IVY: Hyphenated Students
How six Harvard students came together to create IVY, a television show about the ups and downs of life at an Ivy League college.
“As I elaborated on my Campus Cutie interview,” Archibald Stonehill begins in response to my question—but he’s joking, of course. Borderline facetious and merrily arrogant, the three members of the IVY cast and crew with whom I sat down to speak possess the kind of openness that usually stems from a healthy confidence in one’s freedom to be ambiguous.
IVY, a web series written, acted, and directed by Harvard students, claims to “reject, reaffirm, and poke fun at the myth of the IVY League.” This is, of course, no easy feat.
Logistical challenges threaten to hamper any creative process. The creation and production of IVY is in direct competition with the cast and crew’s schoolwork and other extracurricular activities. Director Eli Wilson Pelton explains, “Delegation is hard because people go into extracurriculars with certain expectations that there’s a formalized channel and designated roles. But when starting from the ground up, everyone has to do everything, and people aren’t sure what roles to play.”
“We don’t know as much as Eli,” Stonehill adds. “So we just have to turn up when he tells us.” After that, Wilson Pelton, Debling, and Stonehill agree that it is simply a question of being as proactive as possible if specific objectives are unclear. At these early stages of production, tasks and roles overlap and all hands must be on deck, willing and able to assist in a variety of capacities.
With every waking second, you’re always thinking creatively. In the shower, in class, the creative process is the biggest thing.
Hatching the idea took Wilson Pelton some of summer and fall semester, but he recalled that the creation of the script, at least, was quick. The pilot was written over Thanksgiving break, and 3-4 episodes were written over winter vacation when the pressures of schoolwork were lighter. But while the writing can be crammed into a short period of time, the filming and editing is more difficult to condense.
“There was a whole season of seven episodes planned out, but shooting an hour’s worth of a TV show is like shooting a senior thesis,” cinematographer Alistair Debling explains. And managing the logistics to shoot an hour’s worth of a TV show can often overshadow the content-creation. “It’s easy to see the logistical challenges with every email you send, but it’s harder to express and consider creative challenges,” continues Debling. “With every waking second, you’re always thinking creatively. In the shower, in class, the creative process is the biggest challenge—the biggest thing. It’s just not manifested in ‘organize this scene and make sure everyone’s there.’ No one sees the creative process, so it’s easy to ignore and forget that challenge.”
The three agree that ideally, IVY would finish the season or at least finish two or three more episodes, but the project’s completion is contingent upon so many logistical factors that Wilson Pelton and Debling seem flippant about rounding off the season. “There’s already a movie in the works,” Debling jokes. “And we’re waiting to be picked up by HBO.” There is a constant sense that IVY is a work in progress—that it is not meant to be a capstone achievement. There is a sense that something bigger is in store for each of the interviewees, and perhaps not one that unites all of them. Powering through logistical issues, then, is less a challenge to overcome than training for the future.
The biggest problem that remains, then, cannot be decided or resolved by the producers or cinematographers. Does and should IVY—especially given its name—live up to what it claims to do? What does it mean to detail “the intricacies and hilarity of the IVY League experience” and paint a “relevant but unique portrait of undergrad life”? And if the production staff is unable to do this, should it be criticized accordingly?
Initially, it seems that Wilson Pelton and Debling try to absolve themselves of this responsibility. “I think ‘relevant but unique’ is a fair description,” says Wilson Pelton. “Harvard is such a diverse experience that it’s impossible to represent, but ‘IVY’ is a story that I know, a story that my friend group knows.”
“It’s five people’s Harvard, but ‘what’s the purpose of this show’ wasn’t really the starting point,” adds Debling. The implication, then, is that IVY not only doesn’t capture the story of the IVY League, but also doesn’t capture the whole story of Harvard—and it doesn’t intend to.
This admittedly presupposes that “the story” of Harvard exists. There’s the story of Harvard as told by The Social Network, for example; IVY aims for a more “moderate” version, diverging from the “studious people looking at a glamorous lifestyle” trope. “There’s nothing novel about that type of story,” says Debling. “IVY tries to tell something that everyone knows, but is new.” IVY follows a unique path at Harvard, one that might not fully resonate with the entirety of the Harvard community, but one that a portion of undergrads can relate to, at least peripherally, if not wholly.
What does it mean to detail ‘the intricacies and hilarity of the IVY League experience’ and paint a ‘relevant but unique portrait of undergrad life’?
When Wilson Pelton was writing the character DK, played by Archie Stonehill, he was “thinking about people [he] knew.” Stonehill believes that as far as DK has developed in the show, there are versions of DK on campus. And while DK’s antics—obnoxiously not studying at Lamont but reading The Tempest while receiving a blowjob—certainly bring to mind a particular type of person, Stonehill simply describes him as a “more obnoxious, more dick-ish version of myself”— a caricature. Theoretically, then, these characters should be exceptionally recognizable and accessible to the viewers. That does not, however, mean that the entire Harvard community looks favorably upon these types.
While he predicts that there exists a population that dislikes IVY’s portrayal of Harvard, Wilson Pelton notes that “no one’s come up to me and told me, ‘I hate your show.’” Quite to the contrary: Stonehill has received feedback from both Harvard students and friends at other schools who relate somehow to the IVY story. “It’s a self-aware, but not all-encompassing, particular snapshot of Harvard that fits into the grander scheme of Harvard.” Stonehill further speculates that the show reaches students outside of the Harvard community because of its narrow focus; the fact that the show examines the intricacies of University life makes it more broadly accessible.
However, it is clear that the most relatable aspect of the story is not necessarily that of IVY, but of its creators as ‘hyphenated students’—IVY exists as a crew of student-filmmakers, student-actors, and student-artists. This grants them with just enough access to try out their idea but also a certain amount of forgiveness. They are learning now about the difficulties of shooting a TV show, writing and acting, and understanding audience expectations, so criticisms and praises alike can be taken and given with that in mind. IVY is a production that is scraped together using all the energy that the cast and crew have not already allocated to academics. IVY just gets by, and lets the learning happen as the TV show does. The backlash to the show’s content—if it exists—is what it is; in the meantime, the story of IVY’s creation is a far more realistic IVY League narrative.
“My dad asked me where the plot was,” admits Stonehill. They laugh as they do at most comments and questions that challenge their legitimacy. It will come in time.