By Teme Ring, ChicagoNow – January 2, 2018
Comedians Sarah Albritton and Catherine “Povs” Povinelli are telling me about the time they drove from Chicago to Sarah’s hometown, Louisville, Kentucky. Sarah drove all five and a half hours.
Povs joked about being in the passenger seat, “I risked my life!” “And I was fine,” Sarah pointed out. “I kept you awake,” Povs said. Sarah agreed. “She kept me awake. She made sure I was awake.”
That road trip is a good symbol of Sarah and Pov’s partnership. This Chicago dynamic duo seamlessly finishes each other’s sentences and buoys each other in friendship and work. What might be potholes to lesser spirits – severe narcolepsy, a shortage of funds – only makes these two fly higher.
Speaking of flying high, Sarah and Povs’ web series Super Narcoleptic Girlis about to launch. Sarah, who has narcolepsy in real life, plays Keelyn Klein, a superhero unfortunately labeled “Super Narcoleptic Girl” in a bureaucratic mishap. Povs plays her best friend Lee.
The story is not your typical superhero action jam. True, Keelyn is charged withsaving the day for her fellow citizens.
But Super Narcoleptic Girl is not just KABOOM and KABLAM. The show is a comedic look at a superhero living vibrantly with an invisible disability.
Sarah and Povs finished filming in August and are now in post-production. In addition to Sarah and Povs, the cast includes a wealth of Chicago talent, including Greg Hollimon (Strangers with Candy) and music by Natalie Grace Alford, Honey and the 45’s, Kristina Cottone, Bifunkal, and Cameron Ford. Sarah and Povs credit Michael McCarthy for encouraging their vision during his television pilot writing class at iO, and have shout-outs for their director of photography Jon Kline, director Larry Ziegelman and assistant director Johnny Lange.
Super Narcoleptic Girl will be released by Sarah and Povs’ production company One Step Below, Inc. at three events next month. Look for viewing and launch parties in Chicago and New York in early February and in Los Angeles at The Nerdist on February 15.
Sarah and Povs kindly spoke with me by phone about how they leapt tall production obstacles, what it takes to live well with narcolepsy, and why they’re calling their company “One Step Below.” (I never would have guessed!)
LEAPING TALL OBSTACLES
Teme: Congratulations on the series and the release date!
Sarah: Even before the trailer came out, people were congratulating us. We were like, “We haven’t done anything.” They said, “Yeah, but you’re finishing it.” So many people …
Povs: … don’t finish their projects. Our Director of Photography specifically wrote into his contract, “Come hell or high water, you will finish this project.”
Sarah: We had a very different path than we originally thought we’d have.
Teme: How so?
Povs: We had to create our own production company.
Sarah: We wanted to collaborate with a production company. We met with a couple of companies, but the timing didn’t work out. We decided to do it ourselves. We applied for a grant. Since we’re bringing awareness to narcolepsy, we thought we had a good chance. Several people familiar with the grant even told us we had a good chance of getting it.
Then we raised funds through Indiegogo so we didn’t have to wait for a “yes” or “no.” We raised over $5,000. Then we didn’t get the grant. Now we’re in post-production and funding the project on our own and reaching out to investors.
BEST HIGHLIGHTS, BIGGEST CHALLENGES
Teme: What have been the highlights and the challenges?
Povs: The main challenge has also been the main highlight. We really got to understand independent filmmaking.
Sarah: We became real filmmakers. We thought we would work with a production company and they would handle all that production-y stuff and we would just write, act, and oversee. We were low budget, so we had to get creative with a lot of stuff. For example ….
Povs: … we took a weekend and went around to the local restaurants in the areas where we were shooting. We walked in and said, “We’re independent filmmakers. Would you be willing to feed us a meal in exchange for a credit as a sponsor?”
Sarah: We had nearly all our meals for cast and crew donated from so many great places like Nando’s Peri Peri, Stan’s Coffee and Donuts, Chicago’s Dog House and several others. They were super helpful in getting our cast and crew fed.
Povs: We really appreciated all the places that let us film for free as well, like Laugh Factory, Elbo Room …
Sarah: … and my apartment.
Povs: We realized that if we didn’t take matters into our own hands, the project wasn’t going to get made. That was the most challenging thing and ended up being the most rewarding thing.
Teme: What part of the experience are you most proud of so far?
Sarah: I’d say that we’re actually going to finish it.
Povs: I taught myself how to edit.
Sarah: We couldn’t afford to pay our editor to also edit the trailer.
Povs: I said, “Ok! I can do it!”
Sarah: We had to figure out what we can and can’t do with a very limited budget. By the end, we’ll have done the eight episodes for less than 12K. But we also ended up having to cut a couple of episodes during production …
Povs: … because we ran out of money. We hope people get excited about it and want to see more. Help fund us!
Sarah: We have all these ideas for other episodes. The big dream would be to sell it to a network like Comedy Central and make it a half-hour show.
FASTER THAN A SPEEDING STEREOTYPE
Teme: Please tell me about Keelyn. Who are her nemeses?
Sarah: A lot of it is her battling narcolepsy …
Povs: … and the stereotypes …
Sarah: … that people have of it. Insomnabro is another superhero at her agency. He and Keelyn keep showing up at the same places to save the same people, so he’s a nemesis.
Povs: He’s the main physical nemesis. But the larger nemesis is Keelyn battling the stereotypes and people not understanding her narcolepsy.
Povs: We meet Keelyn’s parents and her annoying younger brother who can read minds. It’s a typical WASPy dinner of superheroes.
Sarah: It deals with the idea of even parents not fully understanding narcolepsy and the fact that everyone in her family is very successful and she’s the one that is still struggling. Her younger brother saved the Dalai Lama, so she’s dealing with the super success of her family while she’s the odd one out.
I want to note that these are not my parents because my family is ridiculously supportive and awesome. My mother even came out and worked as a production assistant for four days.
Povs: Sarah’s mom helped out with the crew. It was very impressive.
Sarah: One other scene I want to talk about is when I have a love interest and have to tell him that I have narcolepsy.
Povs: That’s one of my favorite scenes! Keelyn is talking about narcolepsy and her date compares it to people not understanding improv. He compares improv to a disease.
Sarah: I’ve been way open about it in my stand-up, so people know already. But I used to keep it secret. I would hide it until we were sleeping together and then I needed to warn him in case something happens. If I fell asleep during sex, I wouldn’t want him to think it was his fault!
Povs: In that episode there’s a flashback to a moment where she didn’t tell someone that she has narcolepsy and the effect on that individual is very funny.
A BATTLE FOR TRUTH
Teme: What are some of Keelyn’s other challenges and victories?
Povs: The show is very realistic. It’s not …
Sarah: …. an action show. When she makes a save, it puts her one step closer to paying her rent.
Povs: An important scene is when we address how she got the name “Super Narcoleptic Girl” and doesn’t want to be defined by it.
Teme: I remember that she got the name because of a slip-up at the D.M.V.
Povs: Yes, it’s in Episode 2. It’s something her character will fight against and ultimately try to change.
Sarah: I feel like I’m always trying to prove that narcolepsy doesn’t define me. Keelyn is literally defined by it because it’s her superhero name, so she’s constantly trying to fight against it.
Teme: That’s a constant battle, the question of whether people will confuse health issues with identity.
Sarah: What’s funny is a lot of my friends almost forget about it. They forget it until I fall down in front of them and they say, oh yeah, you did say you have narcolepsy.
EVERYDAY LIFE WITH NARCOLEPSY
Teme: What are some of the things you face on a regular day with narcolepsy that people might not realize?
Sarah: When I’m awake but without medication I feel like a normal person would feel if they were up for three days straight. That’s how I feel all the time. Medication helps me be about normal. I just feel exhausted sometimes. There are other scenarios where I get really forgetful. And when I wake up I might get mixed up with reality.
Povs: I get text messages from Sarah where she doesn’t know if she’s written me something. I’ll text her back and say, “I think you’re asleep right now.”
Sarah: There are a lot of things that people don’t think about. Like it takes me forever to leave the house because I always forget stuff. Weight is also an issue. I pushed myself this year and lost a little weight, but it’s really hard. The primary issue in narcolepsy is loss of a chemical in our brain called orexin. Orexin lets your body know that it’s had enough sleep and when you’ve had enough food. We would love to be able to address these issues in future episodes.
Povs: We touch on it in the family dinner scene where people think Sarah could just have a cup of coffee and be fine. Her mom asks her point blank, “Can I get you a cup of coffee?” And Sarah says, “It doesn’t work like that.”
Sarah: People like to try to make up simple solutions. It’s like when you’re depressed and people say, “Just work out!” and “just be happier!”
Povs: “Just don’t think about it!”
Sarah: I think it’s a common theme for people with invisible disabilities. People don’t understand it because they can’t see it. They think there must be a simple solution.
Teme: Whenever I hear the word “just,” followed by a “solution,” I always know there’s a big oversimplification coming.
Sarah: “Can’t you just set your alarm on time?” The biggest struggle for me is getting up. That’s mostly why I freelance now because it’s very hard for me to wake up consistently. But to be clear, if we had a job as writers, we will be there on time.
Povs: I have a key to Sarah’s house. I will drag her out of bed.
Teme: I’m never sure of what the motive is when people want to oversimplify a solution because clearly you’ve thought of whatever they’re about to suggest!
Sarah: They want to solve the problem for you and be that person who tells you to do that thing you never thought of.
I’ve had the reverse, too, where after shows people say to me, “I wonder if I have narcolepsy.” I’ll ask them a couple of basic questions and can suggest organizations like Wake Up Narcolepsy, Project Sleep or The Narcolepsy Network, all great organizations that can help people find a doctor and get tested.
I’m lucky that I have cataplexy. That’s the falling-down thing. Well, not exactly lucky. Only 40% of people with narcolepsy have it. I wonder if I would have been diagnosed if I didn’t have cataplexy. Some people are just more tired and don’t realize that it’s narcolepsy. We hope that if this series grows in popularity, people can be more aware.
Some doctors don’t want to diagnose narcolepsy because they say “it’s going to make your life harder.” It’s a Catch-22. If you’re not diagnosed you can’t get the medication you need, but there are a lot of complications, like it could be harder to get a driver’s license in certain states.
Teme: Are there strategies you use throughout the day that people might not see?
Sarah: I have to read books out loud or in very small increments at a time. I do a lot of audiobooks and sit in uncomfortable chairs because otherwise I’ll get sleepy. It’s just something you deal with and learn to live with.
I have to be sure I have medicine on me. I take extended release medicine every day, but there are still times when I’m tired, so I have backup medicine. Let’s say I’m out and something happens. Without the medication, I wouldn’t be able to get home.
When we were filming, we had fifteen-hour days for four days in a row and I only took two naps through the whole production. Being on my feet made me realize that as long as I had stuff to do I wouldn’t be as tired. It could also have been the adrenaline kicking in. For a narcoleptic, office jobs are a lot harder than being on your feet or interacting with people.
Teme: When you wake from a nap, do you feel refreshed? Or is it hard to get back to baseline?
Sarah: It varies. If I have very vivid dreams, I’ll sometimes have a hallucination when I first wake up. Sometimes I’ll have sleep paralysis, too. I feel like I’m paralyzed and it’s really hard to get out of it. Sleep paralysis is another thing we hope to cover in the series in the future.
Teme: How do you get out of sleep paralysis?
Sarah: In high school I used to have sleep paralysis during class every day in multiple classes. Even though I couldn’t wake up, I could hear everything that was going on in the class. Sometimes the teacher would say, “Hey, Sarah! What’s the answer to the question I just asked?” I would know the answer because I’d heard what she had asked. I just couldn’t wake up.
Sometimes someone would shake me at the end of the class when the bell rang. It’s very weird to be in this state where you can hear what’s going on, but not be able to wake up. Waking up in the morning when I was a teenager was a big issue. My dad used to yell and yell and not understand why I couldn’t wake up. He felt really bad after he realized I had narcolepsy.
ADVICE FOR CREATING A SERIES
Povs: It’s going to cost a lot more money than you think and take a lot more time than you think. But don’t rush it.
Sarah: Work with people that you get along with, that get along well with each other and are good at communicating …
Povs: … and who understand your vision …
Sarah: … and respect your vision and aren’t going to try to take that away from you.
Povs: Have fun.
Sarah: Yeah, the biggest thing is have fun with it. Make sure it’s a project you really love …
Povs: … because you’re going to be spending a lot of time on it. There was a period of time when I saw Sarah more than my boyfriend and I live with him.
Sarah: You have to be passionate about it because if you’re not, you’re not going to finish it. Make sure it’s something that’s important to you and that you find funny. This show makes us laugh and we have fun doing it. If you’re going to put that much time and money and energy into something, it better be something you fucking love and that you believe needs to be out there in the world. Don’t give up. We had a lot of road blocks …
Povs: … but we worked around them. So I’d say, passion and perseverance.
Sarah: Yes, and have a point of view. I really want to encourage people to create their own things because …
Povs: … it’s very fulfilling.
Sarah: You don’t have to wait for someone to write you a part. Write your own web series and do it yourself.
WHY “ONE STEP BELOW”?
Teme: How did you decide to name your production company “One Step Below”?
Povs: I’m so glad you asked that question.
Sarah: It took us forever to come up with that name.
Povs: Once we realized we had to make our own production company, we forever were trying to come up with a name that was unique to us. Nothing was working. One day, we were emailing everyone to announce that they had a part in the cast. Some people were getting back to us right away, but some people weren’t. We were like, what could be more important than this right now? They must be …
Sarah: … having sex right now!
Povs: Well, “fucking” was the word we used, but don’t write that. We were like, they must be fucking. The only thing more important than us is fucking. We’re one step below fucking. Oh my god, we are …
Povs and Sarah: “One Step Below”!
I also spoke with Sarah and Povs in 2016 when Super Narcoleptic Girl’s journey was just beginning. You can read it here.