team was Dollhouse, Ashley’s team. “There have been people on Harold night that have been on teams for eight or nine years. It’s really hard when they break up the teams and they put you with new people, but in a way, it’s good that you’re taken out of your comfort zone because you grow. My new team right now has a lot of heavy character players, so I’ve been doing way more character work than I did last year.”
Outside of her Harold team, Allie is a member of the indie team, Crumbs, where they improv using the Pretty Flower technique. While Ashley went so far as to draw a diagram for me, explaining this structure that doesn’t restrict performers to sticking with a formula, Allie further elaborates with the example of a team member throwing out an idea of having a goat dad, and being able to follow the idea and see the woman and her goat dad, and their beautiful relationship instead of having to loop back like with a Harold structure. “It’s why I like Pretty Flower. You get to learn about goat dad.”
I ask her if she feels any pressure as a woman, as a queer woman, when she asserts herself on stage during shows. “I do improv because I enjoy it, and it’s fun and it makes me feel alive, but at the same time, I’m also aware that when I’m on stage that I am queer and that I dress a certain way when I do improv that I don’t dress in real life. I sometimes feel like if I dressed in a more feminine way on stage that I wouldn’t get as many laughs because I might be seen as delicate or gentle, and that people would want to put me on a pedestal. So I tend to dress down whenever I do improv.
In the past, men have come up to me after shows and instead of saying ‘Oh you’re so funny’, they’ll say ‘Oh you’re so pretty’. It happened a lot! It was gross. That’s not what I’m there for, I’m there not be looked at, I’m there to make you laugh. When I go on stage I want people to laugh at me. I don’t want to be a funny woman, I want to be a funny person.”
That sense of other became a recurring theme in her USC group. “When I was in that group, during shows when men would make jokes that were bluer, dick jokes, they would get huge laughter. And then I would try to make dick jokes because I was learning and they were my example, and I would never get any laughter and I wouldn’t understand why that was. I still don’t know if I understand, but I kept doubling down because I wanted people to laugh at my dick jokes. Later on, I realized, “Oh, it would be really cool if people made vagina jokes!”
This realization would lead to an idea that Allie developed first as a stage show at UCB. “When I was on the improv team in college, it was a very funny team, but it was very one point of view and the humor skewed crass and blue. Something that I did at UCB was I wrote a musical about periods called, “Keep Calm and Tampon.” There’s something so funny about periods because they’re beautiful and gross and weird and you can’t control them. Our society taught us that we should be ashamed of them and never talk about them ever. That in itself I think is funny ‘let’s not talk about this thing that happens to all of us’. That there’s somehow humor in trying to hide our humanity as women, which is so fucked up.”
Allie wrote the lyrics in addition to the script, and the project was then developed into a short film. “[Keep Calm and Tampon] it’s all about menstrual equity and the Pink Tax.” She was very impassioned when it came to talking about the Pink Tax, flinging her hands onto the table and informing me that California makes $20 million every year from the luxury tax on tampons and sanitary pads. “But they don’t tax Viagra! They don’t tax Rogaine!”
“Keep Calm and Tampon” has since been submitted to several film festivals, even picking up an award here and there. “It was such a fun project. An entirely female cast, female director. For me growing up in a community of men doing comedy, it was really nice to be surrounded by women.” Though viewer be warned; the film is full of insidious ear worms and you will find yourself awake at 2 am, lying in bed in the dark, and staring at the ceiling with bloodshot eyes as at least one of these numbers plays on loop in your brain.
When I go on stage I want people to laugh at me. I don’t want to be a funny woman, I want to be a funny person.
As far as her personal sense of humor goes, “I like focusing on crass, gross, feminine humor. I really enjoy exploring that, but I also really enjoy political humor as well. Pointing out flaws in our system with humor. Our country is so divided, so how do we bridge the gap and get on the same page with some of these issues? I think humor is a really important tool in making an argument and people are more inclined to listen to you if you can make them laugh. There’s something very humble about being able to make someone laugh, but being able to laugh at yourself as well.”
At this point, I asked where the line is between being able to laugh at yourself and, as Hannah Gadsby declared in her comedy special, “Nanette,” where it becomes harmful self-deprecation. At the mention of “Nanette,” Allie clenched her fists and exclaimed, “Oh my god! It was so good!” Then she took a long pause.
“I don’t know if I’ve found that line yet, that healthy place. I do a lot of self-deprecating humor, but I also do a lot of cocky as fuck humor, and it’s fun to play with both sides of it. But I don’t know where the line is, maybe when you start feeling like your joke is more truth than a joke.”
I thought she was finished with her explanation as another long pause set in. As I was about to ask another question she suddenly continued.
“Stand up is something that I haven’t really been able to crack. I don’t know if I have the strength to do it yet. I tried to do it at open mics and I got heckled a lot, by men. I remember this show where the emcee would introduce all of the men by their credits, but he would introduce me as a ‘pretty little girl’. I have way more going on in my life than just being a pretty little girl. I’m a woman, number one, I’m an adult. But I don’t know if I’m strong enough to do it yet. With improv there’s a community and there’s strength in that. I’d like to try stand up again, but it’s scary.”
During her recounting, she laughed, ruefully at the “pretty little girl” comment, and then the conversation moved on. But the one memory that struck me the most is this: it’s the only time in the entire interview that she’s still.
As a performer, Allie isn’t afraid to reach for a laugh. Staggeringly physical, she’ll use anything in her repertoire to make a scene work. From pretending to be a drunk asking for a tattoo, to a celebrity chef snorting poppy seeds, Allie throws herself from character to character, wild gesticulations, vocal pitches, and facial expressions all come together to form over the top, hilarious scenes. The same daring carries over to her on-screen performance, helped by possessing possibly the most animated set of eyebrows this side of Groucho Marx, Allie is confident and larger than life.
She is also the mastermind behind the web series Ashley was part of, “We Crush Wednesdays.” “I produced and directed the series, and I created it after the 2016 elections because I felt very helpless and angry, and I felt stupid for not knowing more about what was going on in the world. So this was a great way to learn about what’s going on, educate my friends, and have fun and make jokes. I invited a group of women to write with me, and this was during the rise of the #MeToo movement. There aren’t many women in late night, and we wanted many different perspectives on the issues were happening.”
Much of her work carries the same political commentary found in “We Crush Wednesdays” and “Keep Calm on Tampon.” It’s not a new theme for her. She was creating original content in her college days, with a dark comedy satire “Janny Jelly,” skewering political themes featuring Jennings as a purple-haired gremlin of a character who never, ever learns the right lesson. One of her upcoming projects is a musical, showing the ridiculousness of women’s struggles on abortion, by absurdly placing Mike Pence as the pregnant protagonist now needing to obtain an abortion himself.
“Whenever I’m writing, I feel like I’m motivated best through anger. I’m really angry at this person, but using humor I can work through these issues and these frustrations and try to turn it into something positive, that could create real change in people’s behavior or opinions.”
With my interview with Allie over, I would go on to see a few additional live shows just to get a better feel for how each woman approached their performances. Perhaps what I’ll remember more than anything though, is watching the three of them on stage, eyes alight, giant grins on their faces as they chase after a joke, tripping the light fantastic in a quest to pull out a laugh.
*The interviews above have been edited for clarity.
Images courtesy of Ashley Holston, Rose O’Shea, and Allie Jennings
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