Scene: A dreary winter afternoon in Minnetrista. Interior of an unheated, dilapidated farmhouse that, depending on which corner you turn, feels charmingly bohemian or ominously Ed Gein.
As several of her fellow actors lie sprawled about in sleeping bags, surrounded by halos of their own breath, Rachel Finch sifts through a large bowl filled with trinkets and … other stuff.
“There are actually some nice pieces here if you can get past the pickled rabbit fetuses,” she says.
“Great, that’s nice. Let’s do another take and really appreciate those nice pieces,” says a camera-wielding Matt Anderson, writer, director and co-producer of the comedy Web series “Theater People.”
The series, which drops the first episode of its second season Friday, sends up the weird, wonderful ways in which theater folk make their craft. Anderson put his first season on the Web last summer. After Season 2 appears, Season 3 — which has been shot — will follow.
“Theater People” takes the concept of a play-within-a-play to a modern, clickable, browsable level. Each episode is only about eight to 12 minutes long, and while there is a serial narrative, each also provides stand-alone laughs for the casual one-off viewer. While insiders might glean a few more LOLs, a wider audience can find plenty to amuse.
“People are already aware of this theater community, and this gives them another perspective on it,” said Anderson, a Minneapolis native who left the Twin Cities in 2005 to try screenwriting in Los Angeles. He tired of writing “specs” after seven years and returned home.
Mixing up the seasons
The first season alternates between preparations for two plays. One is “Romeo and Juliet,” featuring a middle-aged Romeo (Steve Sweere) overeager to kiss, er, audition as many young Juliets as he can, exasperating the director, his ex-girlfriend (Stacia Rice), now married to a hypercritical theater reviewer (Matt Sciple). The other play is “The Minister’s Trousers,” an ostensibly never-produced Aleister Crowley script being directed by a self-absorbed fop (played by Mark L. Mattison) named Jamy Gumb (a tongue-in-cheek reference to the name of the serial killer in “The Silence of the Lambs”).
In the second season, informally dubbed “the weird one,” a group of unsuspecting thespians is summoned in the dead of winter to an old farmhouse, where they learn they will be sleeping outdoors in tents and cooking over a campfire because the director inside “needs his space” to focus on crafting his version of Ibsen’s classic “A Doll’s House” (although a running joke keeps attributing the play to Strindberg). Shot in black and white, the season’s vibe is “Young Frankenstein” meets Ingmar Bergman — before Bergman “went soft,” as Gumb would say.
When the farmhouse’s heat went out, life imitated art.
“It was kind of a meta experience, actually working in subzero temperatures,” said Tracey Maloney, who plays the actor portraying Nora.
Mattison, who as director Gumb is the only character to appear in the first and second seasons, calls the show “a little window into a community that highlights the silliness of the struggle pretty well. In theater these very small stakes are so important to everyone, like life or death.”
Said Maloney, “It’s exaggerated, but it’s a bit of a mirror because it’s all based on stuff that actually happens.”
With more than three dozen roles in the second and third seasons combined, the series serves as an apt showcase for Twin Cities acting talent.
A sequel, perhaps?
Since Season 1 went online in summer 2013, “Theater People” has snagged more than 20,000 page views, mostly through word of mouth spread on social media. A favorable blurb in American Theater magazine didn’t hurt.
In a Kickstarter campaign that raised $17,000 from 300 contributors for Season 2, only 30 percent of the money came from friends and family members, the rest from random people who’d seen the first one, Anderson said. A man from New Zealand e-mailed, “You guys remind me of me and my friends, but more talented.”
Anderson hopes to attract investors and advertisers to make the show into something more. At a time when Netflix, Amazon and other sites are offering traditional TV a run for its money with original programming, the idea doesn’t seem so far-fetched. And ever since “Glee” burst on the scene, behind-the-scenes tales of the performing arts keep popping up, from the Oscar-winning film “Birdman” to Amazon.com’s “Mozart in the Jungle,” following the lives of an orchestra’s conductor and musicians, and “Flesh and Bone,” a new ballet drama on Starz.
More immediately, does “Theater People” have the potential to turn legions of couch potatoes into live-theater fans?
“Probably not,” said Stacia Rice. “But at least they’ll get it about us.”