How Did It Begin? [#1]

Off Off the WebseriesHi, this is Stephen Bittrich, the series creator.  (I hope that other members of the team — Dave, Dan, and Rob — will be sending you some bloggericious tidbits as well.)

We took promo-shots for the webseries yesterday at the awesome (Access Theatre), and had a great time coming up with some shots which I think are pretty cool.  Our photographer was my very talented photographer friend (and my dentist), Lee Wexler.

The shot at the top of the page, the blog banner, was one from this shoot as is the shot on the homepage of our official website.  The beautiful woman in the center is my friend Katie McHugh, who last year directed a one-act of mine — an ode-to-Twilight-Zone called Jubilation, Mississippi.  She really looks like that thanks to rigorous training for a marathon.  The only thing I photoshopped on her was some wispy hair on her shoulder.

Me on the other hand … well, they say the camera adds 10 pounds, so I thought it only fair to take the 10 off.

We shot it in about 90 minutes, but the planning had been going on for a while.  Since I’m also the web designer, I’d laid the shot out rather precisely a while ago leaving room for the copy, so it would all fit perfectly, and even now I’m realizing that I should have planned out the shot for Facebook, Twitter, and the YouTube channel a little more carefully shape-wise.  Oh well.  As Tim Gunn says, “Make it work.”  (Why do I know what Tim Gunn says?  This cannot be good.  Blame it on my 15 year old daughter.)

Yesterday was not the beginning of the project however.

The seed started as a one-act idea about 3 1/2 years ago.  I had just split with my ex-wife (who I get along with very well now by the way), and because we had a freelance business that we worked on together that I really needed her for (because she’s a terrific artist), I was quite suddenly out of work, had 3 digits in the checking account, and was looking at homelessness!  That did not happen I’m thankful to say.  I found a way to pick myself up by my boot straps.

But a “what if” scenario started forming in my mind.  That’s how these writing ideas come about.  Constant “what ifs” tumbling around my head as I travel around the Big Apple.

I work regularly with an Off Off Broadway theatre company. Idea!  What if things had gone another way, and I did become homeless, and I was actually living in the theatre?  What kind of comedy would ensue?  (Or tragedy for that matter.)  Suddenly, this idea of a playwright living in an Off Off Broadway theatre on the set of his play that has just closed while his friends do an intervention to get him out seemed like it had some possibilities.

There was an opportunity to read the fresh-from-the-oven one-act play aloud in front of my theatre group.  I don’t think it went over well.  Those who didn’t avoid my eyes (!) kind of looked at me pitifully like… “Poor dear.  How much of this is true?  Are you really almost homeless?  So sad.”

One of the perils of being a playwright.  People sometimes think you are as screwed up as your characters… and I suppose there must be a small part of you that is!

Anyway… I put it on the back burner for a while.  But a year ago the idea of a webseries hit me.  I was turned on to my friend’s webseries (Jack in a Box), which I thought was really funny and charming, and I decided, “I want to do that too!”

So I dusted off the one-act, and I wrote a pilot episode for a webseries about 3 guys running an Off Off Broadway theatre.  But as happens in life sometimes, other projects came up, and this got pushed on the back burner for a while longer.

But in October of 2011 I had trouble breathing one night.  I didn’t have insurance, so I put off going to the hospital despite the sensible advice from mom.  It wasn’t until I passed out in my apartment (and thankfully woke up) that I called my best friend Rob (Johnny in the series), and he booked over there at top speed and took me by cab to Lennox Hill.

Turns out I had a Massive Pulmonary Embolism.  I think the chances of mortality if you don’t get to the hospital in the first hour are something ridiculous like 60%.  I had waited 3 hours!!!  Lesson there — even if you don’t have insurance, it’s not work dying over!

I was given amazing care there.  Thank you in particular to Tina and Rosie, nurses in the Critical Care Unit.  But one funny thing that happened was that a woman from the business office came in to my room on the CCU floor the first day.

“Mr. Bittrich, you are non-insured.  Is that correct?”

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“Very good.  Well, I just wanted to let you know that your bill so far is $10,000.”

[without missing a beat]

“Thank you.  Can you add heart attack to my list of ailments?”

When I got out of the hospital suddenly the New York City air smelled sweeter, and kisses and hugs from loved ones were all the more sublime.  I started thinking about my “legacy.”  I have an amazing daughter, I’ve written some cool plays, but what else did I want to do, given that apparently life does not go on forever?  Oh yes, that webseries!  I really want to do that webseries with my best friends.  My talented best friends.

So then I began working really hard.  It wasn’t the only idea I was working on.  There were 3 series ideas in all.  All of them pretty cool, and maybe down the line, if this one works, we’ll do one of the other series ideas, but this one was the one that seemed the most viable.

Off Off developed further adding another key character to the mix, Hank, the jack-of-all-trades builder… who (like all the characters) also happens to act.  A tagline emerged:  “When you’re in your 20’s ‘starving artist’ is sexy.  When you’re in your 40’s, well….”

I thought about all the experiences I’d had in my 27 year experience of doing Off Off Broadway.  I have some stories!  I thought I’d sprinkle in elements of the character’s relationships as well.  When you’re 20ish your relationships seem to come and go pretty quickly, flitting from one to the next, but later in life they get much deeper (and even sometimes morph over time in beautiful ways or painful ways).

I wrote the series “bible,” an outline for the first season, and 7 of the 8 (or 9) first season episodes.  I got my friend Karen Moline (writer extraordinaire) to help me do a little editing.

Then it was time to go about casting…

[To be continued in the next installment.]