There's a scene in the first episode of the new web series "BFA" that quickly tells you this isn't another navel-gazer about life as a 20-something in New York or Los Angeles.
Our protagonists, a group of Baltimore actors who make up the fictional Stick People Theatre Company, have just put on an edgy performance in their partially renovated rowhouse. The audience — five lonely souls — is told afterward by emcee Sarah Pearl (played by 23-year-old Katie Hileman) that cupcakes and beer are available as refreshments. That's when a young man from the audience heads over to the workbench-turned-table and pounds down nearly every mini cupcake available.
What he can't eat, he loads into a makeshift bowl he makes with his arm and the front of his T-shirt.
"Seriously?" says actor and playwright Sam Pratt (played by 25-year-old Katie Kopajtic, who created the series), watching in disgust.
His free hand then whisks away a straggling tray of cupcakes as he heads out the door.
It's perfectly Baltimore, and it captures the humor, wackiness and mild desperation that make this show about young Bachelor of Fine Arts grads different from other shows about millennials.
On Friday, the "BFA" cast will be holding a screening party for friends and fans at the Metro Gallery in Station North, where the entire first season of "BFA" will run back-to-back before a screening of the Season 1 finale.
"I really wanted to make this about Baltimore City theater artists," said Kopajtic. "Baltimore is where I kind of got my artistic footing and also the way it's just growing. 'BFA' is just like a narrative of what's really going on."
"BFA" is a comedic drama that follows the lives of Sarah, Sam, Julia (23-year-old Jessie Poole), Graham (23-year-old David Brasington), Ryan (24-year-old Sean McComas) and Andy (23-year-old Anderson Wells), recent college graduates who almost all have Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees (hence, the name — but in this case, "BFA" actually stands for "Baltimore. Friends. Artists."). All the characters are in their 20s, and all of them are, with varying degrees of success, looking for meaningful work that will make use of their artistic skills.
"I remember when we first sat down, I said, 'So the pitch is basically — it's been refined — but the pitch is basically the 'Girls' of Station North," says Baltimore native Michael Cuomo, now an actor based in New York who served as a consultant to the series. "Katie was like, 'Well, I don't know if we're going have as much sex in 'BFA' as there is in 'Girls.'"
The 10 episodes that make up "BFA's" first season were produced for a mere $6,500. Most of the series was filmed last summer at venues such as Joe Squared, the Ottobar and a Canton rowhouse that belongs to Kopajtic's brother.
Much of the series deals with trying to break in to the theater business. Sarah is in charge of the Stick People Theatre Company, and is struggling alongside Sam to get the latter's play shown in Baltimore. Old friend Ryan, on the other hand, has already toured internationally with the show "War Horse" and is back for a Lifetime film gig; Sarah is envious that he seems to be making it in show business.
Tension between wild child Ryan and much of the gang simmers throughout the series, while viewers are left to wonder through many of the episodes whether the Stick People will ever get their play performed. If they do, it will certainly be despite Peabody musician Graham's deliciously psychotic Roland Park mommy (played by Susan McCully).
What isn't in "BFA"? Well, there are no scenes with therapists (hello, Lena Dunham), and there are more than just heterosexuals and white people running around.
Also, Graham, "BFA's" biggest oddball, is the only character living off a trust fund; even that meets a timely death when he falls out with his mother.
"The difference is that "BFA's" perspective is trying to be a little more realistic with what the situation of an artist is," said Brasington, who obtained his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Maryland Baltimore County in 2012.
The driving force behind it all is Kopajtic, who graduated with her own BFA from UMBC in 2011. She put aside an accomplished high school career with the Harford Hurricanes swim club — including a top place finish in the 50 freestyle at the 2007 county championship and a trip to the nationals — when she decided she wanted to concentrate full time on acting. That career choice caused her father, a landscape architect, and mother, a scientist, to briefly pause.
"We're the kind of people where you go to work every day, and she said she was going to do theater," said mother Theresa Kopajtic. "We were like, 'Ah, how's that going to pay your bills?'"
They soon realized Katie was as committed to her art as she had been to swimming.
"We were really impressed with the effort and amount of support her friends and former teachers had offered her to do such a thing," said Kopajtic's father Bill, referring to the series.
After graduating, Kopajtic eventually moved to New York and found work as a personal trainer and teaching artist. Her experience is one of several inspirations behind the show.
"When you're in college, it's very important to know you're getting a BFA, it signifies something," said Kopajtic. "When you're out of college, it really means nothing."
Which, she openly acknowledged, may not be news to most people. But because of this, artists often end up doing unusual things, she says.
"It's just challenging and you have to a lot of weird stuff after college, like weird odd jobs," said Kopajtic. "You basically have to take risks so that you can get where you need to be. And also you have to do all the work yourself."
It was at one of those odd jobs that Kopajtic met Cuomo, who helped "BFA" get started. Kopajtic was working as a barista at the Little Fox Cafe in New York City when Cuomo — who wrote, produced and starred in 2011's "Happy New Year" — stopped by and overheard her talking about wanting to make a web series. Cuomo offered a groovy barter: advising Kopajtic on her web series in exchange for swimming lessons.
"I'm in the pool for an hour, then in the coffee shop reviewing her work," said Cuomo. "It's now become more of a friendship. I don't think I'll be breaking any of Michael Phelps' records, but I definitely can swim a pretty mean freestyle."
Kopajtic ended up launching a campaign on crowdfunding platform Indiegogo for "BFA," but the call-out fell $3,000 short of the $10,000 she was hoping to raise (and Indiegogo also took a cut). Short on money, Kopajtic got creative: One of the film crews she used was able to borrow equipment, while Grilled Cheese & Co. donated food during filming and Union Craft Brewing donated beer for "BFA" fundraisers.
She also got the opportunity to work with her father, whom she recruited to play none other than her character Sam's dad.
"I was expecting a more flamboyant character if I got a chance, but it was easier in that respect," Bill Kopajtic chuckled, noting his previous acting experience consisted of playing a rock in an elementary school play.
Susan McCully, a senior lecturer of playwriting and dramatic literature at UMBC, chipped in her time to play Graham's grande dame mother. Otherwise, Kopajtic recruited her fellow theater friends from her time at UMBC and made sure to pay them, even if it wasn't much.
"I guess because we're all really good friends, we all know each other really well as actors and as human beings," said Hileman. "I think that really shines through. We're comfortable talking to each other and working with each other, and that definitely makes a difference than say, if we'd done it with actors you didn't know."
Kopajtic had never directed before, and there was a whole new vocabulary to learn, from tungsten bulbs to camera exposures. She wasn't the only one being challenged, either, and the project turned out to be an interesting collaboration on multiple levels, the actors said.
"I don't have any training in film at all," said Brasington. "All of the terms and language that you use are different on the set, in terms of what's the role of the director and what's the role of the camera person in terms of expressing their opinions. So it's a really interesting learning process on how to sort of collaborate and work in that way."
Eve Muson, an assistant professor of theatre at UMBC and head of the school's acting program, said technology has transformed the way many Baltimore theatre grads get their start in the business.
"In the 1960s, '70s and '80s, kids didn't have cameras and computers and the technical savvy and a delivery system like the Internet and independent movie houses and all this sorts of stuff," said Muson. "The only delivery system was you're on Broadway, you're in a movie or on a TV program."
Muson said the idea that the only way to make it in show business is by moving to New York or Los Angeles, getting an agent and trying out at auditions is a myth.
"More and more of our kids are trying to create and be part of this young burgeoning Baltimore theatre scene," she added. "I'm so thrilled Katie decided, 'God dammit, I'm going to make something because I want to say something in the world.'F"
Next up for "BFA" and its crew?
Brasington, Hileman, Poole and another cast member, Kiirstn Pagan, are sticking together to form the Interrobang Theatre Company. They'll be producing their first show, "Scab," beginning on March 26 at St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Station North.
As for Kopajtic, she said she's going to keep acting, keep generating work and keep improvising. A second season of "BFA" is also not out of the question, through Kopajtic said she'd need to find a producer and a writing team ("If I can find a way to make those two things happen then it's on," she added).
She's also thinking about using the "BFA" episodes to make into a film that she can then submit to film festivals. But that will depend, as always, on cash.
"It always depends on money," she said. "Now that it's an idea, I'm going to follow through; but when it's going to happen, I don't know. It won't be same process as this whole first year; it'll be more low-key and less pressure to get it done on a timeline."
Perhaps then, Kopajtic will be ready to return to the city.
"My ultimate dream is to go back to Baltimore with a bigger purpose than what I've already started here," said Kopajtic. "If that makes sense — kind of doing all the work with the end goal of coming back."
Baltimore will be waiting.
If you go
A "BFA" celebration starts at 8 p.m. Friday, with a screening of Episodes 1-9, followed by the release of Episode 10, at the Metro Gallery, 1700 N. Charles St. in Station North. Following the screenings, there's a party at 9 p.m., featuring drink specials, music and dancing. $7. themetrogallery.net
Check out "BFA" at bfatheseries.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun