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New web series puts Chicago women front and center
by Skylar Baker-Jordan

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From rapid changes in weather to gawking Midwestern tourists, some may feel that life in Chicago can be absurd. It's a feeling The Real Deal—a new Web series from Nothing Without a Company ( NWAC ), in conjunction with Kentalago Productions—seeks to embody.

Filmed primarily in Uptown, the series follows the exploits of "the gals," portrayed by Libby Conkle and Molly Fisher in eponymous roles. A surreal comedy, the gals frequently find themselves in unbelievable circumstances, from stripping down to paint using a Slip-n-Slide to falling in love with lobsters in a posh downtown condo.

It is the first Web series from NWAC, which has been producing guerrilla theater in Chicago since 2005, said Anna Rose Ii-Epstein, who serves as the company's co-artistic director along with her wife, Hannah Ii-Epstein. "I had never really been into film," she said. That changed last year when NWAC produced Sweet, director Cameron Downing's entry into the 48 Hour Film Festival. Sweet won for best director and was runner-up for best film.

Meanwhile, Fisher began working with NWAC. She and Conkle, former roommates and real-life best friends, had begun filming The Real Deal in 2014 using their iPhones. "The girls were looking for a company to help them bump the game up and make things look a little more professional, and to have a team behind them so they didn't have to be doing everything," Ii-Epstein said. With the success of Sweet under their belts, the company decided to venture into television production and, last autumn, began shooting on a shoestring budget. "We put our information on [entertainment website] IMDB and said that we did the first season for $2,500, and they didn't believe us," Ii-Epstein said with a laugh. "They don't have people submit pieces for that little money. They were, like, 'Are you sure you put the decimal in the right place?'"

Working on a budget isn't new for the company, which has a long history of producing live theater in creative and unusual spaces. When NWAC began, it "wanted to do the free-theater thing," Ii-Epstein said, believing that "theater should be accessible to everyone." NWAC partnered with the Park District to do free outside shows, but found that it wasn't lucrative enough to keep going. Since then, NWAC has produced shows in a variety of places, most recently Ii-Epstein's own garage. The experience of guerrilla theater proved valuable for shooting The Real Deal, which filmed all of its outside scenes without permits, largely due to the nature of production. They filmed "by the seat of our pants," Ii-Epstein said, "just feeling the inspiration and using this space in a way that works." Originally, they hadn't planned on doing any outside scenes, but "we wanted to make sure we had a lot of Chicago in the series, too."

Having Chicago front and center was important, Ii-Epstein said. "Chicago is the city that people come to and make art. And it's not about how much you get paid, even though it's important and we're trying to make that more important. It's just about needing to make art." That comes across in The Gals. In a joint e-mail to the Windy City Times, Conkle and Fisher explained that "these girls do whatever their gut moves them to do with no thoughts of how they may be perceived," and that they serve as a reminder to "stay present and in the moment and to react to the environment around them."  

While the city is important to the story, it's the gals which run the show—both in front of and behind the camera. The majority of the production staff on The Real Deal are women. This isn't unusual for NWAC, which Ii-Epstein stays "put[s] to the forefront" women- and queer-centered productions, noting the number of women and queer people involved in the company. "More than half of us are queer," she said, "and we have queer topics in our conversation all the time."

One thing that isn't queer, though, are the Gals, with both the characters and actresses straight. However, the actresses said there still are plenty to which queer audiences can relate. Molly and Libby "bring their true selves and true relationship to the series," The Gals said. "Their friendship has a long history and they have a whole lot of love and closeness between them. They have a partnership [and] just as your partner can be your best friend, these two can relate to that a lot of the time."

So while we might not expect romance to blossom between the Gals, there's still plenty coming up, including an episode filmed in front of a live studio audience at Lakeview's Theater Wit. NWAC is also crowdfunding to cover the costs of the first season and springboard into a second season, having set up an Indiegogo page. With three episodes yet to be released, though, there's still plenty of absurd laughter to be had with the gals of The Real Deal.

The Real Deal is a co-production of NWAC and Kentalago Productions. New episodes debut every Tuesday on the show's YouTube Channel, People can donate to their crowdfunding efforts at

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