Street | Cover Story

The art of the thesis

At this time of year, the word “thesis” conjures images of hardcovers and bound pages, not films and art exhibitions. The latter represent the work of seniors pursuing creative theses in their final year of independent work. Senior writer Zoe Perot offers a glimpse into the pieces created this year in creative writing, theater and visual arts. Staff writer Nina Wade spoke with students completing creative theses in the dance and film departments.

Visual Arts

Street sat down to speak with two students in the visual arts department, Lauren Schwartz ’14 and Yuliya Barsukova ’14, about their creative theses. To enter the program, prospective students apply in their sophomore spring. The track requires four to six studio classroom courses and two to four art history courses. “There is then junior independent work and the senior thesis show, complete with oral defense,” Schwartz explained.

Schwartz’s show, titled “For[Bilder],” features two parts. The first is a series of portraits on a large scale, based on photographs. They are painted in acrylics on canvas with metal leafing. The second part consists of clothing created from recycled painted canvases.

Barsukova’s exhibition, titled “Cause Y Knot,” showcases a variety of art and sculpture, made using a 3D printer. “A lot of my inspiration came from youth, technology, rebellion, lifestyle — the idea of being young and energetic and experimental, wanting to have fun,” Barsukova said.

However, these are not the only theses that Schwartz and Barsukova will submit this spring. Schwartz is also a student in the German department while Barsukova concentrates in history, and both had to juggle writing extensively for their majors while producing exhibitions.

“This is operatively for me a double-major in all but name, since they’re technically prohibited by the University. But it is a second thesis,” Schwartz said. “For me, it has just as much weight and importance and work, and I take it just as seriously as my major departmental thesis.”

Despite the challenges posed by completing two theses, both Schwartz and Barsukova feel that it was an important and necessary part of their experience.

“Honestly, it’s hard to put out even one thesis, but I like challenges and being in the process of doing things; I like projects and working nonstop, and I think that you need to do things, be trying new things, so I am happy with my choice,” Barsukova said.

Schwartz feels that the artistic and academic are equally important parts of herself and wants to pay homage to both her academic and artistic educations in her senior independent work. “I am a scholar and an artist; to stop creating art — honing a skill set uniting my body and mind, exploring the world visually, developing a philosophy and mode of articulating exactly that which cannot be put into words — would hinder the so-called ‘hard academic’ work I do elsewhere,” she said.

Creative Writing

Many seniors affectionately — or not so affectionately — refer to their thesis as the “book” they wrote. For Vivienne Chen ’14 and Cameron White ’14, this description is quite literal. Both seniors in the Creative Writing department were selected to write novels for their senior theses.

Chen and White knew even entering as freshmen that they wanted to pursue creative theses. However, until they were selected during their junior spring, neither was sure they would get the chance to do so.

“You apply for the creative thesis your junior year, spring semester. To be qualified for the department, you generally have to take three to four creative writing classes, and each of those you also have to apply for,” Chen said. “It’s unfair that you can meet all the requirements and still not be accepted [for a creative thesis], but defenders argue its exclusivity is what makes the program prestigious and worthwhile.”

Chen wrote a novel that takes place in two parallel timelines: Shanghai in the 1930s and modern day. “It concerns a young Asian-American woman trying to uncover her grandmother’s life before the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in 1937,” she said. “The thesis was originally a short story written for creative writing class after I returned to Shanghai a few years ago to find it wholly different — yet eerily similar, to different parts of its own cultural history.”

White had also intended to base his novel on a work he began to write during his sophomore year for CWR 345: How to Write a Novel in Twelve Weeks (or at least make a start). The class lived up to its name: students were expected to spend the twelve weeks writing as much of a novel as possible.

“Come junior spring, I realized that the novel was no longer where my mind was,” White said. “I had different experiences, and I needed to work on a new novel.” White’s new conception is a story that takes place in the summer of 2013, focusing on an American-Chinese film production.

Many students can attest to the woe of the writer’s block, but writing a novel presented its own unique challenges for both authors. “Writing a (good) novel in less than a year is a pretty impossible task. I knew this from Day 1, but as the deadline approaches, I’m trying to negotiate the fact that my work cannot be perfect, and will not be for a long time,” Chen said in an email.

For White, the greatest challenge was balancing two separate theses. While his home department, East Asian studies, approved the creative thesis, it also required him to write a regular thesis for the department.

Despite these challenges, both students have gained important experience and have learned a lot about the writing process over the course of the past year. “I started writing the summer before senior year and came back in the fall with about 70 pages. Very few of them still exist in the thesis,” White said. “It’s really a rewarding experience seeing the changes. My thesis adviser and I talked about how a story can always keep changing, and the creative thesis is a great way to learn that.”

 

Theater

To apply for the theater creative thesis, students submit a proposal to write, act, direct or stage a play. Students then go through an interview process where they must offer more information about their proposal and their planned production. Street spoke to Mark Watter ’14, Rachel Alter ’14, and Evan Thompson ’14, three theater certificate students who were selected to pursue a creative thesis in the department.

The process itself is competitive, especially with a group of students vying for the chance to see their artistic vision come to life. According to Mark Watter, “Actors are confident, cocky, self-conscious and competitive, so it’s a tricky environment, and definitely competitive.”

There are a variety of theories on why a certain project may be chosen and also many different ideas of what qualities are critical when presenting. Watter believes that his proposal was chosen partly because he demonstrated it was a feasible undertaking.

“Part of the selection process is the theater department asking ‘Do we think this production will happen?’ So for my proposal I recorded one song to show that the music really will happen.” Watter said. “I also think the practicality of my show, since it was very low budget, helped it get approved.”

Watter acted as the lead in “Hansel/Gretel,” a rock and roll musical. Watter decided on this proposal because he felt that being a musician had become a bigger part of his life and “the show sort of bridged the gap between theater and music.” He performed the show over reading period, touring it around different venues on campus like a “real band.”

“One of my favorite moments was when a gender studies professor and two of my favorite theater professors came to see the show, and they said afterwards that it had really been about the character, and not about caricaturing a woman or a trans person, which is exactly what we were going for,” Watter said.

Alter has pursued her theater creative thesis not as an actor but as a playwright. As an English major, Alter’s play, “Margo in Margoland,” will serve as her required departmental thesis as well.

“I knew coming in as a freshman that I wanted to pursue playwriting professionally,” she said. “I’ve been taking playwriting classes since the summer before 10th grade, and have taken different dramatic writing classes every year at Princeton. The classes have definitely prepared me, mainly by introducing me to other playwrights on campus.”

“Margo in Margoland” is a magical realist adaptation of Euripedes’ Medea, and it takes place within the protagonist’s own imagination. Alter was inspired by “Re: Staging the Greeks,” a global seminar she participated in during her sophomore summer. The seminar took place in Greece and focused on connections between ancient Athens and modern Greece through drama. While on the trip, performances by other students and discussions led Alter to think more deeply about the characters’ contemporary relevance.

“Someone mentioned that he thought one of [Medea’s] speeches has a lot of connection to ‘Rolling in the Deep’ by Adele. I was shocked at the similarities, because Adele is someone who I think has lyrics that really resonate with me,” Alter explained. “So that got me thinking about a Medea-figure, asking ‘how does a woman with this much anger navigate the world?’ And that ended up being the idea for my thesis.”

The process of writing and production has been a long and continuous one. Alter has written at least four drafts but since her play is being produced, the writing process continues to be ever-changing.

“The script isn’t cemented. In rehearsal today, we cut lines and changed them. I go to rehearsal and leave with ideas about revision based on the actors’ and director’s feedback,” Alter said. She foresees rewriting and reworking moments in the class until the actual performance date.

“When I interact with the cast and directors people add new ideas and propose things that I had never imagined. And that scares me a bit, because people talk about the thesis as being a personal culmination … an individual accomplishment,” Alter said. “But the best parts of theater to me are the collaborations. So it’s both exciting and scary to have so many other people involved with my thesis.”

Thompson performed as “Leo Bloom,” an accountant-turned-Broadway producer and lead character in the musical, “The Producers.” Fellow theater certificate student Mary Lou Kolbenschlag ’14 joined Thompson in the musical as the characters Ulla and Franz. Thompson’s role in the production was unique because although he proposed the musical, he was an actor and not the director.

“At the first meeting it was interesting, because when you propose but aren’t the director, you obviously have a vision for the show, but the director ultimately makes the vision come together,” Thompson said. “We settled on a broken down but big-budget aesthetic. We wanted to give it the air of being thrown together.”

Thompson knew since applying to Princeton that he wanted to do a creative thesis and that he wanted to pursue a theater certificate before he knew what his major would be. Thompson remembered opening night as a special and important night not only as the culmination of his year’s work but also of his entire theater career at Princeton.

“We had a big house for opening night on Friday in a big theater so it was just so much fun. The big audience makes you feel like you’re surfing on the energy that they give you. I was on cloud nine the whole time,” he said.  “It’s the most incredible adrenaline rush. I’ve never skydived but I imagine it wouldn’t be so different.”

 

Dance

Street sat down to talk to four seniors in the dance department: Tess Bernhard, Casey Brown, Samantha Gebb and Sarah Rose. Working with other dancers since September, the four created dance sequences, each around 10 minutes long, for “Re[VERB],” a senior showcase. In the dance department, the optional thesis can be satisfied through either performance or, as the four girls chose, a creative exercise in choreography.

“I’d performed a lot, and I really like performing, but there’s a huge challenge in choreography that isn’t there in performing,” Gebb explained, who attempted to illustrate a similar idea in both her architecture thesis and her dance thesis by establishing movement as an alternate form of communication and also a formal device of creating shapes and constructing a world.

Her dancers map out patterns on stage with LED lights attached to their fingers and toes, weaving in and out of the visible or pseudo-visible realms. Aiming to create a dance out of unexpected movements, she and her dancers created a white PVC-pipe cube in the fall semester, a “reverse jungle gym,” which you may have seen around campus in December. Though Gebb admits that her focus ultimately shifted more to the movement of the lights, this cube and the way people moved through it served as the basis for her choreography.

Bernhard looked forward to choreographing a thesis project after performing in several as an underclassman, and she saw the project as an opportunity “to incubate a dance.” For her piece, Bernhard tried to showcase both her dancers’ individuality, and “how that individuality is compromised when they dance together as a group.” She asked her dancers to choreograph their own solos and picked moves from her own improvisational exercises to create group sequences. A lot of her inspiration came from her studies of biology, particularly flocking, and “how easy it is for the simplest organisms to come together and move in synchrony,” she explained.

Rose’s piece began with a simple idea: “I wanted to see if I could take pedestrian and abstract movements and alter people’s perception of them based on the context I’m putting them in,” she said. “Is something like running your hands through your hair pedestrian because we see it in everyday life, all the time?”

She felt that composing choreography as part of her senior thesis provided an opportunity to grow that she wouldn’t find as easily after graduation. “Going out into the bigger dance world, you’re not going to have that same sort of feedback system,” she said of the built-in advising system on campus. “It’s like a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”

Rather than a single extended showcase, Brown’s thesis is comprised of five vignettes, three to six minutes long, interspersed between the show’s other pieces. Each of them are inspired by individual ideas. However, the series of vignettes have through-lines connecting them, which take various forms including a certain costume or particular way of walking. Coming into the process with many ideas, she decided to fine-tune all of them instead of choosing just one.

“I came to the project trying to re-imbue a sense of magic or spirituality or a kind of heightened existence on stage,” she said. “I wanted there to be an element of ‘yes, human, but yes, something more.’ ”

Brown’s creative process began in performance workshops where she worked in collaboration with her dancers to create dance solos and phrases. Then, she weaved the smaller segments together to create longer pieces. The dancers also use specific vocalizations in each piece to help Brown express the worlds she envisioned.

Each of the seniors noted the immense support they had received from the dance department. Bernhard, who had originally expected dance to be a hobby in her time at Princeton, was encouraged to prioritize dance by the department. Gebb, too, said she loved how the department affected her relationship with dance.

“You can talk to any of [the advisers], and they’re all really interested in your work,” Gebb explained. “We’re not at all conservatory, and they don’t try to make it such, yet they still present all of these opportunities for us. You can do whatever you want in the department.”

 

Film

Dayna Li ’14, a politics concentrator, originally thought of her academic and creative theses as vastly different, but gradually found similarities between the two ideas. Her politics thesis is on international sex trafficking, while her film “The Pretty People,” which runs around 40 minutes, is a closer-to-home take on interpersonal exploitation.

Li noted that her film adviser described her project as “kind of like sex trafficking,” without knowing the topic of her Politics thesis. The original idea for “The Pretty People” actually came from a story she wrote for a Creative Writing Class during her sophomore year.

“The Pretty People” explores the theme of friendship through the president of an academic society/cult, a cocaine dealer who coerces his girlfriend to sell for him and is ultimately caught. ”The coke dealer, and the whole situation, it wasn’t at a Princeton-type institution, it was supposed to be on the Upper East Side, but I thought it would be cool to do it in a Princeton environment,” she said.

In his narrative film, Nick Ellis ’14 also deals with issues of displacement in a different regard. In an email interview, Ellis described his project, titled “Straight for Satan,” as “a dark comedy about a closeted soccer player who struggles with his identity at a Catholic school.” Ellis, a religion concentrator, was interested in themes of self-discomfort and redemption.

Though Ellis didn’t want to write from experience, his adviser “really encouraged me to push out of my comfort zone,” he said in an email interview. “I’m grateful now, even though the whole process made me really insecure and defensive.”

Nick Ellis is a former senior writer for the Street section of The Daily Princetonian.

Not all film theses are based on personal experiences, however. Brady Valashinas ’14, a documentary filmmaker, approached his creative thesis from an observational, removed perspective. He chose to concentrate in anthropology because he wanted something that he felt would work well with film. “Ethnography is a huge part of anthropology, and it’s kind of like documentary filmmaking,” Valashinas explained.

“There are all these amazing stories, true stories, out there, that just aren’t being told or can’t reach a wider audience,” he said.

His documentary follows a Cirque du Soleil performer named Brandon Pereyda who works as an aerialist in the Zumanity show. Valashinas had been previously interested in Cirque du Soleil and reached out to some troupe members, including Pereyda, through a neighbor.

“It’s not like a ‘day-in-the-life’ movie, but it looks at everything from his training to how he prepares — we went to his mom’s house and interviewed his mom, we learned about how he grew up,” Valashinas said. “It’s putting a face to a performer on stage.”

Creating a narrative was the hardest part, Valashinas added. “Most documentaries, like a competition film, have a clear story. But he was actually out of the show when we did it,” he said. “He was still performing in the show, but he wasn’t doing his [own] act.”

He and Ellis, who accompanied him, were the only two filming. “We had three different microphones, two different cameras, tripods, Steadicam, and we had to make sure every day that we were filming the sound was good, the light worked, the cameras were charged,” Valashinas said.

Unlike the other three, Michael Cummings ’14 did not produce a final film. Rather, as an English major in the screenwriting track, he wrote a screenplay. Cummings described the piece as “a crime thriller about a business school dropout getting rich counterfeiting designer sunglasses in the mid-90s.”

He drew inspiration from his father, who was a policeman in the ’90s. The idea for the film, titled “American Dreamers,” was conceived during his sophomore year.

“I knew, regardless of whatever, I was going to write this,” he said. “Every year I write a screenplay [...] it just so happened that I could write it with the help of an adviser in the department.”

Cummings enjoyed writing a script that could be “more accessible and entertaining” but still had “scholarly merit.” Cummings strove to give his piece a popular appeal but also engage with deeper subjects.

“On the surface, it’s just like a crime thriller, but thematically it deals with feelings of death and immortality and trying to become something larger than yourself, all with this guise of fake goods at the front of it,” he said.

Speaking of their film projects in general, the students noted the exhaustive demands of the process. “Editing has been a lot,” Valashinas said. “Labor of love, definitely, but I think a lot of people don’t know how much labor goes into it.”

Ellis found his film to be even more time-consuming than his written thesis. “I’m working off of my 15th or 16th draft,” he said in an email interview. “Sometimes [during shooting] actors wouldn’t even have time to eat, so we’d provide meals and Snickers bars. Lots of Snickers bars.” The final product, however, provided the students with a very different opportunity than their written theses.

“There’s a quote from a director at the Oscars, I forget who, that said ‘Making a film is a transformative experience,’ ” Li added. “I think even more [than a thesis], because it deals with our interactions on a day-to-day level.”

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