Sound & Vision: Leah Hennessey

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Welcome back to Sound & Vision, the Rumpus profile series that spotlights the creative talents of those whose work connects to music. Up today, I’m talking with Leah Hennessey, a co-creator of the brilliant DIY web series Zhe Zhe, which she also writes, produces, and stars in. Set in an alternate reality New York, the show follows the travails of Jean D’Arc, Mona de Liza, and Chewie Swindleburne, all members of an aspiring gender bending post-(p)op band called Zhe Zhe. When Chewie leaves the band to start a solo career funded by cultural imperialists, Jean and Mona are left trying to figure out how to keep the band going, while each pursues her own quest for fame. Supported by a successful Kickstarter campaign, the show is now in its second season.

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The Rumpus: Before I watched the show for the first time, I knew only that it was about three young fame-obsessed girls in New York. But that really only scratches the surface. This isn’t another Sex in the City or Girls—I almost feel like it’s the anti-Girls.  There’s even a Lena Dunham support group that meets in one of the early episodes…

Leah Hennessey: Describing Zhe Zhe is one of the biggest challenges because there aren’t any easy promotional sound bites. Sometimes you can make a joke, like saying it’s Absolutely Fabulous meets the Cremaster Cycle, that it’s a more homemade, fucked-up Mighty Boosh, or something like that. I used to tell people the show was about these three girls and their quest for fame, but some people thought the conceit seemed kind of frivolous or shallow, like how much is there to say about that? I think they were thinking of social media or Instagram fame, taking the view that everyone wants to be famous in the sense that they want to have followers. We were saying, no, this is more an ontological investigation of fame and the desire for it.

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Rumpus: Where did the concept originate?

Hennessey: Ed Sherin, who passed away very recently, was my acting teacher at Sarah Lawrence. He was a producer and director probably best known for his work on Law & Order and also for directing The Great White Hope on Broadway. Ed had his own acting method, related to Grotowski but also to his formative experience of studying with Bertolt Brecht in Berlin. Ultimately his approach was anti-cerebral, anti-Stanislavski, anti-Strasberg. It’s about getting in touch with your impulses and your unconscious, activating the reptilian brain. I thought I’d go crazy if I didn’t continue this work, so I started a workshop for actors and writers with my friends.

Rumpus: But Zhe Zhe definitely appears to depart, at least to some extent, from the tradition you describe. How did that come about?

Hennessey: There is an irony here. At first the workshop was all about being real, primal, and true—not postmodern or kitschy at all. But at the time I was rewatching all of these BBC comedies like Black Books and Blackadder, and I wanted to do something like that. I wrote the first scene for Zhe Zhe for that workshop. At that point, I’d been working with Ruby McCollister, who’s a childhood friend, and Emily Allan, who I met through mutual friends. Our cinematographer, Max Lakner, I knew from high school, and E.J. O’Hara, the director, is my boyfriend. We had so much fun with Zhe Zhe that we actually dissolved the workshop.

Rumpus: Did you intend from the outset for Zhe Zhe to become a web series?

Hennessey: At first, we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. At the time I was making a lot of different content for YouTube, some of it with my friends. When we first put this show up we didn’t know that we would keep going with it. It was only when we were in the editing room that it really started to take on a life of its own, and we had so much fun making it that we just kept going.

Rumpus: And the production is entirely DIY?

Hennessey: We usually have a crew of about three: one cameraman, sometimes with an assistant, our director, who also does the lighting, and one of our cast people who does the sound, usually in rotation. We didn’t want an outside director to tell us to get in it and stay in it and be “actor-y.” We wanted someone who could make it look good. E.J. is an artist, not a filmmaker or theater person at all. He thinks it’s funny when we talk actor language and he thinks there’s a lot of bullshit in acting and theater.

Rumpus: But this isn’t to say you guys are just winging it.

Hennessey: Not at all. Under Ed’s influence I developed a real contempt for the fetishization of improv, or improv as a shortcut to spontaneity. I feel like a lot of young people fall in love with a false idea of realness, which usually means not writing a script.

Rumpus: Where do you think this false idea of “realness” comes from?

Hennessey: Sometimes they watch cool films or go to film school, and they get this idea to gather up some attractive, charismatic friends. They think they’re so much funnier just being natural that they’ll “just film them.” I also feel like part of it is being a generation that’s grown up watching amateur porn every night, and developing a very deep connection to an aesthetic and a set of values that I don’t share. False spontaneity is really sickening and perverse to me in a way. I love actors, and I love to think about acting. Actors are really funny, and I think they’re especially funny when they have to deal with good writing.

Rumpus: Yes, I can definitely see that in the scene from season two’s premiere where Jean attempts to perform a ritual to ensure that [Mona’s murdered boyfriend] Pat Phone stays dead. She accidentally summons the actress Patty Frome, and as Patty tells the story of her own quest for everlasting fame, which was only achieved through death, other actors from yesteryear begin to materialize in her narration. The scene unfurls into this display of hilarious debauchery. There are so many references—layer upon layer. Where do you come up with ideas like this?

Hennessey: I’m often anxious. I overthink things. I’m aware of the way my life and experiences are mediated by the media I consume. It’s haunting. If I’m falling in love, I’ll be thinking about the songs it evokes, and it’s not just “Oh, that’s the song that was playing when I met you.” It’s that our love is connected to this kind of music, or this kind of aesthetic, or these kinds of movies. Maybe the people who are doing bad faux-Cassavetes movies are trying to reclaim some kind of lost innocence. But I think this culture makes people a little schizophrenic, and it’s more real to show people play-acting.  In the case of the scene you mention, it’s the actors evoking their idea of 1920s actors, which isn’t even a “real” or authentic version of the 1920s. It’s anachronistic, deliberately mediated, and intentionally remixed (e.g., the actors are smoking crack, Iris Murdoch books are on the shelf).

Rumpus: It’s often meta too, sort of like Theatre of the Ridiculous, but updated for the digital age. You’re deploying current and historical pop culture references and notions of celebrity to convey a deeper, and sometimes darker, social commentary.

Hennessey: There’s an essay by Heinrich von Kleist called “On the Marionette Theatre” that essentially argues that we can’t lose our self-consciousness. We can’t will ourselves to be innocent. But maybe we can go around the other side, and innocence can be regained through hyper-self-consciousness and hyperawareness. I’m one of those people who watches all shows, not just my own, and dissects all of the references, all of the mediation, and all of the tropes.

Rumpus: Where do you think that hyperawareness comes from? Is it a general symptom of living in an age of media oversaturation or something that’s also derived from personal experience?

Hennessey: When I was in middle school, my mom was writing books with Danny Fields. Danny always rolls his eyes when we talk about how much time I spent at his house because it probably didn’t feel like as much time to him as it did to me. But I basically grew up on his couch. Danny’s house was like this Library of Alexandria, with endless stuff to look at. I was doing schoolwork, but also reading all of the books at his house, archiving interviews, going through photos and basically helping him work. I was also hearing all of these mythological stories about bands, and band relationships and dynamics.

Rumpus: That’s quite an education. Zhe Zhe is of course the name of the band on the show, but you’ve also described the collaborative process of making the show as being akin to being in a band.

Hennessey: The five of us—E.J., Ruby, Emily, me, and Max—we really are like a band. We’re three girls and two boys, and there are current romantic relationships and ex-romantic relationships. The dynamics are so dysfunctional and insane but it works!

Rumpus: So you’re essentially Fleetwood Mac? [Laughs]

Hennessey: 100% Fleetwood Mac. We even made up a “What Zhe Zhe Character Are You?” quiz, which is posted on our website. It includes a question about which character you are from Fleetwood Mac because that’s such a huge reference for us. People from our parents’ generation think it’s so lame, but all five of us really do love Fleetwood Mac. I think it’s really grounding for us.

Rumpus: Let’s stick with the band analogy for a moment. For musicians who self-release, it’s often a conscious attempt to bypass established gatekeeping mechanisms so they can put out creative content that’s undiluted by people telling them how to “sell” it. Is crowdfunding the way to go for experimental artists?

Hennessey: The business of media is evolving so fast, at such a breakneck accelerated pace, that I feel the only way to survive is to make something myself the way I want to make it. As for making something that’s economically sustainable, that’s a harder question. I feel like people are getting increasingly inundated with crowdfunding appeals, and creative people are pressured to come up with ways to monetize the content.

Rumpus: Sometimes people will use crowdfunding to test the market; if they reach their goal, then they’ll make the proposed project. But that’s not the approach you took.

Hennessey: As we did season one, we got better and better, and our audience grew, but we realized that if we wanted to do a second season we couldn’t afford to keep working like that, borrowing equipment and spending our own money. With every episode we got increasingly more ambitious but it was tough making decisions about whether to buy the wig or the devil sticks or the mannequin legs, cost-cutting when you’re trying to make something this specific. It’s kind of crushing.

Rumpus: Your Kickstarter was successful, actually exceeding its goal. Do you feel that in addition to bringing financial support, it also validated the show creatively?

Hennessey: When we decided to do a Kickstarter, it honestly felt very embarrassing and humbling to be asking for money without being able to offer a financial payback. I had never asked for help before, or for money for anything on that scale. But people were so supportive and enthusiastic, and it made me realize how many people believed in what we were doing. I have to say it was a transformative experience. We still work on a micro-budget, and none of us is getting paid, but we do have money now to spend on making the show.

Rumpus: Has it changed the way you approach things?

Hennessey: In terms of its aesthetics, I’d say the current season has a much higher production value because we have more time, better cameras, etc. When I look back at the first season now I see all the flaws, and it’s almost unwatchable to me. I sometimes think about reproducing the pilot again, but there’s something I want to preserve about that initial process. All of those early flaws, they’re all part of it.

Web series in general have evolved too—where I think a lot of people had been thinking of them as calling cards or demos, the medium itself is becoming increasingly ambitious. We’re planning six episodes for this season, and have an insane “secret” plan for a third season, too.

Rumpus: Can you see Zhe Zhe moving to other platforms to reach a broader audience?

Hennessey: Well, partially the challenge in reaching a broader audience is that algorithms are always changing. I was one of those people who as a teenager did Facebook photo shoots, so I had a pretty active presence on that platform, and it was a good way for me to show people what I was doing. When we did the first season of the show, we were able to post it on Facebook and everyone saw it there. But Facebook has changed so much in such a short time. With this season we’ve found there’s so much paid content and so much video content that feeds are inundated and people may not even see our post because it’s been sorted to the bottom. I’ve tried putting links on other places, like Instagram, but none of us are Instagram celebrities so it’s not reaching as broad of an audience as it might. In general, social media has become much less democratic. That said, I still see this very much as a web series.

Rumpus: Do you mean that from an aesthetic point of view?

Hennessey: I have a friend who’s a collector who recently showed me this book of Fiorucci stickers from the 80s. You look at it, and say, “Why? This is so fancy and expensive.” Our show is rich and hi-res, and you could blow it up in 4K and show it in a movie theater. But there’s something about calling it a web series, and knowing that you can watch it on a phone, that appeals to me. At the same time we are also doing more screenings and events, and it’s been a very different experience to see people seeing the show. You can often reach more people now with a live event than online, which is interesting because it’s the inverse of what you might expect.

Rumpus: Have you also performed together on productions other than Zhe Zhe?

Hennessey: We have our own home space at Music Inn and we do a monthly live show there. It’s not Zhe Zhe, but we do other performances, for example we created a fake Catholic punk band called Excommunication and made a music video for a song called “Ex Communicate Paul Ryan” which was directed by Ruby.

Rumpus: Do you see yourselves getting involved in more overtly political work like this?

Hennessey: After the presidential election I was inconsolably freaking out.  After the world is ending thoughts, the first admittedly petty thought I had was, “Oh my God, Zhe Zhe isn’t going to matter anymore.” So much of the show is lashing out at the people and things that are the closest to us, that right after the election it felt indulgent. But then I started getting involved in actions and community work, joining Rise and Resist.

Rumpus: How did the experience of direct political action affect you?

Hennessey: The more I did, the more I realized that making art is also still important. Becoming involved and doing stuff, as opposed to just say having an opinion and posting about it—makes a real difference. None of us can afford to be scared or self-censoring about what we’re doing. There are things in the show that I might have trouble explaining or answering for, but we need to take chances and be willing to take creative risks.

Rumpus: Yes, but a big part of that is also maintaining your humor and irreverence, right?

Hennessey: True, but since we’ve been working on the show, something that’s become even clearer than it was in the beginning is that the desire for fame is in fact a very serious inquiry—not just why people want to be famous, but what it feels like to be famous.

Rumpus: Have you reached any preliminary conclusions?

Hennessey: Not to be so on the nose, but when Donald Trump was elected, there were more think pieces than have ever been written about anyone or anything about why people voted for him. Of course there are very serious reasons, like racism, xenophobia, poverty, and sexism. But one of the things I noticed was that among the main explanations was that his fame (and fame seeking) played a part.

Rumpus: So Trump’s appeal to voters was aspirational?

Hennessey: In a way, yes, it’s about his money, but also the strength of the brand, his celebrity.

Rumpus: Well, one of the fantasies of fame is that if you can achieve it, it can make all of your problems go away. And of course it never does, not for Jean, Mona, or Chewie, and not even for Trump.

Hennessey: Right, but that’s almost too rational. A lot of what drives one to fame is abstract. To really understand it, we not only have to look at Trump, we have to also look at ourselves.

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BONUS MATERIAL

Catch up on season one!

A few season two spoilers revealed:

  • The mystery of Pat’s death will be revealed.
  • Chewie will do some soul searching.
  • The aliens will be back.
  • Ghosts will be summoned.
  • Despite artistic differences, Mona and Jean will continue to work on their music (and take it to the next level.)
  • Backstories will unfold.
  • They will host an IRL battle of the bands which will feature prominently in an episode.
  • There will be a “krautrock” opera.

 

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All photographs courtesy of Leah Hennessey.

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This interview has been edited and condensed. If you’d like to recommend someone for “Sound & Vision,” drop Allyson a line here.


Allyson McCabe writes and produces stories about music for NPR, The Brooklyn Rail and others. More from this author →