Extra/Beautiful/U might appear to be a take down of the market around social influencers and reality TV on its surface, but this considered piece follows five women transforming and seeking change in their lives. Local playwright and actress Michaela DiCesare’s latest offering hits at the timeless issues around beauty, image, and appearance through the contemporary lens of social media influencers, while also addressing ideas about representation and subversion. She graciously took the time to talk to Montreal Rampage about Extra/Beautiful/U on the day of dress rehearsal.
“Extra/Beautiful/U examines beauty and image as an overarching question,” says DiCesare. “It addresses how much image is driving our current society through social media and influencers, even AI at this point. A lot of time is invested in these alternate realities where influencers existing on social media become these paragons and aspirational images, especially since the pandemic.”
In particular, the play follows Lara, an impossibly beautiful social media starlet, who returns home to Montreal following a disfiguring car accident in LA. With her career on hold, Lara’s high school frenemy Dr. Sam, now an up-and-coming plastic surgeon, is the only person capable of doing the experimental surgery to save Lara’s face. Surrounding Lara are Angie, her single mother, Beauté, a transwoman who idolizes Lara, and Louise, Lara’s sister who has Down Syndrome and aspires to be a social media star as well. Though Lara seems to sit at the centre of the piece, DiCesare stresses that it is an ensemble piece where each character must grapple with their own ideas about the roles of beauty and fame in their own lives.
DiCesare had to do quite a bit of “research” for the piece, which led her to hours spent watching influencers on social media. She walked away with a very informed perspective.
“I told myself that I was following all these accounts for research,” she says, admitting that she was surprised how much she enjoyed watching the influencers. “The aesthetics are so pleasing and there is an element of self-soothing when you get on Instagram and start scrolling. All these impossibly beautiful people and places. All of it, the fashion. It becomes a guilty pleasure.”
In fact, she even admits that when she got a dog in 2019, she jumped on board with dog-mom culture. “My dog has an IG account and follows other dogs. I’m not above it and I have contributed,” she says.”
But DiCesare is quick to add that however pleasurable the scrolling is, it quickly becomes problematic. “Scrolling on this content does a double disservice to us as we try to cope. We say to ourselves, ‘I mustn’t look at it because I’m above it and then we flagellate ourselves for enjoying it.'”
She points out that the impact of beauty culture from social media affects us deeply by referring to a study that points out that the impact of an image happens before we can think about it. “Even if we want to intellectualize something because we know that it’s edited and unrealistic and Photoshopped, our brain has already taken in the image and been affected by it on a base level and released the chemical compounds. We’re already having a pleasurable or non pleasurable experience with it before we can take it apart. We’re visual creatures. The Image is ingrained and affects us even before critical thought comes in.”
She further notes that the impact is far reaching, especially as the nature of what people consume on line through influencer culture has changed. “Something has happened to our brains. It affects our addiction centre,” she says. “Instagram evolved from photo to videos. TikTok became shorter and catchier. I went down a rabbit hole of thinking about what’s next in this area. We make things shorter and snippier and more over the top for shock factor. I wonder where are we headed. We get bored of the same thing. It’s worrisome.”
“Extra/Beautiful/U asks what is the solution,” she says. “Beaute, who is a super fan of Lara and is now her nurse, grapples with this very question. Once she realizes how much social media fame affected Lara, she knows she contributed to that. So it leads us to ask, what’s the solution to that. Where do we go from here?”
The play also asks about beauty, and all five characters have a different take on it. “The idea was to have five distinct women with a take on beauty,” says DiCesare. “Who would these women be? What would their individual perspective be? How does it happen that one is exalted above all others?”
“It’s a genetic lottery. It’s DNA that let’s someone have all of these privileges and access based on something they had no control over,” answers DiCesare. But that led her to the character of Louise, “whose chromosomal abnormality has made her face a certain way and all the assumptions that come with that.”
As any sensitive playwright working today, creating a character with Down Syndrome requires special care. DiCesare dove deep into the research to make sure Louise is represented accurately. She spent time working with a lot with young adults and children with special needs, speaking to as many people and parents as possible.
“Branching off from there, there was a lot of research,” she says. “The workshopping process had the right people in the room.” In particular, she points to Stephanie Boghen who has Down’s Syndrome and is familiar from Montreal’s neurodiverse theatre group, the I Can Dream theatre, and now is part of the Playwrights Workshop. “[Boghen] workshopped the play and her family gave me a lot. So, I had a lot of support from that.” She also depended a lot on her connections with Montreal’s Summit School which educates a neurodiverse population.
Down’s Syndrome isn’t the only thing defining Louise. Mainly, she aspires to be an influencer like her older sister Lara. DiCesare uses the play to pose challenging questions. DiCesare wonders aloud, “Is it empowering that we have a wide representation of influencers and on-line presences who are redefining beauty standards or is it still problematic? Are we forcing an aesthetic on everyone? Everyone participates by conforming to this aesthetic pleasure. That’s the way these platforms work. They still becomes very influency. They’re still selling products and gorgeous pictures. I don’t know what the answer is because I love to see people feeling beautiful. We shouldn’t tear that down. But for everyone who feels beautiful and is called beautiful and praised, there are people who look at it and don’t feel that way.”
Even the cast remains divided on these questions, DiCesare says.
Ultimately, DiCesare doesn’t claim to have any answers. Rather she says, ” I’m not here to rake anyone over the coals for enjoying Instagram. I again scroll a lot more than I’m proud to admit, but I would like people on an individual level to ask the question, what is my relationship to beauty, what is my relationship to image, what do I project into the world on a daily basis and what is it contributing, and what am I consuming?”
Extra/Beautiful/U is at the Centaur Theatre until December 9. Tickets and showtimes available HERE.