BWW Interviews: Creators of THAT'S EDUCATIONAL Talk Costume Changes in Public Bathrooms & Slowburns
When I first started writing for BroadwayWorld, it was as the editor for our Atlanta page. Atlanta has one of the most exciting theatre scenes in the country, and in recent years, has become a hotbed for TV and film as well. Recently, some of the city's best actors have come together to create a hilarious new webseries called THAT'S EDUCATIONAL. The show is described as "a comic mocumentary web series about a traveling educational theatre. The story centers around the exploits of 6 actors and the company that sends them out on the road to use theatre as a way to teach young people valuable lessons (7 different shows, 267 dates a year)."
Recently I spoke with the show's creators Eric Mendenhall and Matthew Myers (the two on the far left in the picture above) about what fans can expect from this show.
Let's start at the beginning; where did the idea to do a web series come from?
M: Eric and I had been talking about doing something. We started doing some sketches and filming those, and we really like that idea, but wanted to do something more broad in scope. So we just got together and brainstormed ideas; like, "Okay, what do we know about?" And one of the things that we know about is theater and touring, and it seemed like a very fruitful story to tell. So, that's kind of what started it. We had dabbled in doing some Internet kind of stuff, so we wanted to do something a little more in depth.
E: Just to coattail on that; Matt and I actually talked about this when we were in a play together; the theater and play will remain nameless; but it's not a shining work that we are proud of, so we just talked of the necessity to have something that we could create on our own terms. And so, during the times that we weren't always feeling artistically fulfilled, we had something that we could control and feel proud of, and we hope that that is what is coming out of this show we are doing.
You guys are both actors and you know about touring, but your show is about a very specific type of traveling theater. It focuses on an educational troupe that travels to local middle school gymnasiums to perform. Why did you guys feel that was such a fruitful area to focus on?
E: I think that the fact that we both had done it, the thing that was so interesting about tours is that it goes beyond your regular mockumentary like The Office or PARKS AND RECREATION, where those people can escape each other. The idea that this group of people, not only are they working together, but they're living life together, and they're doing it in such bizarre circumstances; whether it's wearing spandex and eating at Wendy's in Jackson, Mississippi. The idea of traveling, the idea of being stuck together with the same group of people, just created a very human element that went beyond just trying to produce a show about actors, that we hope will try to transcend just beyond that very small niche audience.
M: And there is also something very funny about doing educational theater, because it really just depends on
who's in the audience how glamorous it is. If the kids are like, "Oh no way, it's theatre and actors!" there's something very gratifying and personally grandiose about that, but then also; I had done educational theater where we would have to change in a bathroom. There's something horribly not glamorous at all about that. People would walk in while we were trying to put on tights, and you couldn't walk in the stall, because there's not enough room. So it's humiliating and embarrassing on one-handed, then on the other hand you're making a living as an actor, which is pretty amazing. So the ups and downs are, "Wow I'm making a living as an actor, I'm actually doing this, I'm performing in front of people," and the other part that is really repetitive and tedious and sometimes humiliating. I thought that would make a nice dichotomy for characters and how everyone decides to take that.
You mentioned the kind of PARKS AND REC/OFFICE mocumentary approach to the show. Why did you guys decide to go in that direction over a traditional scripted-sitcom feel?
M: There's something about being able to break the fourth wall; especially with MTV reality shows like THE REAL WORLD; there's something funny about seeing someone have an interaction, and then pulling away and letting them comment in a very frank manner. And I think that's another part of touring, more than any other job maybe, that you have to maintain some sort of stability with everyone; you can't really go around spouting everything you think or feel, because you're still stuck out on the road with them. So there is something nice about being able to break that fourth wall and have people comment on it and then being able to delve back into that world, and for it not to fracture the storytelling. It can be a very direct storytelling, then you can pull out and if there is something else you needed there, you have it.
Also, for my character, who is mostly seen in the office, just commenting on what's going on in the field, that also gave us the luxury of if something spontaneous happened, that we did not have planned, if somebody improvised something that we didn't plan for, but we thought, "Oh that's great, but we need to figure way to do it," I could remotely justify these things and make sure that they fit as part of our narrative and our storytelling.
Having covered Atlanta theatre for BroadwayWorld, I've seen most of the actors in your cast on stage at one time or another, and they are all fantastic. How did you assemble this group and what was it like working with all of these really talented people on a project like this?
E: It was great honestly, and in some ways is our first foray into walking with our hats out being like, "Hey, do you want to do this thing with us? We can't really pay you. We hope it turns into something great. We've got a really small budget, but we think you're great, and we love you." The amount of personal capital that we've kind of built-up with this community, it was really great to have a group of people that you respect and love, that every single one of them said yes immediately; which was really humbling and shocking and gratifying for both of us.
So I really do think that we have the perfect cast put together. They all came in the room and the energy was incredible. It was collaborative, and it was a blast to shoot. I honestly don't know that I've laughed more than over the four or five days we shot.
I noticed that all of the characters' names are pretty close variations to the names of the actors that play them. So, should we take that to mean that the characters might have more than just a passing resemblance to their actors?
M: (laughing) Part of that, I think, is a joke, because my spelling of peoples' names is terrible in the scripts. So, I was like, "Oh look, I spelled Bryan's name wrong."
And another piece of it was that Suehyla and I were discussing her character and she said, "So, this is kind of me," and I was like, "No, this isn't you, but this is a piece of your personality, and something that I know you would be very good at portraying."
The characters have their own positives, and things that are despicable about them, but everyone has the ability to see that and exploit it, but if they were really those people, there's no way that this could actually happen.
The funny thing is we want to make sure, and this is how touring works out as well, that there's always someone that you really like, hopefully, and there's someone you don't, and you kind of either avoid or conflict with. And so it was very important to have nobody be the outsider or the insider, but that everyone, at any given moment, is an outsider or an insider within the group. But then, like your little brother, that you can pick on, but no one else can. There's also that kind of a very territorial thing that happens within that van, that if anybody else tried to mess with them, then they would all jump on them.
So there is an element of peoples' personalities, but then no. We would all kill each other if we were really like that.
That's good to know. Before we finish up, is there anything important that viewers need to know about THAT'S EDUCATIONAL before they watch the premiere?
M: One of the things about the show is that it's very funny, but some of the jokes are kind of slowburns. Each episode rewards you for watching the last one by building on itself. There's certain jokes in episode one that don't really pay off until the fifth episode. So it really is a connective piece. It really is building on top of itself so that by the end of it, as the show goes along, it gets funnier and funnier to me, not to toot our own horn.
To me, the stuff that's funny, a "budum-ching" kind of joke is fine, but it doesn't reward you for watching. Whereas our show really rewards like, "Okay, this is kind of eluded to in an earlier episode and then it pays off later," that there's always that connective tissue to it, it's building onto itself. And hopefully we'll get to do a second season and then payoff more of these jokes, because there actually is a very flushed out base to everything. So I think it's a very funny show and it gets funnier (laughs)!
E: To coattail on that, it's just the idea that we wanted to tell you human story. We wanted to tell a story that, if we took these people and put them in any different situation, we wanted people to identify with them as characters first. If we just wanted to tell jokes, we just would've done a sketch show. But what we really wanted to do was tell a story that going into episode 4 or episode 5, that you might actually be moved by one of these conversations that some of the characters are having, or by how these relationships have developed. And that's where we feel like we really, hopefully, have hit the nail on the head and really have something special share with everyone.
The first episode premieres on their website, ThatsEducational.com, on Tuesday, May 13th. You can also "Like" them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter @TEwebseries. Stay tuned to BWW for more from THAT'S EDUCATIONAL. We will have exclusive video and interviews from their premiere party soon.