Amateurs: Binge-Watch Some Backstage Drama

“She looks alarmed, and it is the same disingenuousness that marked the bad acting of so many of Emily’s friends … when they pretended to be actors in their community theater dramas …” – Chris Bohjalian, The Night Strangers

“It’s very hard to insert nudity into an Ibsen play.” – Patrick (Kevin Broccoli), “Amateurs”

“No tongue unless you’re Equity – then, you do whatever the fuck you want.” – Tyler (Michael Puppi), “Amateurs”

Netflix bounced back from its seemingly forgotten debacle of a few years ago when it separated DVD delivery from streaming web content. Today, streaming is king and “binge watching” has entered our lexicon. Besides allowing us to relive entire seasons of “Cheers” or “Gilmore Girls” without having to splurge on a DVD box set, binge watching also gives us a quick fix for new content, released online all at once and removing the pesky inconvenience of actually having to wait for a new episode of our favorite series. “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” became instant successes, partially based on their immediate availability. Is this symptomatic of our culture’s lack of ability to delay gratification or just an evolution of media in response to lifestyles that no longer center on waiting for broadcast television schedules? Probably both, but there is no denying the allure of settling in and absorbing the entire arc of a storyline without commercial interruption at a time and place of our choosing.

Episodic television and live theater have little in common, unless you’re sitting through the Ring Cycle or grabbing a rare outing of Shakespeare’s first tetralogy. However, the ubiquitous Kevin Broccoli has taken a stab at combining webisode binge watching and theater in his new online series “Amateurs.” Broccoli, who co-directed Epic Theatre’s Angels in America (another binge watching opportunity) last year and is well-known for his original scripts, decided to delve into filmed performance and capitalize on the public’s penchant for absorbing media content all at once with a new series about a fictional Rhode Island theater and its struggles to compete in a cutthroat scene of professional and semi-professional companies. All similarities to existing institutions and people are completely coincidental, he assures.

“Amateurs” was filmed quickly (a 10-day marathon, directed by Alex Watrous, utilizing every nook and cranny of the Artists’ Exchange’s space in Cranston) and sometimes it shows, with a few noisy microphones and shaky edits, but on the whole, it is quite surprising how polished the series comes across. Featuring Broccoli as Patrick, the artistic director of the Rabbit Tail Theater, the short series explores scenarios all too familiar to theater folk, but presented in an “Office”-style documentary format that allows for comfortable digestion by an audience who may have loved Waiting for Guffman, but isn’t all too concerned about actually attending plays. Broccoli blithely describes the show as “group kissing sessions, bad acting montages, lip synching and things happening on wig piles that we can’t talk about here,” but there is a recurring theme of artistic struggle with a subtle yearning for professional and personal acceptance that does indeed seem similar to “The Office’s” David Brent/Michael Scott character. And that is not a bad thing, for it works in favor of “Amateurs’” format and storyline, allowing for an ensemble of quirky and unique characters all played by mainstays of the Rhode Island community and semi-professional theater scene.

Michael Puppi (soon to appear as Richard III for Counter-Productions Theater in May) breaks away as a fast fan favorite among those who have watched the series so far (the series gathered over 1,500 views in its first week alone) as the ambiguously “chameleo-sexual” Tyler (“it allows me to date whoever is attracted to me”), but everyone in the series has a chance to shine. Paige Barry, Hanna Lum, Kerry Giorgi, Melanie Stone, Tammy Brown, Brendan Macera and Preston Lawhorne dominate the pilot, but several other familiar faces from RI theater appear in subsequent episodes.

“Amateurs” is, of course, aiming for laughs, and while the in-jokes are a bit of a Rorschach test for those who want to attribute actual theaters and individuals to the storyline, Broccoli insists that is not the case. All he wanted to do, he insists, is create a fun look at the inner life of a struggling theater and the inevitable real-life characters who inhabit this often surreal backstage world. There are no actual stage performances in “Amateurs,” although we do see some highly amusing auditions, but as anyone who does theater knows, the real drama is offstage. “Amateurs” achieves what it sets out to do and, for an experiment in a new media for Broccoli, it succeeds rather well. Catchphrases and quotes from the series are already making their way around social media — you’ll have to watch to find out what a “Polonius” entails – and, if successful, there may be a second season in the works.

Binge watch, or parse it into individual bite-sized chunks, but “Amateurs” is a breezy, fun and often clever look at theater and those who practice the craft. Theater is not for everyone, but “Amateurs” just may be.

“Amateurs,” a webseries written by Kevin Broccoli and Directed by Alex Watrous. Produced by Richard W Dionne, Jr and Alex Watrous.

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