Maria De Simone
PhD Candidate in Theatre and Drama
This interview was conducted in March 2020 and published on June 9, 2020.
Maria De Simone is a PhD candidate in the Interdisciplinary PhD in Theatre and Drama (IPTD) program in the School of Communication. Her dissertation retraces the off-stage and on-stage lives and personas of immigrant vaudeville performers in the United States between 1880 and 1924. Maria is interested in immigrant artists’ deployments of racial impersonation as a stage device and as a tool to grapple with questions of identity, assimilation, and foreignness in America during the early 20th century. She is the recipient of a Mellon Interdisciplinary Cluster Fellowship and the graduate assistant in the Office of Fellowships for the 2019-2020 academic year.
How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
My dissertation examines racial impersonation, a performance genre that in the United States originated in 19th-century blackface minstrelsy. During the peak of immigration between 1880 and 1924, American popular entertainers expanded their repertoires to include not only belittling depictions of African Americans but the variety of other races and ethnicities entering the United States. During these years, artists of Irish, Chinese, and Jewish heritage began to replace American-born impersonators. The economic profitability of racial impersonation encouraged broad participation, but was the incentive for immigrant performers purely financial? My research shows the extent to which immigrant artists deliberately coopted the genre of racial impersonation to combat dominant racial stereotypes and articulate their own identities at a time when the concept of "hyphenated identity" was still very much in formation.
Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
I have been an immigrant in my own country my whole life. I grew up in industrial Northern Italy in a family of rural Southerners. The North/South divide in Italy is pervasive. It manifests itself in different economies, family values, and dialects. I remember keeping my schoolmates away from my home, so they would not hear my parents’ thick Neapolitan accent. But I also remember the pain I would feel when my Neapolitan cousins scoffed at my unfamiliar Venetian accent. Truthfully, I never fully assimilated in the North, instead forming my own hybrid identity while navigating two disparate cultures and lifestyles. Traditional immigration narratives focus on assimilation. My research and my experiences as an international student in the United States have helped me realize that the constant negotiation I faced was culturally imposed in part by such narratives. I developed a project that allows me to challenge the assimilationist perspective and, hopefully, show immigrants like me that they can also be proud of their origins and multiple identities.
What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work?
Like the protagonists of my study, I traveled across the Atlantic to find better opportunities in the United States. I used to have doubts about wanting to be an Americanist while not being an American, but the artists I study have shown me that being an outsider often puts you in a better position to challenge the status quo. Initially, I also felt uneasy about carrying out a historical project while not being formally trained in history. My background is in diverse fields—I was a literary scholar, a theatre production manager, and a ballet dancer—but none of these fields are necessarily “historical.” Since acknowledging this limitation, I have enrolled in a Mellon-funded seminar on the theory and practice of archival research at the Newberry Library. I am now confident that, as an international theatre scholar and trained archive dweller, my unconventional perspective has the potential to shed new light on the histories of immigrant performers in America.
I came to Northwestern from Italy after a BA in English and Spanish, an MA in American Literature, and a second MA in Theatre Management. When I applied to the Interdisciplinary PhD in Theatre and Drama, I was working as a theatre production manager in Rome. I remember often feeling like only one-third of my brain was really being used. In IPTD, I found a way to blend all my academic interests. I am finally able to put my foreign languages, literary analysis, and theatre management skills to work on a dissertation project that is special to me and that reflects my intellectual and professional history.
How do you unwind after a long day?
Yoga is my refuge and recharge. After a long day, I roll out my mat and switch off my brain. Linking breath to movement grounds me in the present moment and forces me to listen to my body. I felt disoriented when I quit my ballet practice a couple of years ago. Since then, yoga has helped me rediscover the strength in my body and the resilience in my mind.
What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?
To my younger self, I would say: don’t freak out. Change is good and following more than one path does not mean you won’t arrive at your destination eventually. To someone with a performance practice who is considering a similar path to mine, I would say: never stop making art!
Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.
Currently, I am the Office of Fellowships’ graduate assistant, a role that allows me to work with many brilliant undergraduates at Northwestern. I advise students on their fellowship and grant applications. In other words, I help them turn their dream of studying abroad, financing research and art projects, or going to graduate school into reality. I take pride in seeing students develop their ideas, improve their writing skills, and make plans for their future.
Tell us about a time when things did not go as you planned, what did you learn?
During my first year in my PhD program, I was assigned to work as a research assistant on a project that had nothing to do with my academic background. I translated an 18th-century play into English. You may imagine the challenge: neither English nor 18th-century Italian is my native language! Initially, I was not planning on dedicating any more time to the project beyond the research assistantship. But over the next four years, I ended up researching archives in Venice every time I would go home to visit my family. I became so passionate about early-modern Venetian theatre that I just could not stop learning! From this experience (shoutout to Prof. Dassia Posner!), I gathered that nothing is a waste of time if you enjoy the learning experience. That work won’t go into any of my dissertation chapters, but it gave me the expertise to possibly teach early-modern theatre one day as well as a prestigious publication.
Published: June 9, 2020
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