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Heather Grimm (she/her)

PhD Candidate in the Interdisciplinary PhD in Theatre and Drama Program

Heather Grimm (she/her)

I'm analyzing the nitty gritty of how musicians frame their performances and craft their stage personas in response to audience expectations.”

Heather Grimm is a PhD candidate in the Interdisciplinary PhD in Theatre and Drama (IPTD) program. She holds a BA in Theatre and Economics from Denison University and an MA in Theatre and Performance from Queen Mary University of London. Her research interests include the history of popular entertainment, comedy studies, ethnographic methods, historiography, and audience studies. Heather’s dissertation is an ethnographic study of bluegrass music in the Midwest that applies methods from theatre studies to popular music performance. At Northwestern, Heather serves as a Graduate Writing Place Fellow and is affiliated with the Critical Theory Cluster.

How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
I teach and write about how rural people and places in the US are represented on stage. My current research focuses on an abstract representation—bluegrass music. I write about how bluegrass music came to be understood as folk music only about 15 years after its creation as a subgenre of country music. I want to show how this history shapes expectations and performances of the music today. On any given day, I'm analyzing the nitty gritty of how musicians frame their performances and craft their stage personas in response to these expectations.

Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
The germ of this research really began when I was an undergraduate taking classes for fun in the bluegrass program at Denison University. At the end of the semester, the whole ensemble (most of us Midwesterners or city kids) would perform in the University’s big chapel. The students who were in charge of emcee duty for their band would, out of nowhere, start saying “ya’ll,” “folks,” “reckon,” etc. when put in front of a microphone. These performances would be attended by the upper-middle class “townies," as well as people from the surrounding rural communities, some of whom would get up and flatfoot dance beneath the lip of the stage (to the bemusement, I’m sure, of the townies used to seeing Yo-Yo Ma and Lincoln Center Jazz at this venue). This strange dissonance I noticed only became more prominent as I entered my senior year in 2016, and the election of Donald Trump made me realize just how significant the co-mingling of these seemingly different groups of people in this room really was. What was the significance of our linguistic appropriations at that venue, for that audience, at that moment?

Whom do you admire in your field and otherwise, and why?
As a teacher, I am continuously inspired by my friends and former teachers, Dr. Mark Evans Bryan and Eleni Papaleonardos. As teachers, they both bring infectious energy to their classrooms. Eleni's inventive assignments and Mark's engaging ability to craft stories about the past for his students inspire me every day in the classroom, as does their excellence in mentorship. I am always trying to emulate Eleni's superhuman empathy and Mark's way of talking to his undergraduates about their ideas in a way that makes them feel more like fellow scholars than students.

What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
I want my research to be of practical use to the musicians that serve as my interlocutors. By demonstrating how conventional performance choices can perpetuate stereotypical understandings of rural people, I hope to give them the tools to know when to break those conventions to avoid being pigeonholed. As my theorization in this area grows beyond my dissertation, and in conjunction with other scholars, I can expand these tools to use performance to break down the white/male/straight/rural/Christian default expectation of the bluegrass musician, making it more inclusive and reflective of its syncretic history.

Why Northwestern?
The Interdisciplinary PhD in Theatre and Drama has given me unimaginable freedom to build my own course of study and pursue unconventional research in my field.

How do you unwind after a long day?
I cook myself dinner every day after I finish up those last sentences and close my laptop. The switch to something tactile and sensorily engaging is a nice way to redirect my energy.

What books are on your bedside table?
Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute Interesting by Sianne Ngai

On the Bus with Bill Monroe: My Five-Year Ride with the Father of Blue Grass by Mark Hembree (signed copy, thanks Mark!)

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.
I'm developing a class about how to read popular music performances as theatrical performances. I'm so excited to share the methods I've created for my dissertation and build upon them through broad applications with undergraduate music lovers!

What are you most proud of in your career to date?
I'm most proud of being awarded the Neil V. Rosenberg Award for the best scholarly paper on bluegrass in 2021 by the International Bluegrass Music Association. I'm so grateful for the opportunities the organization gave me to meet many inspiring researchers and thinkers about bluegrass music today. I also received a Graduate Writing Fellowship from the Graduate Writing Place.

Published: January 17, 2023

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