by Amelia Wedemeyer
Of all the questions about Winona native Sarah Jane Marek’s move to New York City nearly five years ago to pursue her dream of making it as an actress, there was one that seemed to pop up periodically from her friends and family back home in Minnesota: “When are you going to be famous?”
“My friends back home would ask, ‘are you on Broadway yet?’” remembers Marek, who is a Cotter High School alum and Saint Mary's University theater graduate. “I saw that I needed to share with them what really happens. Typically everyone who moves here realizes that it is a lot harder and more competitive — and expensive — than what people really want to talk about.”
So Marek created the web series “Off-Awful,” an on-camera letter home of sorts that is based on her experiences as a young actress moving from Winona to NYC, and all of the interesting experiences that have gone along with it. Playing Sarah Jane Sutton, in the first three episodes Marek introduces her audience to the world of basement auditions, acting class scams, competition between actors, and the fickleness of casting agents.
“Basically, I moved out here and I didn’t know what to expect,” Marek, who is also the executive producer and co-writer of the web series, explained. “There is a lot that goes into being a beginning actor that you don’t hear about. You hear about the stories of instant fortune, fame and glamour, but I ran into strange stuff that happened and made friends here who were going through the same thing. I found the humor in the awful.”
Marek and her crew plan on shooting more episodes for the first season of “Off-Awful,” with the momentum from the series’ recent success at the LA Web Series Festival 2014, where “Off-Awful” was named an official selection and also won two awards — outstanding performance for a lead actor, and outstanding performance for a supporting actor. “It was neat for the series to get recognized,” she humbly said. “It’s exciting.”
Despite the success of her web series, Marek still works a regular job as a consultant and splits her time between NYC and Naples, Fl., where she lives with her husband, Winonan Murl Landman, and where she works to finance her dreams, which have changed from landing acting roles to making web series as a producer.
“I’ve moved more into producing and creating,” she noted. “I moved [to NYC] with the idea that I wanted to be an actor and make it, but now moving forward I want to produce, make content, and tell stories.”
For now, Marek is focusing her efforts on creating web series — content that is produced intentionally for the internet — which she believes is an important type of new media that allows people to create and support the kind of shows they want to watch.
“I’ve fallen in love with the medium,” she said. “It democratizes media; people can choose what they want to watch. I guarantee there is a web series out there for you that you can watch on your computer for free and interact with the actors and creators.”
The medium has allowed Marek to take her experiences into her own hands and develop a story that her industry friends can relate to, and one that she is able to share with her family and friends back in Winona, too. Marek admits that her success with “Off-Awful” has not come overnight; she has had to deal with her co-creator moving away, a small budget ,and the creative process of trial and error, among other various roadblocks. Yet, through it all, she has not given up.
“It is hard work and you just have to stick with it — I almost gave up five times,” Marek explained, “but instead of moping and coming back to Winona and being a grump about it I took the experiences, the good and the bad, and made the series out of it, and it is going pretty well.”
While upcoming projects involve collaborating with an Emmy winner and finishing up the first season of the successful “Off-Awful,” Marek still remains connected to her Winona roots, both through the flights she takes back home and in her business as web series producer and creator.
“People in Winona are so kind and generous with everyone they meet,” Marek said, “Minnesota nice has gotten me very far [in this industry] and it has opened doors for me that I would not have had opened otherwise.”