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2021 Big Idea Award Winner: Phoebe Danaher

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Phoebe Dana­her

To pass as a gang­ster in most crime sto­ries, Phoebe Dana­her (BFA 21) says a man has to present him­self as a fan­tas­ti­cal arche­type — hyper-mas­cu­line, with­out mercy, and above the law. But when this char­ac­ter is a trans man in the early 1900s, that arche­type becomes fraught with vul­ner­a­bil­ity and poten­tial danger.

Dana­her plans to explore con­flicts like these, as well as the his­tor­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of queer and trans peo­ple in Char­lie Blood, her new, orig­i­nal TV series about a trans­gen­der brothel owner set in early 1900s Chicago. Dana­her is the recip­i­ent of the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design’s 2021 Big Idea Award, pro­vid­ing $25,000 to a grad­u­at­ing senior to jump start what Penny Stamps referred to as their big idea” in her 2018 com­mence­ment speech.

Upon grad­u­a­tion, Dana­her is eager to accel­er­ate pro­duc­tion on the show, includ­ing art direc­tion, tal­ent, loca­tion, and post-pro­duc­tion. Her goal is to com­plete a pre­sen­ta­tion pack­age used to pitch Char­lie Blood to cable net­works and stream­ing ser­vices. Hir­ing and film­ing for the pack­age will be done in Greater Detroit.

Char­lie Blood, the show’s title char­ac­ter, was partly inspired by the 2015 film Leg­end, a bio­graph­i­cal drama about twin broth­ers work­ing in Lon­don’s crim­i­nal under­ground in the 1960s. Watch­ing the film, Dana­her was struck by how impor­tant the broth­ers’ iden­tity as gang­sters was to their success.

They had to look the part and behave the part,” she says. That really inter­ested me — to have that knowl­edge of what the image has to be and have to live up to it.”

Through her research, Dana­her started to see gang­ster fic­tion as a form of mas­cu­line fan­tasy with par­al­lels to themes related to trans iden­tity, which she started explor­ing through the char­ac­ter of Charlie.

Basi­cally, it’s a fan­tasy about power,” Dana­her says. I think that kind of trans-mas­cu­line fan­tasy and a gang­ster-mas­cu­line fan­tasy com­pletely work together. And that’s the show.”

Dana­her is not only the show’s cre­ator, writer, exec­u­tive pro­ducer, and art direc­tor, but she’ll also take on her first act­ing role as Char­lie. She and her cast started film­ing test scenes via Zoom ear­lier this month.

A figure in early 20th-century clothing
Phoebe Dana­her as Char­lie Blood. Photo by Grace Coudal (BFA 21).

Her entire U‑M career seems to be cul­mi­nat­ing in the pro­duc­tion; while focused on tex­tiles work at Stamps, Dana­her also com­pleted an art his­tory degree with a focus on period cloth­ing through U‑M’s Col­lege of Lit­er­a­ture, Sci­ence, and the Arts (LSA) and an hon­ors the­sis about the image of the male crim­i­nal in turn-of-the-cen­tury Chicago. She also took sev­eral screen­writ­ing courses through LSA’s Depart­ment of Film, Tele­vi­sion, and Media (FTVM), and after grad­u­a­tion, she plans to earn her mas­ter’s in man­age­ment from the Ross School of Busi­ness to sharpen her exec­u­tive pro­duc­ing skills.

In addi­tion to the Big Idea Award, Dana­her recently won an $8,750 Hop­wood Screen­play Award and $1,500 Naomi Safer­stein Lit­er­ary Award for her script The Miller­town Ves­sel. Last month, she was the only Stamps senior invited to join Phi Beta Kappa, the United States’ old­est and most well known honor society.

As a stu­dent of his­tory, stay­ing true to Char­lie Blood’s 1901 time period is impor­tant to Dana­her, a pri­or­ity expressed in every aspect of the pro­duc­tion, from the set designs to the cos­tumes, to the char­ac­ters’ lan­guage. Char­lie Blood isn’t meant to be an alter­nate his­tory, but an attempt to por­tray a wider view of it than was recorded.

Another inspi­ra­tion for the series comes from Emily Skid­more’s True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the Tweneti­eth Cen­tury. The book’s non­fic­tion accounts of low-pro­file trans men assim­i­lat­ing into main­stream cul­ture in an age with less for­mal documentation.

If you could pass rea­son­ably well, you could build a life for your­self,” Dana­her says. The book made her won­der what other sto­ries might have never been told — sto­ries that did­n’t nec­es­sar­ily end with an even­tual pub­lic out­ing, per­se­cu­tion, and even court trial, like the men in the book faced.

She’s not fol­low­ing Char­lie’s career path, but as a trans indi­vid­ual of Irish-Ital­ian her­itage with a strong rela­tion­ship with her reli­gious father, Dana­her con­sid­ers the show to be a work of fic­tion as autobiography.”

While the show will explore queer­ness from diverse per­spec­tives, includ­ing that of a black Aus­tralian trans woman and a Jew­ish gay cis­gen­der man, Dana­her says the story is ulti­mately an Amer­i­can one rooted in time­less themes of roy­alty, sex, con­sump­tion, secrecy, vio­lence, wealth, and reli­gion. Char­lie’s trou­bles are less based in his being trans than con­tin­u­ally kick­ing the hor­net’s nest.”

I am very wary of hav­ing the show be this really easy thing to define, because then you make it one dimen­sional,” Dana­her says. At the end of the day, it just has to be a really good story.”

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