The story of Sex and Ethnicity sounds like a fairy tale. A group of graduates from theatre school decide to shoot a web series as their demo reel for auditions. With only a tiny budget, a team of volunteers shoot the episodes. A television station finds out about the project and decides that the web series will be part of its new season.
In this case, though, it’s all true. Michaela Di Cesare created Sex and Ethnicity initially to have demo reel material when auditioning for parts. Although intended as a web series, ICI Television decided to air all eight episodes.
Sex and Ethnicity ventures where shows like Sex and the City and Girls do not. Namely, how do ethnic women in their 20s address life after university in the big city. In the show, the main character Anna (played by Di Cesare) contends with her boisterous Italian family, life outside theatre school, her new job, and her relationship with an immature boyfriend with the help of her best friends, Margi, Sun, and Jenny.
Di Cesare explains the premise, “They come from culturally diverse backgrounds, and are juggling expectations of family and the cultural community and dating in modern metropolitan Montreal. They’re trying to reconcile the big difference between the Old World and this one.”
The four characters represent different ethnic groups from Montreal. “Anna is of Italian origin and she has a high strung mother who pushes marriage down her throat. Her boyfriend plays video games and is not really there. She has to build her life and is realizing that she might have to forge her own path. Sun (Stefanie Nakamura) is Korean with a very strict household. She’s Lesbian but too afraid to come out of closet. Jenny (Liana Montoro) is half Jamaican, half Quebecois and her Jamaican grandmother and Quebecois mother hate each other and have a turf war. Margi (Sehar Bhojani) is Pakistani. She has a husband from an arranged marriage – her promised fiancé. The whole season is gearing for her to meet him and get married.”
Even when the characters want to get together, it can be difficult. “They all find refuge in Jenny’s apartment and get together on Sunday nights to watch a television show,” says Di Cesare. “They sound like teenagers, but it’s a reality of ethic communities. They have to ask their parents to go out at night and can’t sleep away from their house.”
“It doesn’t get talked about a lot, but it’s very real in our communities,” she emphasizes.
Di Cesare conceived the show when her friends graduated from theatre school and they found themselves all competing for the same parts that were described vaguely as “attractive ethnic female, 25.” “There will be one Latina, one black, one Italian, all auditioning for the same thing,” she says. “We were griping that this was the only thing we would be seen for.” So, she decided to create a show that would offer something different.
With a small budget, Di Cesare called on a team of film school students to shoot the show. “No one got paid and everything was so guerilla style. We invaded locations,” she says. She was moved by the accomplished actors who stepped up to volunteer for different parts, such as Ellen David who plays her mother. “She’s my idol,” says Di Cesare. When the actors initially said yes, Di Cesare was so shocked that she thought they misunderstood. “I wrote everyone back and told them again that it’s just volunteer,” she says. “But they were all gung-ho.”
Perhaps the biggest stress occurred when ICI TV wanted to see the show. “I kept trying to explain that this could not be on TV. I felt really insecure,” she says. “But, they said give us a rough cut and we’ll play it on our system and see how bad it looks. If it looks bad we’re not going to air it. I thought that this was an out. They’d see how amateur it was.”
The opposite happened. “They were laughing the whole way through and were into it,” she says.
Although Di Cesare says being picked up by a television station is very flattering, putting herself out there is nerve-wracking. “I’m terrible at this,” she says. “I don’t know why I am in this business. I have a thin skin. Even the Internet terrifies me because people on the internet are so mean. When the trailer went up, it was life and death for me. Every time the video got a thumbs down, I was crying in my bed that people hate me.”
Sex and Ethnicity is modeled on events from Di Cesare’s own life and grew out of her one-woman fringe show Eight Ways My Mother Was Conceived. “I coined the term auto-bio-mythography,” Di Cesare says to explain the show’s genre. Real events are exaggerated, people are caricatures and liberties are taken, but sometimes, the lines themselves come straight out of real life. “Some people are quoted word for word,” she says. “Some of it is re-imagined.”
Sex and Ethnicity premieres June 8 on ICI TV at 9:30 p.m. The Youtube series can be found HERE.