With finals just around the corner, many students are pulling out all the stops when it comes to self–care. For some, this includes the guilty pleasure of reality television. But a new series, which premieres today, doesn’t require much guilt–or even a Netflix password.
“I wish I remembered where I came up with this idea,” said Ryan Eykholt ’17. Together with Sarah Zimmerman ’16, he created a parody reality television show, “CutThroat.”
“I was thinking about theatre programs that have cut programs,” explained Eykholt. “So kind of exaggerating that we decided to make a show where there are 10 students who start at this theater program at a university. One by one they get eliminated reality show style, and only one of them can graduate.”
Eykholt took the premise of the show to Zimmerman who helped narrow down the focus and assemble a team of writers. “We got together with people I have met in the sketch and broader community. Just kind of got together a room to see what we can do with the idea. And it turned out really successfully,” explained Zimmerman.
The writers tapped into their own acting abilities. “We realized we’re all actors here; we can just all play the main parts. So then it just became like everyone in the writer’s room was the main characters.”
According to Eykholt, “It really helped the process because we all got to know our characters so well, and that helped us write our own characters but also write for each other.”
Understanding each of the characters was crucial for the actors since the majority of the acting itself was improvisational. “We didn’t really script anything,” said Zimmerman. “We outlined each episode, and for each shoot, we knew what needed to happen and then had the characters improv what they said. It makes for a hard editing process, but it’s worth it because you get a lot better stuff when you’re not like sitting on a computer trying to think of something funny.”
The result of this improv is a cast of quirky–to say the least–characters. “They are all bizarre,” said Eykholt. He plays Graham Shapiro, one of the students fighting for a degree from the fictional Northeastern Institute of Performance Studies.
“Graham Shapiro is an actor who specializes in experimental theater,” reads “CutThroat”’s website (http://www.cutthroatseries.com/). “He was raised by a twelve person lesbian dance troupe, who instilled a love of Brecht within his black, shriveled heart. If a work can be pushed to an extreme, he will take it there.”
At first, the show’s premise and its characters were meant to parody the competitive nature of the theater world. But as it took shape, the show moved beyond this focus. According to Zimmerman, “It’s hard to convey the tone of the show because, I thought it would be a lot like more directly making fun of theatre kids and that world but I feel like our show got a little off the rails in a good way like we’re no longer relying on that. We just have this very weird sense of humor…the show, it’s very bizarre and kooky.”
Moving away from pure caricature, the show became part commentary on themes like hyper–competition and success in the arts world. “[The show looks at] this idea of competition and the competitive world and whether people can make it in the arts or entertainment or just in anything,” said Eykholt.
“CutThroat” explores these pressures, which resonate with the student experience, through comedy,” Eykholt continued. “I mean there’s such a fear in high school and college students’ lives of what the future might hold ‘cause everyone’s telling us we won’t get jobs or anything like that.”
While the show parodied these themes, the production process gave cast members a very real look at what an arts career might entail. “It’s scary to actually think of like how am I going to make money,” explained Zimmerman. “But I feel like this helped me a lot. ‘CutThroat’ made me realize that it’s mainly just meeting people, collaborating with them, making stuff not for the sake of anything concrete but just for your own sake.”
With four episodes each about 20 minutes long, “CutThroat” required a team of people who knew the ins and outs of making a show come to life. And through various collaborations, it achieved its professional, TV-ready quality. VCTV handled the behind-the-scenes elements of the show. VCTV Vice President Michael Iselin ’16 facilitated the partnership when Zimmerman presented the idea to him last year. “I was producing it,” explained Iselin. “That meant finding and reserving locations while helping with scheduling. I also was the VCTV liaison to find members who could help with the actual filming of the show.”
This team helped with many of the technical aspects of putting together a TV show. Iselin explained, “Many members helped do sound or served as the camera person. The current head of our post-production branch was heavily involved in the editing process. Vixy Youngblood [’16] worked with Sarah and Ryan to help sync sound, animate the logo and create the intro and she also helped with color correcting.”
For Zimmerman, the project was the perfect place to blend what she has learned at Vassar with others’ strengths. “I think of it as my thesis,” she said. “I’m bringing together everything I’ve learned here…We’ve drawn upon everyone we know to help us with the show, so it’s cool to see it all come together.”
She continued, “One of my good friends is doing the credits, and that’s what she really wants to do with her life…this is what she really enjoys doing and something I hate doing…So it’s cool to just source different things to different people who are interested in different things.”
While Eykholt considers the process of building a team and developing a show meaningful as well, he learned a valuable lesson from the characters themselves. Seeing the contestants try to speed through the process of getting their degree put things in perspective. He explained, “It’s such a rushed process for these characters [trying to] get a degree and then get into the world of theatre which is so not realistic and I find myself being like ‘I want to get this done now, I want to be finished’ and I know when we decided we were going to do this project over the course of two semesters it was daunting for me because it’s a big commitment I’m not patient at all but it paid off so much…[letting] it grow over time.”
This growth culminated in a series wrought with suspense, drama and of course, comedy. The first episode premieres today, and subsequent episodes will be released in the next few days. With finals, or what some may see as a burgeoning campus–wide competition, some honest and funny perspective may prove to be the best remedy. And although it is exaggerated, “CutThroat” could help keep things levelheaded.