Web series creators Aaron Ballard (co-creator and co-writer of Brokers) and Lauren Maul (creator, writer, and director of Next Level Anxiety) discuss their work in two recent interviews. Ballard's series Brokers is currently online, and Maul's series Next Level Anxiety can be viewed beginning October 30.
by Kyna Morgan
Jen Ponton is an actress, media creative, and puppeteer whose latest film is Love on the Run, also starring Francis Fisher, Steve Howey, and Annaleigh Banford. She is also co-creator, co-writer, puppeteer, and actor for the puppet web series The Weirdos Next Door. We recently discussed her work in front of and behind the camera.
KM: You describe your webseries The Weirdos Next Door as a mix between The Muppets and Full House. There's definitely a deep nostalgia there! Why did you choose this as a project and with whom are you working? What are your specific roles in the series, both on screen and off?
JP: I work under PacKay Productions with my co-showrunner, Kay Koch, and our 3rd producer, Packy Anderson. We were 100% going for deep nostalgia! We spent so much time collectively pining for the family content that really defined the '80s and early '90s -- 'TGIF' (Full House, Family Matters, Boy Meets World, Step By Step), Family Ties, Perfect Strangers, Growing Pains, I could go on and on! Not coincidentally, it was also something that Jim Henson was brilliant at doing. Fraggle Rock, Sesame Street, and The Muppet Show (not to mention his many films) all had content that engaged both children and adults, that truly was family viewing. When Kay started to build puppets, we knew we were being called upon to basically resurrect the long lost artform of the '80s family sitcom.
For the past 3 years, I’ve been playing “Susan” the lead in the webseries I write/create. “Susan” looks a whole lot like Alex Spieth and, shockingly, has had a lot of the same sexual experiences. We have the same hair color, eye shade, and when I raise my hand, she’s quick to imitate the action. We’re the same age and have the same birthday. All her friends have names that my friends growing up had, and, weirdly enough, they both graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 2013. Susan’s best friend is Alex’s best friend, and Alex’s boyfriends look like people Susan used to date. Two years ago, when someone asked me how “Susan” was different than Alex, I couldn’t come up with a single answer. Susan always looks like me and I dress like her. Some days, she wears the clothes better and, some days, I do.
However, the feedback rolls in: “I can’t get a picture of who Susan is,” “Why do we care about Susan?”, and “What does Susan want?” Every time I get that criticism, a). I kinda think it’s sexist because women in drama have to want something* in a way dudes don’t**, and b). I’m hurt! How can you say that about Susan? Moreover, how can you say that about ME? Motherfucker! You must not understand my art!
* See Girl from Glow, Lena Dunham, Leslie Knope
** See Don Draper, See The Guy From High Maintenance, See Donald Glover on Atlanta, Oscar Isaac in Insidie Llewyn Davis
Yet after the 2nd beer, I begin to accept that the feedback isn’t coming out of nowhere. I, Alex Spieth, am so clear. Alex Spieth wants to be an actor and hasn’t had the success she wanted, so she works all the time to get where she wants to be. If an actor was assigned to play the character of Alex Spieth, it would be easy to do a young Woody Allen impression and get an Oscar for the role. So, If I am basic to understand, how can Susan be obfuscated, hidden, and mysterious in her desires? Susan seems down for a good time, easy to use badly, and wanders from city to city and town to town while I stay planted typing and typing, thinking that maybe at the end of this sentence/email/blog post is the manager who’s ready to say, BABE I’M GONNA MAKE YOU A STAHH, NOW JUST TAKE OFF YOUR SHIRT, WAIT PUT YOUR SHIRT BACK ON, YOU MIGHT NEED IMPLANTS, BUT THEN I WILL MAKE YOU A STAHHH!
Okay, so the character of Susan is how I feel? Susan is afraid to go after her dreams, and, most days, so is Alex. When I started writing Susan, it was during a period where forces, acting, and men were acting on me. It’s hard to get a lot of career rejection, and it’s very easy to make out with a stranger from the internet at a bar in Alphabet City [New York]. It’s hard to feel like your friends took the one-way ticket to fame while you were dicking around in the library, and it’s very easy to let the stranger from the bar pay for a cab ride home. It’s hard to feel like you wasted four years of education, and it’s easy to let the stranger come upstairs after the cab ride. It’s hard to feel like maybe you were wrong, and it’s easiest of all to never call the stranger back, erase his number, forget his name, and dip a hand back into the sea of other dudes that don’t matter and pull up a small one to go to a bar in Alphabet City with before throwing him back in the water. It’s easy to go back to another bar the next night and look like you’re sinking into the cushions while you fight to stay above water career-wise. It’s easy to meet someone else and pretend like you are falling in love. Susan knew all this, and Susan’s really good at pretending to be in love. She’s an easier sell than I am, and it feels good to be sold on something.
Susan was able to see the insanity that surrounded her and to be a stranger in the strangest of all lands, NYC. All the people are mad here, and it’s my job to write them. Yet as the poor reaction to Susan came, I felt that she had let me down. "If only you were me, the way that I am!" (Alex Spieth would think to Susan). "People think I’m brilliant and special and cool, how come you don’t look that way? And is it my fault or yours?" The distance between Susan and Alex Spieth seemed to grow as Susan shrank back into the pages to make way for louder, cooler characters than she, and Alex Spieth started using all caps on social media and screamed to the world, CAST ME, I MADE A SERIES, CAST ME. CAST ME. CAST ME. CAST ME. CAST ME. CAST ME.
This year, I’ve had a number of smart eyes look at the series. One of the best and the brightest in the world said, LIKE A PROPHET, and she said, LIKE THE GOD OF WEBSERIES, and she said, LIKE THE VOICE OF AN ANGEL THAT WAS BOTH MALE AND FEMALE BUT THIS TIME SOUNDS LIKE A CIS-WOMAN --
The seasons aren’t united in time, theme, or eccentricity. The only thing which binds them together is Susan’s fear that she’s being left behind. Susan says it again and again throughout the series that she doesn’t want to be here while all her friends go along without her. Susan hates folks bettering themselves because maybe they are trying to leave her. Susan doesn’t want to be the last man standing when everyone else gets on the train to success while she was dicking around in the library. SUSAN IS AFRAID OF BEING LEFT BEHIND.
The prophet got off the phone with me and went to do her job at a Legitimate Theatre Company. Alex Spieth was stuck to the floor, because that’s what happens when you get kissed really good or you hear the voice of God or YOU CRACK THE CASE, GODDAMMIT. Here it was: Susan and I expressed ourselves differently but we’re both at the core looking to not be left alone, hanging off the monkey bars while everyone else gets to get in strangers' cars who drive them to Hollywood. She’s me! I thought she was different, but we’re the same! We look like each other, and, some days, she wears the clothes better, and, some days, I do.
This season, Susan gets to be a hero, and I can’t tell if it’s because I’m starting to see myself that way or if she was going to be that way all along. "I couldn’t help but wonder," thought Sarah Jessica Parker on September 29th while writing a draft for Her Film Project, "if you turn into the person you were meant to whether you want to or not. Sure the knocking on doors leads you to a bunch of doors where people want to show you their junk, but it puts you in the process of knocking and knocking and knocking until one day the door opens to someone who says "I have an extra pair of Louboutins. Do you want them? I know lots of people love Louboutins, I just don’t need these any more," and, as you take the shoes, you hear the paparazzi flashes cause they are GLASS Louboutins and you are also Cinderella and everything did work out alright!
It has to, right? It has to?"
It’s Alex Spieth, back from the grave (and by that I mean after filming all the episodes in this year’s season of [Blank] My Life, but also like BACK FROM THE DEAD ‘CAUSE I AM A LEGITIMATE GHOST!!!!)
SINCE WE LAST SAW OUR HEROES (Update):
--Filmed 7 episodes, one with an LA crew, which was literally Alex Spieth being like, “Wut is a grip?” (still unclear to me, but there was a dude who was like, “That’s me!”)—LEARN BY DOING, LADIES, LEARN BY DOING~~!!~~
--Edited 2 Episodes, Picture Locked 4 Episodes
--Realized Coloring was important, and was like: OOPS. Gotta figure that out. Gotta find a...colorist....ASAP....
--Drove Upstate (New York) in a snowstorm to film an episode with blood
--Had a wrap party where a Famous Musical Theatre Writer showed up and I was like, but….who are you?
I’m about to embark on the final Post Prod work, and by that I mean largely being like “You good? You good?” to all members of the Post Team. This is the step where creator/ writer can swiftly turn into Mother, which is to say: Annoying.
^^^The most crushing word that can be told to a female trying to make something. I would prefer to be ruthless, bitchy, lazy, rude, intense, aggressive, and stupid. I would far prefer to lack clarity and have no new ideas. I would rather be seen as scary and insane. I would rather be the nutso-genius who left your love confused and alone than the person who stuck around too long. And what a tragedy to discover that tonight it’s me alone at this Christmas Party waiting for the host to kick me out.
(BUT! BUT! BUT! How does anything get done without calling to find out if Baby made it safely to YouTube? Can you get my video to shoot me a quick text when they render safely? Dear Drive with Precious Footage, I’ll always love you even if I have to pick you up at a bar tonight ‘cause no one could find a better meeting spot. I’m not gonna judge you for whatever state you’re in. I’ll come get you wherever you are.)
My first year in NYC, I was barfing before every audition. There I was at 38th and 8th feeling ready in a sweater vest (because I know and have ALWAYS known that "sex sells"), barfing in front of a midtown bodega. I would barf in bathrooms at Ripley-Grier. I barfed in a tree at the 110 stop. After my acting agency dropped me, I was unable to not cry in meetings. I broke down in front of agents and managers and former teachers. Behold: The Disgraced! Behold: The Failure! I traded barfing for crying and traded them both in for the series.
Having to be in charge (and being older) has taught me to be less emotional. I have to care less because I need to get more done. I have only yelled once in the two years and I’ve only cried once (although that was like 3 weeks ago, so like, who’s laughing now? Who’s laughing now?). However, the thing that’s hardest is the fear that I am just irritating everyone.
I often ask men if they worry about being found annoying. No one has given me a straight answer, and this is something that merits a case study. What are the folks at Johns Hopkins DOING, ANYWAY? My sense is that men don’t worry about it the way women do. The fear of being a nag will take me from correcting takes or adjusting people. In a way it’s a good thing, because it keeps me from sending as many emails as my true soul would ultimately desire, but more of the time I think it’s a drag. Luckily, I have assembled the steps to not worry about that sort of vampire, in these easy steps!!!
STEPS TO NOT BEING AFRAID OF BEING ANNOYING:
--MENTAL: You should be annoying! Being annoying means you are going to get the fucker done on time.
--RESPOND: On set, if people are like, ‘You're stressing me out!,’ go on a coffee run and let everyone get over themselves.
--VISUALIZE: People who are legitimately horrible who work all the time and no one gives a shit.
--RESPOND: On set, if folks are like, ‘You're stressing me out!,’ go eat a Subway Sandwich and wait for them to get over themselves.
--UNDERSTAND: That everyone is doing their best, and try to do your best to put yourself in other people’s shoes. Don’t try to overwhelm, and simultaneously underline the absolutely necessary points.
--ACT: Stay the course with honesty, vigor, aggression, and belief that everyone is showing up to do their best.
At the end of the day, there will always be a level of irritation in creating work and making the work that we all want to curate. My PM (the best soul in the USA) is quick to assure me that, “You’re not as intrusive as you think you are.” When asked, "Is it helpful or annoying if I'm here for this conversation?” two male collaborators answered, "You are never annoying." My best advice is to fight the great fight and continue to press gently and assert even if you fear being labeled the ugly word.
When I was 16 at the Nashville Shakespeare Festival, I had a crush on the other comedic sub-character in the show, and I made him run lines every day before we did the show. To my chagrin, one of my friends told me that in contrast to liking me he found me ANNOYING. I was crushed and sad that anyone could think that of me (as I was great, even when I was CERTAINLY A VIRGIN). However, I still made the dude run lines with me every day because being good > fear of what people think of you.
And I would write that shit on a wall.
Jacqueline Lee Katz