Yale University likes to be in the vanguard. We pride ourselves on doing things creatively, in new and unexpected ways. We conduct important research on important topics of importance. And, just last week, we experienced one of those watershed moments: A Yale student produced a real senior project consisting of a fake Kickstarter for a fake musical.
“Our Modern Lives,” which premiered last week, is the web series Caleb Madison ’15 made as his American Studies capstone project. Unlike the usual text-based senior thesis, “Our Modern Lives” has entertainment value for people who aren’t its creator, adviser or creator’s mother. In addition to being smartly written, well produced, and full of things to say about contemporary America and the human condition, “Our Modern Lives” is seriously funny.
Madison’s project, available on ourmodernlives.com, includes a Kickstarter intro video from the cast and crew of “Our Modern Lives,” a musical about the dangers of the technological world. The musical itself, glimpsed in clips in some of the videos, is deliciously terrible. Its premise is simple: A young woman addicted to contemporary technology is transported back to the Elizabethan era and learns the true meaning of interpersonal relationships. (“Just as it was in Shakespeare times,” the cast sings, “So is it now, in our modern lives.”)
In addition to an appeal for donations to send a production of “Our Modern Lives” to “the Great White Way itself, Broadway, the theater district of New York City,” the project also features five documentary-style videos, each focusing on a different character involved in the musical. The videos incorporate cutaways and “found footage” that allow for plenty of unexpected comedy (my personal favorite was an intro sequence for “Dragon & Me,” a fake Disney Channel Original Series). Jacob Osbourne (Jacob Osborne ’16) is the earnest, intense writer and conceiver of the production. His starring episode includes, among other things, bizarre recordings of his acting and directing process.
Though each character has a distinct (and outrageous) personality, all of the videos brilliantly satirize the way people edit themselves in order to project a certain identity. Tanya Richkine (Anya Richkind ’16), the actress starring in the “Our Modern Lives” musical, promotes herself as the consummate free spirit. As she says, “It’s just like, modern culture doesn’t really appeal to me. I’m very wistful of the era of my parents, or their parents — I’m not totally sure.”
The rest of the “Our Modern Lives” crew is equally affected. Jillian Siegel-Gertz (Ruby Spiegel ’15), the director, is a Type-A go-getter who always speaks her mind (and constantly repeats her mantra/fallback joke: “Netflix is my boyfriend!”). Jack Shaw (Jake Dawe ’15), the producer, is a parody of a well-known Yale archetype: the overachiever who is seemingly involved in everything and friends with everyone. The fifth member of the “Our Modern Lives” quintet, musical director Paul Packer (Paul Hinkes ’15), is a frat bro with a sensitive side.
On top of its clever writing and performances, the deep meta-ness of “Our Modern Lives” lends it a particular relevance. It’s performance art about performance art, with actors who play characters bearing (nearly) their own names. The series bursts with awareness — of popular culture, of creative processes, of the strange egotism of young people. Madison’s choice to use the web series/Kickstarter format feels uniquely contemporary. “Our Modern Lives” stands out as an academic thesis worthy of a real and nonacademic audience. Unlike the overwrought musical at its heart, the series doesn’t have to strive to say something meaningful about our modern lives — it just does.