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2021 Big Idea Award Winner: 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.

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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."

Original wallpaper design by Danaher for Charlie Blood.

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.

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.

Original wallpaper design by Danaher for Charlie Blood.

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."

Concept cast illustrations of Constantina Lovelace and Lionel Greenberg by Phoebe Danaher.

"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."