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March 2018

Braff is Back

Rewriting the Fairy Tale

Down to a Science

Solo and Shameless

Zach Braff returns to television with his new sitcom, ‘Alex, Inc.’ p.4 Artist in Residence Jen Bervin leads workshops, classes p.8

Jerry Mitchell directs the new stage adaptation of ‘Pretty Woman’ p.10

Matt Bellassai leaves Buzzfeed to create a podcast and write a memoir p.12


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THE MONTHLY Contents Braff is Back

Zach Braff returns to television with new sitcom

Down to a Science

Artist Jen Bervin reflects on Northwestern residency

Rewriting the Fairy Tale

Jerry Mitchell directs the new stage adaptation of “Pretty Woman”

Solo and Shameless

Matt Bellassai leaves Buzzfeed to create a podcast and write a memoir

04 08 10 12

Staff of The Monthly Issue 9

Jane Recker A&E Editor

Ruiqi Chen Creative Director

Andrea Michelson Assistant A&E Editor

Christopher Vazquez Charlotte Walsh Writers

Cover photo and page 3 photo: courtesy of ABC/Bob D’Amico

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Zach Braff returns to television with his new sitcom, ‘Alex, Inc.’ — by Charlotte Walsh

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Photos and graphics: Source: ABC/Elizaabeth Fischer, Joelle Johnson


Z

ach Braff (Communication ’97) is one of Northwestern’s most notable alumni, made famous by portraying the hapless J.D. on the classic sitcom “Scrubs.” However, what they say is true: Stars, they’re just like us. Braff was charming and humorous when interviewed over the phone, even accidentally dropping the call when he butt dialed his mother. His passion and excitement for his new project — a sitcom called “Alex, Inc.” — shone through. After being conspicuously absent from the small screen for eight years, Braff will make his return March 28 on ABC when the series premieres. He stars as Alex Schuman, a radio journalist who quits his job to begin his own podcasting company. Hilarity ensues as he learns to juggle his budding business and life at home with his wife and two children. Tiya Sircar, known for “The Good Place,” plays Braff ’s wife on the show. Sircar said in a press release to Deadline Hollywood that she was excited to play a strong female role. “I like that this character is not just a mom and a wife, although those are admirable jobs in themselves, but I like that she’s also a badass public defender,” Sircar said. The show is inspired by a podcast called “StartUp” — created by Alex Blumberg of “This American Life” — that follows the stories of burgeoning businesses. Braff said when he heard the idea of basing a series off the podcast, he was compelled by the unique subject matter within a family comedy and couldn’t resist the pull to get back into television. By that point, he said, he had begun to miss the comedic and social atmosphere of working on a television set. “I had imagined going back to TV as an actor, but I thought it would be on something streaming or something a little more R-rated than what I ended up doing,” Braff said. “But this podcast, I thought it was so original. I saw that it could be a great network show and that it could be really funny without being too risque for broadcast.” Braff will be directing and executive producing the show, skills he said he honed

at NU as a radio, television, film major. Torn between majoring in theatre or RTVF, Braff said he settled on RTVF because he wanted “to make movies more than anything.” He became involved in Studio 22 Productions — a student group that provides undergraduates with funding and support to produce their own films — and could be found working on student film sets almost every weekend. Braff said he also wanted to take acting classes in the theatre department, but found this difficult to achieve as the classes filled up quickly. Luckily, one of his friends, Richie Keen (Communication ’96), convinced Communication Prof. David Downs to meet with Braff one-on-one to plead his case. Downs said he was so impressed by Braff ’s talents he let him into the class. It was the beginning of a relationship that would last through Braff ’s NU career and beyond. Downs said he taught Braff in multiple classes, and even starred in one of Braff ’s student films, despite having a general policy of not collaborating in students’ works. “He was talented and he was smart, and he was interesting, and funny, and all those things, and then he had that quality where he could just get people to go along with his projects somehow,” Downs said. Downs has stayed friends with Braff, he said, and

even made a cameo in the 100th episode of “Scrubs,” which Braff directed. Braff said Downs was a quintessential part of his NU experience. “I credit so much of my accomplishments to David Downs,” Braff said. “He was one of the best teachers I ever had, probably the best teacher I ever had. … He just opened my world to another level of acting and understanding theater.” In addition to working on film sets and theater, Braff was also part of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. He discovered the group as a freshman while living in Bobb Hall, which he said was the wrong dorm for him. He recounted times when he would go into the bathrooms and the urinals were pulled off the wall or there was vomit in the hallways. Braff said he wanted to be social, but Bobb wasn’t his scene. However, Bobb was next to the quad where some of the Phi Psi brothers would play frisbee. It was from watching the

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brothers interact that Braff said he knew he wanted to be a part of their organization. “They just looked more like my kind of folks; they just were arty and a little hippie and smoking tons of weed and playing frisbee, and I was like, ‘I want to be with those guys,’” Braff said. “When I joined Phi Psi I found a really great group of friends, and I just really enjoyed the fraternity experience.” It was there that Braff met Keen — who introduced Braff to Downs — a fraternity brother who would remain a lifelong friend. Keen even directed an episode of “Alex, Inc.” Ten episodes have been created for “Alex, Inc.” thus far, and Braff said he hopes “Scrubs” fans will enjoy the new sitcom’s similar style

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of humor. “It’s kind of an in for people who grew up on ‘Scrubs’ and now have kids, they can appreciate the same humor,” Braff said. “Whereas ‘Scrubs’ is pretty risque and not something you would want to watch with a kid.” “There’s way less sex,” he added, laughing. Braff said he values the subject matter of his show since — unlike internet staples like viral videos and tweets — podcasts embrace a long-form style. He said he appreciated how people follow podcasts or will listen to them over a few car rides, in a similar manner to how people take the time to read a good book. Storytelling has always been the prime objective for Braff as a filmmaker, he said.

With all of its humor and heart, Braff said, “Alex, Inc.” is, first and foremost, a great story which he thinks will make the show a success. “It all comes down to a good story,” he said. “It can be a small story, it can be a short film — like one would make at Northwestern — or it can be the arc of a comedy, like a show on ABC. It doesn’t matter what your budget is, if you have a great story that keeps people and they want to know more, that’s what matters most.” Showing his purple pride, Braff ended the conversation like any true Northwestern student. “Go ’Cats,” he said. ◊


“I had imagined going back to TV as an actor, but I thought it would be on something streaming or something a little more R-rated than what I ended up doing. But this podcast, I thought it was so original. I saw that it could be a great network show and that it could be really funny without being too risque for broadcast.” — Zach Braff, Communication ’97 7


Down to a Science Artist in Residence Jen Bervin leads workshops and classes on interdisciplinary art practice

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till smiling after beginning her 9 a.m. workshop Saturday, Jen Bervin stood in front of participants at the interdisciplinary art workshop she was leading in University Library. She instructed the group to each take one of the various art pieces around the lounge, feel it and write something about it. “It’s an experiment,” Bervin told the participants. “It might succeed. It might fail. It might do both — like most good experiments.” Bervin, an Artist in Residence at the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, has made a career out of experiments. Her latest:

the “Read with the Spine” workshop, co-developed by Bervin and Block Museum of Art curator Susy Bielak. The workshop was open to faculty and students, and marked a major point in

— by Christopher Vazquez

Bervin’s residency. Throughout the quarter, Bervin and Bielak compiled materials from library archives and special collections for workshop participants to engage with. Activities ranged from studying concrete poetry collections to writing narration for archival footage of a building’s demolition. “I really admire Jen’s work and her approach to the environment through engagement with materials and archives,” said Jayme Collins, a third-year Ph.D student studying under Bervin, “particularly through archives t h a t h a ve constituted women’s work, like


textiles.” Bielak first invited Ber vin to Northwestern after one of her pieces, “Silk Poems,” a longform poem both published as a book and displayed as a liquified silk biosensor, caught the curator’s attention last spring. The Block hosted four visiting artists last year in partnership with the McCormick School of Engineering as part of an initiative to explore the connection between art and engineering. Of all the artists, Bervin particularly impressed Bielak. “During Jen’s visit, the care and sensitivity ... and broadened vision I saw in meetings she and I were having were both fun and deeply philosophical,” Bielak said. “As a curator, I saw clearly how wonderful it would be to have her at Northwestern and the kind of value she’d bring here.” Ber vin’s residency is, in itself, experimental. After Bervin’s visit to campus, Bielak applied to the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities’ Artist-in-Residence program, requesting that the Block host the artist for the residency. When the Kaplan Institute agreed to do so, it was the first time the two institutions collaborated on such a residency.

Photos: Source: Jen Bervin, Sean Su

In addition to workshops and classes, the artist has also spent her time at Northwestern finishing her latest project, a hand-sewn silver sequin model of the Mississippi River called “River.” The piece has been in the works for 12 years, and is set to display at the Des Moines Art Center on Oct. 18. For Bervin, this artwork is not merely an experiment, but rather a piece with personal significance from her childhood. After her father’s death at age 33, his ashes were spread into the Mississippi River. Despite the inspiration for the piece, she called it “the opposite of a memorial.” “It’s about that moment when grief turns to joy,” Bervin said. “I don’t have a word for that, and I don’t think our culture has a word for that. Grief is unmapped in the American consciousness.” Bervin further strived to implement interdisciplinary artwork into her residency, which she felt fit well with the student culture at Northwestern. Bervin has taught similar workshops at other institutions, such as Harvard, but said she hasn’t seen the same framework for combining various disciplines that is in place at Northwestern. Through this approach, Bervin hopes to

soften the harsh distinctions between artists and scientists. In her course titled “Advanced Materials,” offered through McCormick and the Weinberg College of Arts and Science’s Department of Art Theory and Practice, students use engineering research as subject matter for the art they create. Bervin said the partnership between the Block and the Kaplan Institute has allowed her to develop relationships with students and faculty in the process of co-developing her workshop. She also said she has been able to meet with archivists and curators to bring her vision to life. “There were a lot of moving parts,” Bervin said, “and I feel like at every turn we were met with grace and intelligence and generosity of spirit that moves something like a workshop from interesting to compelling.” When workshop participants finished reading their texts about the objects they were assigned, Bervin was still smiling. She revealed that three of the art pieces were actually fragments of The Rock, an iconic campus landmark. Bervin relishes this intimate, tactile interaction with art. “It’s a beautiful thing,” she said, “to see an object caressed and explored.” ◊

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Jerry Mitchell directs the new stage adaptation of ‘Pretty Woman’

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f you’re trying to take a movie-musical to Broadway, you want Jerry Mitchell on your team. The star director and choreographer has helped films like “Hairspray,” “Kinky Boots” and “Legally Blonde” make their way from the silver screen to the Great White Way. His newest endeavor: “Pretty Woman: The Musical,” is coming to Chicago this month to have its preBroadway tryout at the Oriental Theatre, from March 13 to April 15. A modern Cinderella story that tells the story of a prostitute with a heart of gold who falls for a lonely, wealthy businessman, Northwestern alum Garry Marshall’s “Pretty Woman” is one of the most iconic movies of the 1990’s. Mitchell faces a challenge in adapting “Pretty Woman” for the stage, as fans of the movie will be coming to the theater with expectations of what it should look like. American Music Theatre Project associate artistic director Ryan Cunningham noted the importance of not just “putting the movie onstage with songs stuck in,” but rather subtly re-inventing the presentation of the story. “There is a challenge for the creative team to deliver on what people are expecting … while also delivering something new enough that you want to go and say, ‘It’s worth me not just watching it on Netflix,’” he said. Cunningham cited the stage version of “The Lion King” as a prime example of the wild success that can be achieved when creators get this formula right. While the plot of the stage show follows that of the movie, the

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artistic presentation is starkly different from the animation. The result: “The Lion King” stage show has grossed more than all new “Star Wars” movies combined. With Mitchell at the helm, Cunningham has no qualms about “Pretty Woman” pulling this off and being a smash. “Jerry is a master storyteller, and he’s very good at getting to the essence of what the show is all about. Frequently … the center of gravity thematically is different than what the film is,” he said. One of the new centers of gravity Mitchell wants to highlight is Vivian finding her own strength, which he felt was important in light of the #MeToo movement. He said he was always compelled by the scene during which Vivian tells Edward she “wants the fairytale,” even adding a preceding musical number where Vivian sings about how much she has changed and can’t go back to the life she led before. “She was a strong woman and has learned so much about herself in that week,” Mitchell said. “(In that scene) she’s finally learned her value and was able to say ‘no’ to a man that had a lot of money and a lot of power.” In addition to enhancing this scene, the stage show will have Vivian, not Edward, saving herself from Stuckey’s attempted rape. Given the serious topics that the show deals with, Mitchell and the creative team had to be careful and purposeful about where and how to insert song and dance into the story. “Producers are always telling me ‘More dance,

— by Jane Recker

more dance!’” Mitchell said. “And I’m like, ‘Chill out, there will be plenty of dancing. It just has to come from an organic place.’” One of the ways the show achieves this is by turning close-up moments in the movie into musical numbers in the show that explore the character’s inner monologue. A favorite of Mitchell’s is the musical’s re-imagining of the opera scene, which opens with “La Traviata,” then seamlessly flows from Edward singing about his love for Vivian as he watches her, to their first dance at the opera gala, to their first time making love. Samantha Barks, who plays Vivian, said it is these kinds of revealing, intimate monologues between a character and the audience that makes her love musicals, as “it’s a joy to get to crack open that window to the soul.” 80’s pop star Bryan Adams was tapped to write the music for the show. While this is his first musical, Adams has composed movie scores in the past. J.F. Lawton, who wrote and adapted the “Pretty Woman” screenplay, credited Adams’ experience in both writing pop hits and soundtracks that advance a show’s plot in creating a memorable score for “Pretty Woman.” “They’re songs that the minute you hear them you think, ‘Oh, that could be on the radio tomorrow,’” he said. One of the songs Lawton said he is most excited about is “Rodeo Drive,” which is sung by Kit as Vivian explores the eponymous shopping district for the first time. Broadway star Orfeh, who plays Kit, was hand-picked for the show,


as Mitchell felt she was the only person who could do the number justice. Orfeh, best known for playing Paulette in “Legally Blonde,” is famous for her showstoppers, and Lawton said this is no exception. Barks and her co-star Steve Kazee, who plays Edward, have what are likely the toughest parts to play in the musical, as they portray the characters iconically originated by Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. Northwestern alum Kathleen Marshall, daughter of Garry, thinks the two are up to the task, saying she was relieved when they were both cast. Kathleen has overseen the

Photos: Source: Andrew Eccles

production in the stead of her father, who was working on adapting the musical until his death in 2016. Kazee was the leading man for the hit musical “Once,” and said he’s used his experience with that “quiet musical” to convey the subtle emotions and nuanced chemistry in “Pretty Woman” to a 2,300-seat audience. “If you just tell the story in an honest way, that kind of power has the ability to reach the back wall of the theater,” he said. Barks, for her part, is no stranger to playing strong women after making her film debut reprising the role of Éponine in the movie

version of “Les Misérables.” She said she was able to connect to Vivian finding her own voice and self-worth and realizing that she is “worth the fairy tale.” Equally compelling for Barks was the strength Vivian showed in her relationship with Edward, noting that the two are equals who help each other with their weaknesses. “It’s all in the line, ‘She rescues him right back,’” she said. “It is a Cinderella story, but it’s not her as a damsel in distress. … He’s lost, she’s lost, they find each other and give each other this amazing, eye-opening experience of being in love.” ◊

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Matt Bellassai leaves Buzzfeed to create a podcast and write a memoir — by Andrea Michelson

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t was during his journalism residency at a socialist magazine run out of an attic in Lincoln Square that Matt Bellassai (Medill ’12) realized he hated writing about politics. Instead, Bellassai discovered his true gift and eventual brand: complaining about people. “We had to send in these weekly reports to our JR advisor, and I would write the most ridiculous play-by-plays of my week describing all of the people I worked with,” Bellassai said. “Most people were just like ‘This is what I did this week,’ but I tried to make mine funny and entertaining.” Bellassai used that feisty storytelling style at BuzzFeed, his first job after graduation. As a journalism and political science double major, he intended to pursue a career in news but was intrigued by BuzzFeed’s style. “It wasn’t until after I got there that I realized if I have the option between (news and entertainment), I much preferred writing about fun and entertaining things,” Bellassai said with a laugh. Bellassai worked at BuzzFeed for nearly four years before he left to pursue solo projects. Since leaving Buzzfeed, Bellassai has created his own web series, completed two national stand-up comedy tours, produced a weekly podcast and published a book. It was at BuzzFeed that Bellassai became an internet celebrity after gaining fame for his “Whine About It” videos, which received millions of views on YouTube and Facebook. The premise of the “Whine About It” videos was simply Bellassai “getting drunk and complaining about stuff.” The series was his big break — as the videos steadily gained views, Bellassai began receiving calls about doing live shows and potential book deals, he said. Bellassai said he had not considered pursuing a career in comedy before “Whine About It.” He said he was always “incidentally funny,” but the idea of being in front of a camera or doing stand-up never seemed like a realistic job. But as Bellassai became more

Photos: Source: Tim Beckford, Karen Seifert

comfortable with his comedy chops, he wanted to explore other projects. There was just one problem: BuzzFeed owned all of his work, Bellassai said. When he approached BuzzFeed about branching out to do other projects, he said BuzzFeed gave him an “allor-nothing offer”: Work at BuzzFeed on their terms or go solo. “I had to decide: do I stay at a job I really like and have security, but give up some of the creative ownership and control I would have if I was on my own?” Bellassai said. “Or do I leave, take a risk and make a bet on myself, and be able to work for myself and have freedom? Ultimately, that was the direction I went in.” After leaving BuzzFeed, Bellassai decided to to stick with what he knew: complaining. He created a new Facebook page in January 2016 and started posting weekly “To Be Honest” videos in the

After sticking to the status quo with “To Be Honest,” Bellassai dove into uncharted territory and launched a podcast, “Unhappy Hour,” in July 2017. While he said it’s hard to choose a favorite of his “babies” (how Bellassai affectionately refers to his solo projects), he said the podcast is at the top of his list. Running between 40 minutes and an hour, the podcast is modeled after a late night show, Bellassai said. Bari Finkel, the lead producer of “Unhappy Hour,” said the style of the podcast sets it apart from other comedy shows. “It’s more of a variety show. It’s a talk show but it’s segmented, which is intentional,” Finkel said. “It’s not just interview, and it’s also not just one person rambling.” Each podcast opens with a monologue about the craziest news of the week, which gives Bellassai an opportunity to joke about current e vents, a throwback to his political

spring. These videos were modeled after the “ Whine About It” videos, he said, wine and all.

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reporting dreams. Other segments include “Deep Dive,” which features a rant about a weekly topic, and an interview with a guest. Most recently, Bellassai uploaded a “A Very POT-ter Special,” in which he experiments with marijuana and interviews Evanna Lynch, who plays Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter movies. Bellassai took his shenanigans live in 2016 with his first stand-up tour, “The Drunk & Alone Tour.” The tour was a sold-out success, and Bellassai toured again in fall 2017 to promote his new book, “Everything Is Awful: And Other Observations.” Finkel noted that even though Bellassai has several projects going on, he always makes himself available and is able to keep all his balls in the air. “(Bellassai) always finds a way to make you feel like you’re the priority and that project is the priority, and that is unique to talent,” Finkel said. “I know his persona online and in our show is that he’s an asshole, but he’s so fun and so nice to work with.” Out of all of the projects that Bellassai has on his plate, it was oddly writing a book that seemed the most “doable” for him. “Writing a book was the one thing that felt tangible to me, so that was the one thing that I thought I could probably do someday,” Bellassai said. “Everyone who goes to journalism school thinks at some point they’ll write a book.” Bellassai said “Everything Is Awful” was initially meant to be a humorous commentary on the inability of millenials, himself included, to handle the responsibilities of adulthood. Ironically,

he said he had to channel his inner adult and break out of “college mode” to write the book, as churning out 200-plus pages wasn’t as simple as mustering his willpower and chugging a pot of coffee. In writing his first memoir,

to choking on a taquito at his brother’s birthday party. He mined his memories and sifted through old Facebook messages to tell the tale of how he became “the bumbling idiot (he) is now,” he joked. “Gradually, I realized all of the stories I was telling were these embarrassing, cringey moments, so I started leaning into that,” Bellassai said. “My embarrassing stories added up to create the person I am now.” ◊

Bellassai said he had to relive some humiliation and heartbreak, ranging from his unrequited c r u s h on his college roommate

“Writing a book was the one thing that felt tangible to me, so that was the one thing that I thought I could probably do someday. Everyone who goes to journalism school thinks at some point they’ll write a book.” 14

— Matt Bellassai, Medill ’12


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