For almost two hours, it’s only their voices — Abby Dorning and Jenna McDonald, best friends, former college roommates, Bridesmaids fanatics and, most recently, co-creators and co-stars of the comedy series One Brick Shy. The week of Thanksgiving, an in-person meeting seems not only difficult to arrange, but irresponsible, perhaps even deadly. And on laptop sized screens, taking notes while keeping a conversation going on the free version of Zoom can be challenging.
So it’s a telephone interview. Voices only. But they’re voices that are absolutely familiar from the first two episodes, and without any visuals or atmospheric elements to contend with, the interview transcends the volleying back and forth of questions and answers. Instead, it quickly becomes an invitation to take a seat smack dab in the middle of the intimacy that exists between two creators who have been deeply involved in each other’s lives for more than a decade. Even when one of them is answering a question posed by the interviewer, Dorning and McDonald speak to each other.
“I have a little sister who looks older than me,” McDonald, 27, says near the end of the conversation, attempting to explain what she calls her complex about becoming too commercial. “She thinks it’s because I dress like a fourteen-year-old boy.”
“I would agree,” says Dorning, who is 28. “But you dress like a very hip fourteen-year-old boy. A fourteen-year-old boy who knows how to order a matcha latte.”
Regardless of how she feels about becoming too commercial, the epiphany McDonald experienced while living in Los Angeles about her network of talented friends back in St. Louis paved the way for the creation of a comedy series that’s getting noticed.
The St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase declared One Brick Shy the year’s best comedy. And then, in what Dorning and McDonald consider a hilarious nod to the head-shaving scene in Episode 1, also recognized the show with the best makeup and hairstyling award. As a result, One Brick Shy was then invited into the St. Louis International Film Festival, which summarized the series’ first episode, entitled “Randy,” as follows: “Drew and Murphy face a few of life’s harsh realities and attempt to remedy their lack of preparedness.”
At its core, One Brick Shy is about friendship. In the first episode, Murphy, who is Dorning’s character, helps Drew, played by McDonald, through a breakup best described, both literally and figuratively, as shitty. Gus is introduced in the second episode. Played by writer/director CeCe O’Neill, the third member of the besties trio, Gus is revered by Drew and Murphy for having arrived, gracefully, at the destination the two of them struggle to find: adulthood.
None of which is entirely contrary to how the three relate to each other as actual friends. O’Neill, who majored in scriptwriting, originally signed on to direct the first episode. “We needed someone who could actually take on the two of us,” Dorning explains. “She’s perfect because she understands us.”
There’s a lot to understand.
McDonald recalls meeting Dorning and O’Neill during freshman year at Webster University as a turning point. “We met when we were eighteen, we shared pivotal moments of growth, and I feel like the three of us grew up together,” she says. “I was finally able to be 100 percent myself, without fear of judgment or not being cool enough. It’s like I found my people.”
At the time, McDonald wasn’t really thinking about acting. “I wanted to write and direct,” she recalls, tracing that impulse back to the amount of time she spent on the couch during her high school years, watching movies while icing a knee injured playing soccer and basketball. She’d also experimented a bit with her mother’s camcorder and created a ten-minute short. “When it came time to figure out what to do with the rest of your life, I thought, ‘wait, I really like movies,’” she says.
Then, a friend and fellow student wrote a script for their thesis class. McDonald, who had a lot of ideas about how the script could be improved, auditioned for and got a role. She has since landed additional roles and won a few awards, including best actress for her 2015 performance in “Conversations Over Dinner,” awarded by the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase. “I really enjoy being on set, performing,” she says. While her first on-camera experience was satisfying in many ways, the seriousness of the role led to her realization that her true calling is comedy. “If someone spends twenty minutes with me, I want them to have a good time,” she says. “I want to make people laugh.”
In the first two episodes of One Brick Shy, McDonald hits her target head on. “I’m silly in real life, and I’m silly on the show,” she says.
Dorning’s performances are also informed in part by comedy, but it’s of a different variety. “My authenticity comes out in goofy ways,” she says.
Raised in a household she describes as religious and rigid, she recalls being put on a leash at a very young age because she was so outgoing. Then, thanks to fat shaming, she became secluded and grew up friendless. She spent years trying not to be perceived. “Now I’m back to who I was initially, only I’m unleashed,” she says.
Joining an improv troupe in high school was a turning point. It’s something she was encouraged to do by a girl she knew who pointed out that theater was where all the weird kids seemed to be. “With improv, you have to be willing to look stupid, or you look really stupid,” Dorning says of the experience. “Ultimately, it taught me to let go of a lot of my shit.”
It was also a springboard into theater, something Dorning says she fell into head first. At Webster, she majored in costume design, got into the queer world and became best friends with her future co-creators.
Like McDonald, many of Dorning’s passions are off-camera. A visual artist at heart, she works as a trainer at the Apple store in West County. “My iPad revolutionized how I communicate,” she says. She’s responsible for the graphical elements doodled throughout the first two episodes of One Brick Shy as well as the hand lettering on the show’s Instagram account.
Dorning’s true love, however, is drawing nudes. “It’s the most exhilarating thing,” she says, adding that her work almost always has an emotional impact on subject and artist alike. “When you draw people nude, they’re very vulnerable.”
Being with people in their vulnerability is not unfamiliar territory for Dorning, and it’s something she brings to her One Brick Shy character. “People open up to me and tell me their deepest secrets,” she says. “I have an energy that makes people comfortable.” She believes the comfort others feel when they’re with her comes in part from the scars she’s gathered along the way. “My experience, how I add to this universe, as a queer person, as a fat person, my perspective comes from healing that or owning that,” she says. “I’ve always been fat. I didn’t really fit in. I’m a particular person.”
“She takes down walls,” McDonald says.
One of the walls deconstructed by Dorning and everyone else involved with One Brick Shy concerns the portrayal of women, particularly women who are queer, fat, of color or do not, in an endless number of ways, adhere to standardizations and stereotypes.
“A lot of media revolves around girls fighting against each other for a boy,” Dorning says. “Or fat characters and a main plot line focused on them being fat.” From the beginning, One Brick Shy strived to be something different. “We needed a show that didn’t revolve around pain or fighting or suffering,” Dorning says. “We wanted to take the good times we’ve had and show it on screen.”
Both Dorning and McDonald consider the fact that they’re such good friends a definite advantage when it comes to writing out the story and the characters that move it forward. “When it comes time to write an episode, we start with an overarching idea, but all three of us also keep notes that we use to create the script,” Dorning says. “We pinball off each other.”
“We’ve all brought bits and pieces with us from Webster,” McDonald says. “I think we’re a good team.”
McDonald adds that the collaboration at the foundation of One Brick Shy has felt natural from the very beginning. “You know when you’re eleven and you have a slumber party and you want to start a band?” she says. “You stay up all night rehearsing. It’s imaginary, but it’s so real in your head.”
One Brick Shy existed in that post-slumber party abstraction for a long time, she says of the years following college when none of them had to complete assignments. “We have very long lists of funny things we kept in our notes app, and now we have enough connections to create episodes,” she says. “When we get going during a writing session, it still feels like we’re at a slumber party. We bounce off each other.”
Dorning also feels like they’re still at a slumber party. “And not in a bad way,” she says.
Dorning and McDonald both believe that there couldn’t be a better time to create a comedy driven by strong female characters than right now. While 2020 is far from perfect, they consider it leaps and bounds ahead of 2011, the year they met and the year the film Bridesmaids was released — a film that represented female friendships in a way that captivated the three as college freshmen then and continues to inspire them today as One Brick Shy co-creators. Still, there’s no shortage of obstacles. “I would argue that the biggest bridge we’re trying to cross was built by white men,” Dorning says. “Women characters have been created as housewives, or they existed to go after a man.”
McDonald sees the presentation of strong female characters as a corrective measure. “As a kid I needed positive representation,” she says. She hints that in future episodes Drew will evolve into a positive queer character with a love interest, an evolution she’s experiencing in her own life in tandem with the character she portrays. “Even two years ago I was trying to present myself as more femme,” she says, “but I’m becoming more comfortable in my own skin as a real person.”
Dorning and McDonald are also comfortable — they’re encouraged, in fact — when their work is compared to the Comedy Central sitcom Broad City. “What I love about the comparison is that there is now a lot of content — there’s a genre to contribute to,” Dorning says. “We don’t have to break ground. We’re at a point where female representation as a whole is much better.” Still, they continue to look for ways to participate in the representation of women of color, intentionally welcoming those who want to collaborate, whether in front of or behind the camera.
Then there’s St. Louis. The city serves as the location, the vibe, the muse and a character — or several — all rolled into one.
When explaining the connection between their show and the city in which it takes place, Dorning and McDonald both extract humor from St. Louis’ near misses, little absurdities that are taken earnestly by most. They regard the gap between those two responses as something of a creative goldmine.
When the duo moved into an apartment on Arsenal Street, for example, they were initially excited about their proximity to I-44. “We were close, but not too close,” Dorning recalls. But as it turned out, Kingshighway was closed for bridge construction the entire time they lived in the apartment. “Then, they ended up putting in incorrect parking signs and paved around someone’s car,” she says, “but the bridge completion was still appreciated by the entire city.”
The ill-fated trolley on Delmar in University City is another example of St. Louis weirdness from which Dorning and McDonald drew a little inspiration. Chronically behind schedule and over budget, the trolley, which would have added even more chaos to an already anxiety-provoking thoroughfare, became the punchline of its own joke.
“Then they finished it, finally, and the tracks were off by an inch,” McDonald says. “That is so One Brick Shy.”
McDonald left St. Louis and lived briefly in Los Angeles. Ironically, it was in California that she realized what was here. “In L.A., if I wasn’t able to shove someone up the ladder, they didn’t have time for me,” she says. She did manage to go on lots of coffee dates, however, during which she asked for advice. “People told me that if I wanted to make it, I had to create my own content. And I thought: ‘What am I doing here when I know so many people in St. Louis?’”
The network Dorning and McDonald have cultivated here spans both creative and business spheres. While the film community is relatively small, McDonald says it more than compensates for its size with flexibility and a desire to participate. “I think people are hungry to be a part of something creative, so everyone has been really flexible and willing to jump in and be a part of it,” she says. “There is so much talent in this city.”
Also, lots of small businesses are willing to barter rather than charge exorbitant fees for providing a location. “The owners of the Morning Glory Diner on Cherokee Street are creatives themselves, so they were totally down for us shooting there,” McDonald says. Dorning also created art for them in exchange for the shoot. McDonald is happy with the bartering model, which she says is unique to the Midwest. “I think it’s a healthier way of doing it,” she says.
In the end, however, the fact that One Brick Shy is created and produced in St. Louis is almost irrelevant. Thanks to the internet, which serves as the distribution arm of the One Brick Shy enterprise, Dorning and McDonald can do their work based on where their creative community has roots rather than in locations determined by the entertainment industry.
The internet also serves as an open door to a world that used to be closed to creators at the beginning of their careers unless they were extremely well connected, or well-funded. The budget for the first episode of One Brick Shy, to which many people Dorning and McDonald know donated their time and talent, was less than $1,000. The third episode, which was created under pandemic conditions and therefore a considerably more complex process, cost around $5,000, which was raised through donations, merchandise sales and Dorning and McDonald putting it some of their own money. That would barely cover securing a location in L.A. to shoot a single scene.
“It’s no longer strictly about who you know, or how much money you have, which is a huge relief for young creatives,” McDonald says. “You don’t need Martin Scorsese. You need a good story.”