UNCW may have found its own Terry Gross.
Cara Marsicano, an MFA candidate in creative writing at the university, was nearing the end of her first year as a graduate assistant for the Office of the Arts when COVID-19 effectively halted programming. Instead of despairing, Marsicano and her colleagues channeled their energy into creating a podcast, “Behind the Curtain.” Hosted by Marsicano, it features in-depth interviews with a range of subjects, including artists and musicians whose performances at UNCW were canceled due to COVID-19. It also explores the ways artists are adapting to new (if temporary) norms. Three episodes have been released so far, with new episodes dropping on the UNCW Arts website every other Wednesday.
“The main objective of the Office of the Arts is to foster connection within the artistic community both on and off campus,” says Marsicano, who previously maintained the office’s blog. “When our programming was canceled, our number one goal became finding ways to stay connected.”
Marsicano says transitioning from the blog post format was initially a challenge. Yet, the opportunity to speak directly with artists has been rewarding.
“I like that it’s conversational; there is a certain level of humanity that is automatically present in spoken conversation that is harder to capture in written articles,” she says. “And I like knowing that audio content has a way of filling spaces that might seem suddenly empty for people who are honoring the stay-at-home orders.”
Marsicano’s guests so far have included interactive performance artist Stacey Kirby, 9 Horses composer and mandolinist Joseph Brent, and UNCW content and communications specialist Venita Jenkins.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Kirby was just starting a seven-week residency at UNCW as part of the College of Arts and Sciences’ Visiting Artist and Scholar Program. Her work, which concerns subjects ranging from gender identity and validity to the importance of civil presence, has been featured in locations throughout the U.S., including Ackland Art Museum at UNC-Chapel Hill and ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She spoke to Marsicano from her home in Durham about her site-specific installations, though their conversation ventured into performance anxiety, trauma and politics of same-sex marriage.
That sense of unpredictability has become one of the podcast’s hallmarks. Marsicano says embracing the spontaneity didn’t come easily.
“With written interviews there is a certain level of comfort,” she says. “I know that I ultimately have control over what the text will look like on the page. While I can guide a conversation in a certain direction, it will inevitably come alive and take its own shape. I’ve learned fighting this larger current makes for choppy, awkward, interactions, and tends to dampen the potential for meaningful insights to emerge. Surrendering to spontaneity has become my biggest lesson because, interestingly enough, that same loss of control is the greatest strength of the podcast format.”
The setup is relatively lo-fi: Marsicano records interviews on Zoom from her sister’s house, with a set of roughly 15 questions to guide her. As a novice interviewer, she is surprisingly skillful. During her conversation with 9 Horses’ Brent, she brought up the musician’s volunteer work on an organic farm in Vermont. This led to a wider discussion about their shared love of agriculture.
Marsicano admits her tendency to overprepare comes from a discomfort with small talk. “I’ve always found jumping into topics that carry more emotional weight is a more comfortable space for me to inhabit,” she says. “As far as preparation, it has been most important for me to remember these conversations stem from a genuine interest in other human beings, and how they are coping and continuing to make art during such a tumultuous time. It helps me get over the anxiety when I remember we are all in the same boat, all navigating vulnerabilities.”
The exploration of those vulnerabilities is what makes the podcast so captivating. Each episode begins with a frank discussion of how the subject is navigating life under COVID-19, which creates an avenue for discussing other insecurities throughout the conversation.
“I feel really lucky to be communicating directly with artists who have been so forthcoming and transparent about their own challenges, and I love hearing about the beliefs, practices, art forms, etc., that are nourishing to them during this time,” Marsicano says. “There is something inherently generative about discussion, and I’ve found it to be helpful as a way of processing my own experiences.”
While the schedule for upcoming episodes is still being determined, listeners can expect upcoming conversations with UNCW art students and Wilmington indie band Stray Local. (Marsicano’s dream guest is poet Ross Gay, though she admits, “I think I might be a bit star-struck.”) No matter the guest, the aim is to continue to create meaning and community during uncertain times.
“The core questions we are looking to investigate have remained largely the same,” Marsicano says. “How are artists navigating these times? How can we use the arts to remain connected? How can we best support one another?”