The unforgettable drama of “Raising Adults”

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Wagner and Staley in "Raising Adults"

Wagner and Staley in “Raising Adults”

The “in your face”
and “embarrassingly
autobiographical”
indie web series
packs more drama
than most,
but that’s life

 
Chicago-based writer / producer Brittany Wagner is currently completing post-production for the second season of Raising Adults, a web series that lost an original cast member to suicide in February, and the actor who took his own life is her father, Michael Patrick Wagner.

“It was out of the blue,” she says. “I mean, he hadn’t bitched about a doctor’s appointment in what felt like forever.”

Wagner discusses a location shot
Wagner discusses a location shot

In the show, Brittany’s father played a character based on himself. His fictional daughter, Britt, is played by his real daughter, Brittany, who often lovingly refers to her dad as “homo,” while he called her “B” (and not for Brittany).

The nicknames are an essential part of the relationship that the real Brittany formed with the man who raised her. “Everything about the show is embarrassingly autobiographical,” she says. “My dad was writing his own lines.”

Keeping in that tradition, the fictional family, like the one Brittany knew growing up, does not include a mother.

“My mom is a bipolar schizophrenic battling drug addiction who left home when I was little — evading debt, running from the cops… the usual. She was in and out of my life for much of my adolescence.” she says. “I’ve reached a point where I know it’s okay not to invite her back.”

 
MEET BRITTANY FROM “RAISING ADULTS”

 

Raising Adults is a dark comedy that Brittany Wagner co-writes, co-produces, and co-stars in with Kait Staley, a writer / actor in Cincinnati. The show mines the family dynamics that each of the 20-something filmmakers experienced growing up in the “Queen City” on the Ohio River.

“Kait had a unique relationship with her mom growing up, at times like a parent to her younger brother,” says Brittany. “I grew up similarly, but with my dad and younger sister.”

The parents inadvertently sparked a bond between the daughters.

Brittany’s father suffered major back trauma from a construction accident at work. He received next to nothing from Worker’s Compensation, a decision he fought for several years, all the while unable to perform at the job he knew and loved. Even though another man who was injured “walked away with a six-figure settlement,” Michael did not receive any compensation.

Staley on location acting in a dumpster
Staley on location acting in a dumpster

Subsequent attempts to treat his injury, coupled with an unsuccessful eight-year struggle to receive Social Security Disability support, took a devastating toll. “My dad got to a point where he felt the doctors don’t care anymore,” Brittany says.

When Brittany and her younger sister were in elementary school, their father informed them that his girlfriend, “Barbara,” was actually his boyfriend, Bob.

“We kept that a secret until we graduated from high school,” she says. “Because my dad thought it could be an issue growing up for us in a small town that talks.”

Kait’s mom is of poor-genetic health and, though undiagnosed, of questionable levels of sanity, given her propensity towards conspiracy theories and mild hoarding, among other things.

 
MEET KAIT FROM “RAISING ADULTS”

 

In theory, these things are not only treatable, but also deserving of governmental assistance and insurance benefits. In reality, the path to comfort always seemed to be obstructed by mountains of paperwork.

“My father had to mentally and physically prepare for doctor’s appointments, as in bathroom-wise, because being on morphine doesn’t exactly help you there,” Britt recalls. “Then he’d have to sit for hours waiting for a nurse who didn’t bother to listen but instead just gave him to his pills, which he hated taking, and sent him on his way.”

When his doctor medication ran out, he relied on the pot he had been growing in his basement. According to Brittany, he claimed that it was “the only thing that gave him some semblance of a quality of life.”

In Season 1 of Raising Adults, Brittany and Kait essentially play themselves as roommates in slice-of-life vignettes. They banter while going about the everyday tasks that face children of parents with needs that cannot be addressed by anyone else.

The directors check on the crew's work
The directors check on the crew’s work

Season 2, which is currently seeking funding through an Indiegogo campaign, takes a decidedly new approach.

“It’s a drastic difference in storytelling,” Brittany says. “Season 1 was a necessary and beautiful learning process, but this is more of a traditional story with arcs every which way.”

When the season opens, Brittany and her father are working with a lawyer to appeal a previously rejected disability claim, while Kait and her mother take the necessary steps for their first attempt.

Although the role of Brittany’s father will be played by a new cast member, his spirit is still a very important part of the show.

“His voice and his story are all the more a part of season 2,” Brittany explains. “Every line in the script for his character are things he has said in real life.”

Before Brittany’s father died, he left notes for his daughters “all over the house” where they grew up, which is still owned by their grandmother.

She refers to process of finding them as a “scavenger hunt” that yielded messages like, “I love you both very much,” and a note about “dealing with stress and production ideas for the show.”

They were part of a greater inheritance that included the remainder of his monthly disability pay and a priceless batch of recordings.

“My dad left behind 697 videos for my sister and I from 2015 on,” Brittany says. “At least 400 were from January and February of this year, and they address the public.”

The gestures have helped Brittany accept her fate with remarkable strength. But there are times when she wonders why it had to happen.

“He was tired and in pain. He had enough of trying to convince people of his condition. He had done his part to be as open even politically active as possible and felt he was met with no understanding or care,” she reasons. “I know why he had to do what he did. He truly felt the only way out was to take his own life, and I don’t begrudge him that (most of the time). But if he would have known that it would have left us so broken, I don’t know that he would not have done it.”

Although the tragedy will not be written into the show — “that’s not the story,” Brittany explains — it has given the creators a new level of energy.

“It urged us all the more to be real and no-holds-barred in how we tell (the characters’) struggles and stories,” she says. “We are in your face and unabashedly ourselves and we get very political this time around.”

The cast hits a wall
The cast hits a wall

Production, likewise, has changed and stepped up considerably. A recent scene was even filmed in the location where Michael ended his life. The cast and the crew included friends of both Brittany and her father, and they were informed of the location’s history.

“I have to share the stuff that’s not pretty because I have to be real, which is something I get from my Dad, fortunately & unfortunately,” Brittany explains. “But I’m trying to balance how much grief I’m hitting people with.”

This goes for her messaging to the show’s viewers as well.

“Our Instagram is a great example of how we’re coping with the heartstrings aspect of it,” she continues. “I felt important to let everybody in our audience know, hey, this is the situation.”

In a highlight reel made from the videos he left for his daughters, Michael Patrick Wagner comes off as a fun and caring father attempting to defeat the pain of a serious injury. This is how Brittany remembers him.

“He was such a great man, but he was plagued by his physical condition and, subsequently, his circumstances,” she says.

Raising Adults shows how a couple of friends from similar situations keep on keeping on.

“You take a look at two white girls and you don’t think they’re packing what they’re packing,” she adds. “There are plenty of stories out there that deserve to be told. We want to tell the story of unconventional struggle from unlikely places and give folks something to laugh with or at. And, connect with people in the process.”

FATHERLY ADVICE FROM MICHAEL PATRICK WAGNER

CREDITS FOR “RAISING ADULTS”
Written & Created by: Brittany Wagner and Kait Staley
Produced by: Brittany Wagner & Kait Staley

Director: Danny McCarthy
Director of Photography: Andrew Degner

Editorial/ GFX: Daily Planet
Location Sound & Post-Audio: Floodgates Audio
Color: Roman Mendez

Music and Original Soundtrack: Chris Crack & Cutta of New Deal Crew

 
Send your indie film news to Reel Chicago Editor Dan Patton, dan@reelchicago.com.

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