“Web Series Spotlight” is a regular feature showcasing a random indie web series I feel is culturally relevant, artistically notable or just plain interesting.
Why don’t more web series go musical? Clearly, they should. According to playwright Thomas H. Diggs, not to mention the ratings for Glee, musicals are “cool again.” Diggs is a first-time web series creator and accomplished playwright — the New York Times said his is “a voice well worth hearing” — whose pilot for his show, Perks, has been making the rounds on the web for the past month or so.
Of course the reason why there aren’t more web musicals is time and cost: musicals need original music, choreography and stars who can both act and sing. This usually means lots of money or a deep well of available talent. Talent is key, and it’s no wonder some of my favorite web musicals, like the classic Battery’s Down and newbie Which Way, are shot in New York, as is Perks.
The story follows a nerd-boy, Josh, who pines for a cute girl and enlists the help of his best (gay) friend to write a musical for her based on Perks of Being a Wallflower. It’s a sweet yet snappy pilot, and Diggs hopes it will entice sponsors to support the series in full.
Perks represents a number of trends in the web video world today: from the use of Kickstarter to jumpstart production (Perks rocked it), to the use of pilots to grab investor attention as creators become more assured about the value of independent video (see: from East Willy B to Mortal Kombat), to the transitioning of theater workers from the stage to small screen. “The conversation in theatre is usually about whether it’s still relevant to the American cultural conversation. You would never ask that question of a web series,” said Diggs, who is not alone in that sentiment.
Below, the pilot for Perks and an interview with Diggs on the differences between theater and web video, the state of teendom, and what he’s looking for in a sponsor. Also, please check out Diggs’ blog for the show, where he spreads the web series love around and gives updates on the cast and show.
Where did the idea for Perks come from?
I got the idea from a combination of places. I studied the web demographics and thought fanboys would make a great subject for a web series. They’re always the underdogs, so the idea of using a rom-com trope where the nerd boy gets the hot girl seemed like a lot of fun. I taught school for years, so I also knew this world would provide high emotions and lots of drama. And The Perks of Being a Wallflower was the most popular book all the years I taught, so I knew there would be some connection there. And I had been in BMI’s Lyricist-Composers workshop; the idea of making it about making a musical seemed like a great idea – especially since Glee and Spring’s Awakening were making musicals cool again.
How did you harness your networks and expertise to get the pilot made?
I was the screenwriting student at Tisch who was always sneaking into the film-making classes. Because of film school, I knew how to get those resources in place. I had previously lived in LA where I met David Kagen, the DP. I knew that if we got great people, he’d fly out to shoot it. And being a member of the New York theatre community, I had access to top talent in terms of actors and directors – which we certainly got. The Broadway community in New York is like a small town, everybody knows everybody and people tend to help each other’s projects along. Also, Susan Miller is a mentor of mine [Ed: a friend of this blog too!], and she guided me to make effective choices as playwright turned creator/showrunner.
What previous experience have you had with TV, film or web video? How was making a web series different/similar, better/worse than producing theater?
I had indie film experience at Tisch, and we shot the pilot with a similar auteur sensibility. I made sure Bill Oliver (dir) and David Kagen (dp) had enough freedom to create a quality product. However, the distribution has been more closely related to television as the executive producer needs to be in charge – and any deal will be made with the writers and a production company. I guess that’s where it overlaps with theatre. In theatre, the writer is in charge, owns the copyright, ultimately has the power until a producer steps in. In film, the director and producer are in charge. But I feel web shows are most successful when aligned to TV models, where the creator/producer/writer holds the power. Several successful indie web series are created by directors and actors. I’m just not wired that way.
The theatre is currently in a bit of an identity crisis, especially when it comes to new work. The conversation in theatre is usually about whether it’s still relevant to the American cultural conversation. You would never ask that question of a web series. And a new piece of theatre takes up to 5 years from page to stage; a web show – 6 months max.
A couple of web series, not many, have used Broadway actors. What are the pros and cons of working with these stars?
Broadway actors who do web shows are usually amazingly down to earth. There‘s very little attitude. Once in a while a theatre actor will realize that film acting involves mostly boring waiting. They usually bow out gracefully. A diva in the Broadway community doesn’t work much; there are too many other nice, happy, talented people who can do the job. Working Broadway/NY actors tend to have great acting chops, spot-on instincts, and a real joy of performing. And the highly competitive NY theatre world tends to make actors very grateful when they’re working. As a producer, I like the swagger that comes with most Broadway actors. I feel like the project is in good hands.
The only drawback is how actors have to take care of themselves. An overlapped line might be brilliant on stage, but it’s really hard to edit in post-production. Same with props and costumes. Stage actors have to add continuity to their bag of tricks. A good script supervisor can help too.
What is your take — or Perks‘ take — on teenagers today in America?
Today’s teens are less wrapped up in race and gender issues than in the past. We’re trying to create a world with Perks where the gay kid is envied because it gives him an edge on college admissions. Gay marriage will eventually be an inevitability because this generation is more open-minded.
There will always be class issues – but in school it’s more about who’s on the inside and who’s not. On the whole, today’s teens are a lot smarter, aware intellectually and emotionally. My experience as a teacher showed me how school works on systems of fear and marginalization. The basic needs will always be the same — we want to be loved and we want to go after our dreams. And we want to have fun doing both. The conflict comes when someone tries to get in our way.
What kind of sponsors are you looking for to continue the series?
It would be great to have a progressive sponsor who had an educational component in their mission statement. Because the character of Courtney is an avid reader, a sponsor with a literary tie-in would be ideal. Or a musical tie-in for Darwin. Or a computer connection for Josh. Sponsors these days tend to be more about supporting the values of the narrative rather than specific product placement. The bottom line: a sponsor should feel a strong passion for the project.