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Rachel Blumenfield-Goldenfeinberger is hiding from the world. Crouching beneath her bedcovers, she eats ice cream from the carton and shuts her ears to the door buzzer as worried friends and family plead over her intercom, “Rachel, please let me in.”
So begins the web series “Matching Pursuit,” a romantic comedy. Nora Fiffer, the Evanston actor who plays Rachel, co-authored the series script with her college roommate. Also assuming the roles of producer and director, she surrounded herself with a cast and crew largely drawn from her hometown.
Filmmaking – and web technology – are still new to Ms. Fiffer, whose training and professional experience are in live theater. On June 12, official launch day for the series, she is bleary-eyed after having been awake till 4 a.m. loading the video and making sure it looked good on all sites, from the website www.matching
pursuit.com, to Vimeo, social media and a mobile device.
She is also a bit let down.
Lacking a “real event” – a fanfare, a rising curtain – she observes with a smile that “honestly, it was a bit anticlimactic with the online release. There’s no specific moment when you know there’s been an impact, because everyone is having a solo experience watching the series. It’s so unlike theatre in that way – no shared experience. No exchange with the audience.”
Imperceptible as its effect on the audience may be, the effect the series has had on Ms. Fiffer has been profound.
“It changed my life,” she says. “I never expected to create my own work. But…I’m directing, producing, writing and acting, and I’m having an absolute blast. It’s a ton of work, but extremely rewarding.”
The series protagonist might not have tried it. The character called Rachel is a risk-averse graduate student in statistics who first took shape as part of the fun Ms. Fiffer had with the cast of “A Christmas Carol” in their long hours together backstage at the Goodman Theater.
Then in the spring or early summer of 2013, Ms. Fiffer and her freshman-year roommate from New York University touched base and discovered they were at similar impasses in their careers. Rachel Abrams was dissatisfied with her New York publishing job; Ms. Fiffer had joined actors’ equity and, after enduring a year without a play, was questioning her very identity. “Can I call myself an actor if I am not acting?” she wondered.
She enrolled in CinemaLab, a class at the Acting Studio, and new horizons opened. The class “demystified filmmaking” for her, she says. She still believed filmmaking was difficult, she says, but now she “knew where to begin.”
She told Ms. Abrams she “had an idea for a character.” By summer and long distance phone, they had a script and were ready to begin filming a web series spun around the statistician Rachel Blumenfield-Goldenfeinberger. Ms. Fiffer says of the young woman she conceived that, although “she is not a character I would dream of playing,” she is “really excited about Rachel as I see her develop.” In later episodes she says she wants to explore the “odd habits” that will make this offbeat character “even kookier.”
Rachel is also giving her creator occasion to reflect on facets of her own self. “In high school,” Ms. Fiffer says, “I thought of myself as a wallflower. I wanted to explore that on film.” Film lends itself to “zooming in on quieter people,” she says, while theater demands that characters be “bigger.”
Rachel’s link to statistics stems from Ms. Fiffer’s own love of math – particularly statistics – at Evanston Township High School. The field provided the authors plenty of “room for metaphor,” she says, from their character’s tendency to calculate chances to her fragile confidence, with its dependence on the firm and proven.
In her research Ms. Fiffer came upon “matching pursuit,” a statistical term that fit perfectly with the series motif – a character in search of her “‘match.’ In friendship and family,” she says, “Rachel is trying to find where she belongs.”
On a deeper level, Ms. Fiffer sees Rachel as the embodiment of loneliness. “I love stories of loneliness,” she says. “Everyone can identify with it.” Part I of the series consists of three nine-minute episodes. In them Rachel’s professor, grandmother, friend and tutee question her life’s formula, her solitary devotion to her calculations. They challenge her to take a chance, to reach beyond her comfort zone and find love and happiness.
In a way, Ms. Fiffer found the community Rachel seeks. She gathered around her a creative and production team of old friends and new (see sidebar). They have amazed her by working in most cases without pay, “just trusting that it will be fun and rewarding,” she says. She says she enjoyed writing roles that would lure people she had worked with or wanted to. She even recruited talent from her Evanston neighborhood. The mother of a neighbor is acting for the first time at age 95, and the son of another neighbor is her director of photography and editor.
The number of people who watch a web series is less important than who they are and what future opportunity they might offer, Ms. Fiffer says. In any case, the audience will have to wait for Part II – as they did for “Mad Men,” Ms. Fiffer says. Although filming has begun on episodes 4, 5 and 6, post-production will take months. Editing on the first three episodes, which finished filming last September, took till now. Ms. Fiffer expects to undertake some fundraising “to honor people’s time by offering compensation” and to speed production. “If people are volunteers, they have to put it on the back burner,” she says.
“Matching Pursuit” has shown Ms. Fiffer “another way to tell stories, to have work,” she says. Like Rachel, she has found more balance. “I was feeling so at the mercy of my theater career. My identity was tied to being in a play,” she says. “Theater is a roller coaster; you are either in a play or not. I now have more agency over my life.”
Grateful as she is for what she has reaped, Ms. Fiffer does not see film as a substitute for the stage. “There is no love like my love for the theater,” she says. “It is such a communal experience; you spend so much time together as a cast.” She keeps “trying to infuse that into film,” she says, but “film is isolating. Time is so precious.”
In August, about the time filming on “Matching Pursuit” begins to wind down, Ms. Fiffer starts rehearsals for her next role: Mary in the Court Theatre production of “Native Son.”Nora Fiffer’s love of statistics was the genesis of both the title of the web series and the graduate work of its protagonist, Rachel Blumenfield-Goldenfeinberger. Matching pursuit is a time-frequency approximation that has several practical applications. Matching pursuit, Ms. Fiffer says, will likely take Rachel’s career into the field of medical imaging and her social life to unexpected places.
“I like to think of this story as a story about loneliness and how it affects people,” said Ms. Fiffer.
Figuring out how to take the next step can be as complicated in mathematics as it is in human relationships. Retired mathematician George Leeman, Ph.D., offered the RoundTable view of matching pursuit for a lay person: “Engineers often want to compute quantities such as radio waves. Many years ago Fourier showed that such waves could be approximated by a linear sum of sine and cosine functions, now called Fourier series. Stated another way, one has an infinite dictionary, consisting
of the sines and cosines, and one picks an appropriate multiple of the next element from the dictionary to add to the sum.
“Given a dictionary and a quantity to be approximated, ‘matching pursuit’ is an approximation technique which says to perform the following step: Remove from the dictionary the element whose multiple represents the best approximation to the quantity, then subtract the multiple of the element from the quantity to get a new quantity. Repeat the step many times, until the resulting quantity becomes small enough. Thus at each step one is in pursuit of the best matching element.”
Rachel Blumenfield-Goldenfeinberger’s is the most obvious pursuit. But the others are looking for connections. “The five main characters are all in need of a connection – friendship, understanding, someone to be themselves with,” said Ms. Fiffer.
Rachel, Nia, Professor Bitterman and other characters may each be willing to risk subtracting the known in pursuit of the unknown, which may hold the best, but not necessarily the most probable, matching element.
As the series unfolds, Ms. Fiffer hints, the connections may not be directly linear. Professor Bitterman and his wife are an unlikely match, she said, and “Bitterman and Rachel are a great match as friends. … Even though a viewer may think these two are a great match, we’re not always in control of how we can be with people.
“My hope,” Ms. Fiffer added, “is that we see different types of unlikely connections.”