In the second season of Theater People, a locally produced internet TV series, the most alarming red flag for the cast of a production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House isn’t when the director makes them sleep in tents outdoors during the depths of a Minnesota winter—it’s when he repeatedly reveals that he doesn’t actually know who wrote the play. Actors, you see, are used to all kinds of insanity, indignity, and privation. But they also take pride in knowing their stuff.
If you’ve seen just about any live theater in the Twin Cities in recent years, there’s bound to be someone in Theater People who you’ll recognize. The spoof is the brainchild of writer-director Matthew G. Anderson, who populates each under-10-minute episode with recognizable (if exaggerated) backstage types: the self-important auteur, the on-the-make Lothario leading man, the ingénue balancing real-life worries with a return to the stage, and an array of strivers and grown-up theater kids hanging on for the chance to practice their craft and, perhaps, experience a moment of transcendence now and then.
It’s a loving send-up, in other words, in which a fugitive from the law decides that taking a role in a small theater production represents an ideal way to be totally anonymous, and desperate echoes of The Shining accompany the pressures of putting on a show in a rural Minnesota farmhouse. With a jazzy pace and absolutely no narrative fat, the series rides along on a wave of one-liners and rapid-fire character development worthy of comparison to the beloved, if obscure, Canadian series Slings and Arrows.
Theater People season one, shot in color, follows two productions from auditions through opening night, culminating in a laugh-out-loud scene in which an actress played by Twin Cities stage star Stacia Rice goes utterly and fully unhinged in front of an audience. Season two, all black and white, tells a story more compressed and claustrophobic—if no less expansive in its narrative generosity toward its cast of characters—consistently biting without drawing blood.
Part love letter to the local theater scene, part showcase for Anderson’s filmmaking skill and industriousness (funded in part through crowdsourcing), Theater People is a terrific storytelling bonbon. It’s also possible to binge watch both seasons back-to-back in less than two hours—an experience tighter than some of the overblown productions these characters have found themselves acting in—with a third season slated for release this fall.