Saturday, May 8, 2010

La Lumiere: A New Light in Town

When Guiding Light wrapped in September of last year, long-time fans were left with a void. The overwhelming response to the So Long, Springfield tour, fan reaction to having actors such as Tina Sloan and Beth Chamberlin on Twitter, and on-going efforts by fans to revive the classic soap stand as testament to the sense of loss so many fans have experienced. While some may still be unable to accept it the fact is, Guiding Light is gone for good. It was a joyful moment, then, when details about 9After7 Productions came to light two weeks ago. The new production company, which is comprised of GL alums, aims to meet fan demand for more of their favorite actors by producing original programming. The first project 9After7 has decided to develop is a feature-length film- La Lumiere - which will be available on dvd (details for pre-ordering the dvd can be found at the 9After7 website.)  Beth Chamberlin, who is credited with penning the screenplay, graciously agreed to speak to me about life after GL, the state of television today, the pros and cons of web-based entertainment, and what fans can expect from La Lumiere.

LN: Did you have an idea of how significant the loss of GL would be on long-term viewers?

BC: For a long time, I didn't really have a full grasp of how strong a bond viewers made with the show and its characters. It wasn't really until I was on a book tour several years back, and met so many people who spoke about their strong feelings about the show and its characters. And it makes sense - we were in people's living rooms five days a week. So, no, I'm not surprised that fans have experienced a kind of mourning for the show, just as we have - those of us who worked on it, either in front of the camera or behind it. I've even heard from people who tell me that they recorded episodes which they've held on to, and watch from time to time. 

LN: On Guiding Light coming to an end after 72 years - an actor's point of view

BC: It's an odd sensation. For many months after the show wrapped we were involved in a rush of events, and there was so much going on. It sort of felt as if we were still working together, still shooting the show. It took a few months for it to really realize that, hey - we won't be going back to that place ever again. There is a kind of separation anxiety around the entire experience of working together in a very particular way, and now knowing that that's over. Many of us who were involved with GL have a lot of affection for one another and still get together, but it can never be the same. We'll almost certainly never ALL be together again as a group. This feeling of not wanting to entirely lose what working together for so many years, and enjoying one another almost as an extended family came to mean to us - it was the genesis of how our first project, La Lumiere, came to be. 

LN: How did 9after7 come about?

BC: Well, Fiona (Hutchison) approached Tina (Sloan) about putting something together, working on something new. Pretty soon a group of us were meeting on a fairly regular basis and asking each other 'what sort of project can we do?', 'what are the ideas that really excite us?' A lot of back and forth discussion ultimately led to what will be our first project as a company -La Lumiere.

LN: On the current state of television and what it has to offer

BC: There was a piece in the NY Times a while back about the way television programming is developed and marketed. It's all based on a model that was put into place in the 50s. During those post-WWII years, the demographic that sponsors wanted to reach - because there were so many of them - were people in their 20s. The model and how it's operated hasn't changed since then, which makes very little sense. The people who made up that original demographic group have aged and matured, but the model for developing and marketing entertainment has remained stagnant. These days, for this particular viewer, and even for a lot of viewers who are much younger, network television doesn't have a lot to offer. I've all but given up on television, myself, because I just don't find all that much to interest me. When I turn on my television, I almost automaticaly switch over to cable - to TNT or AMC - to see what's on. GL was around for 72 years. While there's still this idea in the world of television that it's crucial to aim programming at 20 year olds, the fact is our fan base skews significantly higher than that. These are the people that 9After7 is interested in engaging and providing entertainment for.

LN: When it comes to cable, it may just be the saving grace of both quality programming for those of us over 40, and for serial drama, in general. The best shows on television are on cable: Mad Men, Big Love, Dexter, In Treatment...and, when you strip them down, they're all soaps. 

BC: Hopefully, cable television will always provide a home for soaps - solid dramas that require the viewer to think, become involved and invested. It may well be that this is where soap viewers will get their fix. I watch a show like Mad Men and it's definitely a soap. Think about it: every soap has a pivotal gathering place, often a work place. In this case, it's an advertising agency. There are secrets and intrigue, office politics, lies, marriages, affairs - everything a good soap has. Mad Men doesn't have anything a show like Guiding Light didn't have, except, of course, Mad Men has a much bigger budget per episode than we ever dreamed of having. It's possible to put out a show that looks that polished when you have the time and money. The people who work in daytime have to do that five times a week, with one day to film each show. But, yes, the enormous success shows such as Mad Men or Damages only reinforce the plain truth: contrary to the current wisdom, there are lots of people out there who can and will sit down and watch a one-hour show, pay attention, become involved, and go back to watch week after week. There's this theory that people no longer have long attention spans, and I don't think that applies to everyone, or even most people. There's also the idea that television viewing is or should be a completely passive activity. In terms of emotional engagement, this couldn't be further from the truth when it comes to people who enjoy soap operas or serial dramas. In this respect, television can be very interactive, but I don't see that being likely when all one has to watch is a five minute clip or programming written with the idea that no one really pays attention or gets involved, anymore.  There are plenty of traditional viewers out there who want something more than reality television or a five minute webisode, and who want to engage fully in the viewing experience.

LN: I'm intrigued by your choice to make a full-length movie for DVD, especially when so many other people who have worked (or still work) on soaps are launching web-based programming. Can you talk about how you arrived at this decision? 

BC: Well, I know I'm not the only one who prefers to sit back and relax in front of my television and dive, head first, into something engaging that lasts more than a few minutes. I'm not exactly sure why this is but, when I've tried to watch web-based programming,  I find myself wanting it to 'hurry up and end.' I believe it has to do with the relationship I have with my laptop. I've read where people with insomnia should get used to being in bed only for sleep, so that they make a psychological connection between the bed and actual slumber. I feel as if, for me anyway, there's a definite connection between my computer and work. It's a great tool that I often use for work, but it's at odds with relaxation.  When I want to relax, I don't really want to be caught in the trappings of work. 

I've learned a lot from running an online store. So many things can go wrong, from a technical point of view, and there's so much to know. That's just on a site that revolves around selling tangible merchandise. When it comes to streaming video, it'd be a huge learning curve to ensure that things run smoothly. The rule of thumb, really, is that if something can go wrong, it probably will. For a consumer, the number of technical problems that can and often do happen with online programming can be very frustrating.  Offering programming on the web, in my opinion, requires a wealth of technological knowledge and/or being able to afford the services of people who have the needed expertise. 

I really feel - everyone involved with La Lumiere does - that our particular fan base will respond to a full-length feature, and to owning a DVD that they can watch on a full-sized television screen. I can get online right now, and order a DVD set of Mad Men or Damages, and lots of people do exactly that with their favorite television dramas these days.  It may be how and where people get the bulk of their programming in the future, especially people over 40. Also, doing things in this way, and on this offers us an opportunity to do some stuff from a production value point of view, that probably wouldn't be possible with another format. 

Another aspect to consider is the financial one. No one has really been able to make programming for the web profitable. Sponsors haven't invested the kind of money into it that they have in television. Part of the beauty of what we're doing with La Lumiere is that we know how this works. This team knows about telling  a story in this way, and we've discussed what we were each able and willing to put into the project. 

LN: Aside from the many technical problems, with web-based programming, people have been either shocked that there would be subscription fees, or unclear as to what the subscription fees would grant them. One thing that appeals when it comes to  La Lumiere, is that it's perfectly clear what one is paying for: a movie on DVD that the consumer gets to keep and watch whenever they want to. 

BC: When we decided that we wanted to work together again, we took a look around, saw that other people were doing web-based stuff, and decided not only that it wasn't for us, but that that area was probably being well-served. There's room out there for all kinds of entertainment, and I'm all for people trying different things. That's what we're doing - trying something different...something that I really think will appeal to people who miss Guiding Light.

LN: I notice you're offering a walk-on appearance for a significant amount of money. To be honest, as much as I love soaps, and Guiding Light in particular, I asked myself, "Who would pay that kind of money for a walk-on?" My workmate said something that made a lot of sense. She said, "It's not like giving money to strangers. Those people - those actors - they feel like family. Getting the chance to work with them, and to support a project that will give us a chance to see them together, again - that will appeal to someone who can afford it." 

BC: If someone does decide to take us up on that offer, it could also be someone who wants to break into the business. It's a chance to work on a professional production, with people who have been doing this a long time. It could be a very good opportunity for the right person.

LN: Every GL fan knows that Beth Raines was such a long-suffering character. If the show had gone on much longer, I'm not sure what new tragedy or hardship the writers could have devised for her. Since you're the writer on this project, I have to ask: have you taken the opportunity to infuse your character with some humor - something that was sadly lacking in Beth Raines' life?

BC: It's funny you'd ask that, because I most definitely have. Without giving too much away, I can say that the character I play in La Lumiere is often unintentionally funny. She doesn't always know that the things she says will make others laugh. I haven't veered entirely away from Beth Raines, though. What I think fans of GL will see when they watch La Lumiere is some very familiar things, and some things that are totally new. Because so many people associate the actors involved with the characters they played on GL and working opposite specific counterparts, I've decided to mostly keep to pairings that are familiar, even though the characters are ease viewers into the idea that we're still working together, but that this is not Guiding Light.

LN: That seems like a wise way to begin. I'm not sure how I'd feel tuning in to your first project and seeing you and Grant Aleksander on the same screen, but not as a pairing of some kind. 

BC: I recognize that about this particular kind of fandom, and it'll be as gentle a transition as possible. I hope people will like the mixture of the familiar and the brand new. This may be different in our future projects, but we're doing this one step at a time. 

LN: Thanks so much for being so generous with your time, Beth. Any parting words for folks reading this?

BC: Thank you for your time. I want people to know that we'll be reporting on the progress of La Lumiere as things develop, so I hope they'll check out our website (which is undergoing changes and updates) and  sign up for our newsletter. 

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