Eight People, One Room: Something promising from Nothing Productive

Post- Magazine, Brown Daily Herald, 4/28/12

Post-Magazine, Phil-Lai

Illustration by Phil Lai

Scene one: interior conference room, day. A motley crew of eight students is strewn around a conference table. Over the next 14 minutes, they proceed to laugh, cry, fight, and light things on fire. And judging by the reception at last week’s premiere, the audience loves every minute of it.
This is Nothing Productive, a new web series created by senior (and former Post- editrix) Kate Doyle. The show follows the activities and antics of a student organization trying to accomplish something—or at least finish a meeting without total mayhem. It’s a situation that’s relatable to most Brown students. As actor and developing producer Ben Jones explains, “Especially on campus, anyone who has been part of some student organization that has meetings will be able to relate to a piece of this.” (Except for Post-. Our meetings are always highly efficient. And never involve pizza or fire. Obviously.)
The show’s comedy comes from its oddball characters and fraught group dynamics. There’s endlessly enthusiastic Robbie; occasionally violent Clara; over-attached Lizzie; blundering Craig; oblivious yet sincere Emmett; disgruntled and snarky K.J.; and Josh and Erin, who are desperately trying to hold it all together. Staffing auditions and handling directors quickly give way to eye-rolling and flying baked goods, all punctuated by well-timed talking heads.
It’s a tight ensemble, with each quirky character participating in the show’s absurdity. There’s no constant straightman or voice of reason: They’re all crazy. They’re also remarkably layered given the brevity of the season (five episodes in all). Romantic twists abound; even eager Robbie eventually cracks, and nobody knows for sure what the deal is with K.J. and Josh. Executive Producer Andrew Favaloro adds, “I think it speaks to the tightness of the writing that you need a full 20 minutes of each episode to get the story thus far. It’s action-packed, especially in terms of character development.”
While much of the show’s strength comes from the writing, the actors themselves also bring a lot to the development of their characters. Doyle wrote the pilot on her own but says that since then she has started to write episodes with the actors in mind. Each read-through brings surprises as the actors give voice to her words.
“The established community of it has been great,” Doyle says. “Writing is so solitary most of the time, and I’ve always been kind of worried about that. This has been a great blend. You can write by yourself, but you’re not alone—everybody’s invested in what’s going to happen.”
The level of commitment and enthusiasm from the cast is overwhelming. Of course it helps that everybody on the project knew each other beforehand, primarily from Shakespeare on the Green productions (… along with this reporter, but no worries, guys, I rock the journalistic ethics). With the group bond already established, it was easy to translate that collaborative dynamic into the television process.
Doyle and Favaloro were also careful to take into account the obstacles typically facing student television. They wrote the show to be filmed in one location, with an ensemble cast of the same eight actors every week—no extras, no guest stars. Each episode is filmed in a single day, allowing them to finish a five-episode arc in one semester, rather than fizzling out after one or two episodes like many past student projects. The schedule, which requires actors to block off five whole Saturdays in addition to read-throughs and rehearsals, might be expected to cause frustration. However, the actors I spoke to (read: all of them) remain enthusiastic about the project and its role in their semesters.
Max Genecov explains, “The process is such a bonding experience. It requires lots of cooperation … It’s like a separate world.” Gillian Michaelson reiterates, “You would think that being told that you have to spend an entire day in a building would be really bad, but it’s actually kind of fun and has turned out to be something to look forward to. I look at my calendar now and go, ‘We get to film this weekend!’”
Both actors and producers acknowledge that the process has required substantial patience—on top of the tedious nature of filming and the long hours, there was a learning curve for everyone involved, since most came from theater backgrounds and had no experience writing, directing, or acting for TV. Actress Alli Schaaff sums up the actors’ sentiments: “The atmosphere is full of so many different kinds of art happening: acting, writing, even origami. [Editor’s note: You’ll have to watch episode one to get that one.] It’s inspiring to be involved in a project that’s so student-produced and student-written and student-everything.” Schaaff hopes to continue working with TV in the future, explaining, “It’s nice to have such a beautiful, lasting, finished product to share with a big audience.”
It’s not often that a student group, especially one with no funding or established structure, manages to produce anything besides table slips and bruised egos. That is, after all, the premise of the show: The characters on Nothing Productive spend more time smashing cupcakes and lighting things on fire than actually producing theater. But the show itself, along with The Blog and BTV’s slate of projects, seems to represent a burgeoning trend of student television at Brown. It remains to be seen if this productivity will be renewed in the fall or fizzle after one season. But for now, things are looking good.
For more information, check out www.facebook.com/nothingproductive.

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