On set with ‘Shades of Life,’ the multicultural soap-opera access show
There's these two rival talent agencies, see, Endeavor Entertainment and Wright-On Productions. Corey gets a job at Endeavor through romancing Serena, but Virgil, the boss, tells Serena to fire him. Corey, already jealous of Serena's crush on Drake, strangles her. The mentally ill Drake, who also works at Endeavor, sees the attack and begins having wild hallucinations in which Corey appears as the devil. Meanwhile, Virgil approaches Corey about "getting rid of" Sheila Wright, head of Wright-On Productions, who is threatening to fire Felicia, Chris's recent fling.
Welcome to episode 71 of Shades of Life, a multicultural soap opera shot in South Austin. It features a cast of 16; multiple interlocking tangles of deviousness; and big, melodramatic swells of music at the end of each scene. It's an unpaid, no-budget program aired on cable access, a venue better known for improvised rants with laughable production values than serious, scripted productions. Nevertheless, the latter is what Shades of Life aspires to be, and signs are there that director Keith L. Moore is succeeding. In February, when Moore held an audition for new cast members, hundreds of people showed up, driving in from as far away as Dallas and Oklahoma City.
"It was amazing to see all these people lined up around the building and wanting to be a part of the show," Moore says. "It really made me and the cast very proud of what we're doing."
Moore is a dynamic 28-year-old who teaches science and an afterschool acting class at Winn Elementary. He came up with the idea of starting his own show in 1999 when, as a student at Huston-Tillotson college, he became frustrated by the kinds of acting roles available to him.
"How many auditions say they're looking for a Caucasian male or Caucasian female?" Moore says. "As a minority, it's really tough. It's always, 'We want you to play a hood,' or 'We want you to break into people's houses.' I'm just not interested in that."
Moore decided on the soap format because he felt it gave actors the best opportunity to showcase their talents.
"A soap is different from a lot of other kinds of shows because the characters change over time," Moore says. "A character will be in deep despair one month, and then a month later that person is on top of the world. So you get to play everything."
It took several years for Moore to find a stable crew of collaborators. Key among them are Herman Johnson, his videographer, and Brandon Reese, who wrote the past 50 scripts: The duo has helped the show reach a level of quality and stability that motivates actors to get involved.
A recent Saturday morning, the Shades of Life crew was shooting episode 71 at the clubhouse of Moore's apartment complex. This involved a few takes of a traumatized Drake, played by Huston-Tillotson student Jamel Thomas, sparring with his psychiatrist (Catherine Crowley, who drives in from San Antonio for shoots). Then came a surreal dream sequence, where Drake goes to work in his underwear and office vamp Samantha (Hallie Martin) does some weird things with boiled eggs. Between their scenes, the actors rearranged plants and furniture and swapped the headshots on the wall for an Endeavor poster, effectively transforming the "conference room" into "Virgil's office." (William Majors, who plays Virgil, also drives in every Saturday from San Antonio.) It's an earnest, convivial atmosphere that the actors describe as refreshingly familylike and welcoming.
"I love being a part of the show," says Hardy T. Janson, who has played Corey since October. "I have an opportunity to work with other actors, using a script that's impeccably written, and working with Keith, who's a great director.
"The only thing that's missing," Janson adds, "is production values."
That's not to say that Shades of Life is haphazard or sloppy. You can see everything. You can hear everything. Shots are carefully blocked and cutaways meticulously arranged. Different scenes aren't different goofy colors just because someone forgot to white-balance.
Nevertheless, Shades of Life faces the limitation of any other no-budget project: namely, that it has no budget. Moore covers all costs, from the DV tapes to the fake blood for the paranoid dream sequence in episode 71.
"It gets costly, but if you believe in something, you'll do it," he says.
A critical component of his being able to do it is the city's continued support $560,000 annually for Austin Community Access Center. Moore gets all of his equipment from ACAC, where his $100 annual producer's fee gets him loaner use of a mini-DV camera, microphones, a three-light kit, and all the necessary accoutrements to direct a low-budget production (except perhaps an obsequious coffee-schlepping PA). He is one of a constantly revolving group of about 500 Austinites who, lacking other such independent startup opportunities as film school or a trust fund, get producer licenses each year. Together, they create the 48 daily hours of programming on ACAC's three cable channels (Time Warner 10, 11, and 16).
Suffice it to say that their programs are, ahem, diverse: solo accordion jams, videotaped church services, scripted series, and talk shows with names like Smash the State and Esoteric Science Roundtable, to name a few. And there is indeed something to the stereotype that not all of them are particularly well conceived or executed. However, Janson says that those who dismiss access programming fail to grasp the many ways it adds to the community.
"I feel bad for actors who are missing out on the experience because they think, 'oh, it's just access,'" he says.
One reason people might hold back is the common belief that "nobody" watches access. ACAC doesn't track audiences, but unless somewhere in Austin lurks a massive and heretofore undetected network of Unitarian socialist esoteric science accordion fans, it is safe to assume that viewers are relatively few. However, actress Felicia "Flea" Lopez says the size of the audience isn't important.
"The show gives local actors a chance to be seen, and that's a privilege no matter who is watching," she said. "There are only so many films and TV shows casting locally. Even when outside productions come here, they bring in outside actors."
Janson, who has a background in theatre, pointed out that the show helped him become more comfortable in front of a camera, which has given him an edge in auditions. And Carla Nickerson, who plays Sheila Wright, says the show is above all an opportunity to develop her craft.
"I'm an actress, and an actress must act," she says. She agrees with Moore that the show is particularly valuable for actors of color.
"Nine out of 10 audition notices I get on my e-list don't ask for a specific race," she said. "I've learned over time that that means they don't want a person of color."
Nevertheless, Nickerson does get work. Last year she made more money acting than she did from her "day job" as a painter. The participation of working actors like Nickerson has helped create a buzz about the show: When Nickerson auditioned a year ago, for example, only a handful of people turned out.
But even if many of the actors see the show as more of an opportunity for artistic development than for widespread fame, Moore is confident that people are watching. In 2003, the show received an ACAC award for best entertainment series. Plus, people do respond to the message board on the Shades of Life Web site and sometimes even recognize actors on the street. And as Shades of Life's success has brought more talent into his circle, Moore is expanding into new projects. He has shot several episodes of a sitcom, 78723: The Series, which revolves around a diverse group of friends who get together every Saturday to watch Shades of Life. (As would be expected, hijinks inevitably ensue before they actually manage to turn on the TV.) And in early April he began production on a supernatural thriller called Allegiance, using many of his Shades of Life actors. Moore says all these projects will build off the lessons he has learned shooting Shades of Life.
"This show is just about a group of people trying to make the best production they can make," Moore said. "That's important, because people are watching. And it's important because we are reflecting life."
Shades of Life airs on Time Warner cable Channel 10, Saturdays, 6:30pm. For more information, go to www.shadesoflife.net.