Although Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Kate Wetherhead had known each other for quite some time (Wetherhead having understudied Keenan-Bolger's sister, Celia Keenan-Bolger, in Broadway's The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), it wasn't until the two shared the stage in the 2010 Dallas Theater Center production of It's a Bird…It's a Plane…It's Superman that they began collaborating.
"We were both moving back to New York at the end of the run," explained Keenan-Bolger, "and neither of us had a job to go into — there's always that feeling of, 'Now what?'"
Wetherhead interjected: "So, I was having a conversation with my husband, [Tony Award-winning lighting designer] Jeff Croiter, who was the lighting designer on Superman, saying, 'What am I going to do when I get home?' It was a big question mark. He said, 'I'll tell you one thing. Stay in touch with Andrew Keenan-Bolger because he likes you, and he knows how to get sh*t out there.'
"He took a breath and said, 'You guys should make a web series together.' I never watched [a] web series. It never occurred to me to make a web series, but sometimes when someone says something in the right moment, it makes sense. I brought it up with Andrew the next day, and what [he] said was, 'That's funny you should say that because I'm thinking the same thing,' and then we started talking about what we could actually create, knowing our limitations. We had zero dollars [and] limited resources, with the exception of actors, which we knew we could get a lot of — based on mutual friends and their friends." When Keenan-Bolger (a frequent Mary Poppins cast member before originating the role of Crutchie in Newsies) and Wetherhead (who was also seen in Broadway's Legally Blonde) returned to New York City, they began to expand on their web series idea — which, conveniently, began in between scenes of Superman and in the wings of DTC. "We knew we couldn't have a crazy location [for the series]," said Keenan-Bolger. "So it just naturally made sense," added Wetherhead.
Keenan-Bolger and Wetherhead set the world of their theatrical-themed web series in an actor's home away from home — the audition room.
"Andrew already had a fairly successful blog with at least 2,000 followers — at that time — so we thought, at the very least, our friends, our parents and his blog followers would probably watch it, and if they liked it, then perhaps word-of-mouth would expand our audience," explained Wetherhead. "There was very little risk involved. Worst-case scenario was that we would put something out there that would get a tepid response, and that would have been five weeks of our lives [of an] experiment. We got back to the city [and] finished writing the pilot… And we did a table read."
The reading consisted of most of the stars of "Submissions Only," which casts Wetherhead as its quirky leading lady, Penny Reilly; Colin Hanlon (Rent) as casting director Tim Trull; Lindsay Nicole Chabers (Lysistrata Jones) as his assistant Gail Liner; Stephen Bienskie (Cats) as Tim's ex-boyfriend, Steven Farrell; Asmeret Ghebremichael (The Book of Mormon) as Penny's roommate Raina Pearl; and Tony nominee Santino Fontana (Cinderella) as Aaron Miller, Penny's unlikely love interest, struggling actor and occasional reader. Keenan-Bolger, who spends most of his time behind the camera, occasionally appears as over-the-top (yet extremely stylish) audition monitor Donny Rich.
Watch the first episode, "Old Lace," below:
After the pilot was shot and edited, by Keenan-Bolger with the help of Final Cut Pro, "You went back into Poppins," Wetherhead said to Keenan-Bolger, "and I went away to Goodspeed [Musicals for James and the Giant Peach]. We released the episode early October, and I remember being at the Norma Terris [Theatre] in Chester, CT, and feeling so removed from the world, but knowing that our video had been uploaded… I had no sense of what the response was, and slowly I started to get some voicemails and texts and emails from people saying, 'This is actually really kind of great.'" From the positive response, the duo planned to continue the series (on SubmissionsOnly.com) and flesh out characters, story arcs and plot lines.
"There were certain things in the pilot that were there to set something up," added Wetherhead, "but we didn't know what it was, so we [thought], 'Now we have to think about what happens.' Who are these people, and how are they tied to interact with each other? How will they affect each other's lives? What's the point? What are we trying to say now? And then it became a job… We could have never imagined what we were getting ourselves into."
The two got themselves into a six-episode first season, focused on struggling actress Penny, who works as an occasional audition reader for Tim (Hanlon) when not being sent on auditions by Tim's ex-boyfriend, and agent, Steven (Bienskie). Penny — getting back into the auditioning "game" — is down on her luck with both theatre and relationships, until she meets Aaron (Fontana).
Watch the second episode, "165 Flies," where Fontana's character is introduced:
"Certainty, when we started, I had no formal training," admitted Keenan-Bolger, who serves as the show's co-director/writer/creator as well as editor and director of photography. "It was basically, 'This looks right for my eye. Let's do this.' And, after Season One, I realized I was breaking quite a few rules of filmmaking — some that [were] worth breaking and some that were like, 'These shots don't cut together.' I've definitely read a lot of textbooks now, and we've stylized it. This season, we think more about the composition of shots…"
Wetherhead added that it's "been amazing to watch each season [become] more sophisticated."
Watch the season finale of the first season, entitled "Somethin' Else":
Following the first season of "Submissions Only," Keenan-Bolger and Wetherhead wanted to bump up the quality — both on camera and behind the scenes. The two raised nearly $23,000 via a Kickstarter campaign (for Season Two), purchased new equipment and were eventually put on a SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) contract to pay everyone on their team. "While people are compensated for their time, no one's getting rich off this show," said Wetherhead. "But we were able to increase the hourly wage." Actors in the first season offered their time and talent to the series, but since "Submissions Only" requires a large set of recurring characters, Wetherhead and Keenan-Bolger wanted to ensure that their team was compensated.
"After Season Two ended," continued Wetherhead, "I think we all felt a little beaten up — me, in particular, because I didn't have any other job. It was basically like a non-paying, full-time job for nine months. At the end of it, I [thought], 'This is crazy! I am working harder than I ever had in my life, and I have no money,' so if we are to do this again, I have to be able to survive. I don't need to be a millionaire, but I need to be able to buy a Metro Card without feeling guilty about it."
Watch the first episode of the second season, entitled "Harness Malfunction," in which Jared Gertner (The Book of Mormon) is introduced as new recurring character Randall Moody:
The second season continued to follow Penny, who returned abruptly from the tour of Mean Girls the musical — because she broke her vagina in a harness malfunction — and is still pursuing her casting friend Tim to get her seen for Iron Dog, a play that will open in Boston before transferring to Broadway. Aside from the aforementioned series regulars, Max von Essen (Evita), Wade McCollum (Jersey Boys), Jeffrey Kuhn (The 39 Steps), Anne L. Nathan (Once) and Donna Vivino (Wicked) appear regularly on the show's second season, and guest appearances are made by Jeremy Jordan (Newsies), Jesse Tyler Furgesson ("Modern Family"), Beth Leavel (The Drowsy Chaperone), Michael Urie (Buyer and Cellar), Hunter Foster (Hands on a Hardbody), Annaleigh Ashford (Kinky Boots), Adam Pascal (Rent), Condola Rashad (Romeo and Juliet), Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights), Nick Jonas (How to Succeed…), Molly Ranson (Carrie), Harvey Fierstein (Hairspray), Kerry Butler (Hairspray) and the ensemble of Newsies, among others.
Watch the star-studded Season Two finale, "Another Interruption":
"For Season Three, we did another Kickstarter because it seemed like a lot of people were interested in helping us out," said Keenan-Bolger. "I didn't do a single stage door [appearance at] Newsies, where someone didn't ask me about when Season Three was happening… Our big thing, aside from our Kickstarter, is that we added [producer] Kevin McCollum [to the project]." "He helped significantly," said Wetherhead, "and it has enabled us — once again — to improve our equipment and pay our people… We have a wardrobe person, we have a casting person, we get to do hair and makeup once and a while… All of these production elements that we could never afford we get to afford this time, which, in turn, makes the quality better. [It] also improves the environment — feeding people goes a long way. Giving people a break to have a sandwich, that's significant — it keeps them around [and] makes people feel cared for. It's not that we didn't want to before. It's that we literally couldn't afford it."
The duo raised over $50,000 (their initial goal) via Kickstarter for the eight-episode third season, which will hit screens in fall 2013.
Keenan-Bolger and Wetherhead have added a production staff, which currently includes locations manager Julie Boardman, producer Jeff Croiter, sound editor and mixing engineer Michael Croiter, coordinating producer Neal Hunter Hyde, talent manager and producer Jen Namoff, staff writer Lizz Suggs and Adam Wachter, who provides original music.
"If I can shine light on it — because my love of working with new writers and new directors and getting their work out there — I'm very drawn to [that]," said McCollum, who produced a multitude of Broadway shows, including the Tony and Pulitzer-winning Rent. "I look at a producer as someone who facilitates new stories and helps get careers going."
The series is in search for a bigger platform, and — as Keenan-Bolger and Wetherhead said — is "open for business." "We'd be thrilled to have it on a Netflix or a Hulu or IFC or Bravo… I think our characters are honest," said Wetherhead. "They're not two-dimensional. They're real people. They just happen to be quirky and funny and silly, but when I'm writing them, I want them to speak like real people. It's the situation that makes them nutty, and watching how they respond to their circumstances is what makes it funny as opposed to them being these caricatures. I think that's the goal. That's what I hope for."
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)