A Stranger to Sitcom?
State of the Arts
Jay Craven laid out all the disclaimers before last Saturday's sneak preview of "Windy Acres." His new television sitcom had just come off the "editing machine" that afternoon. The audio still needed adjusting. For ideal viewing, he suggested, we should really be watching on a small screen in the privacy of our own living rooms, not in a crowd at Champlain College's Alumni Auditorium. "But who knows?" said Craven, sounding genuinely nervous. "They say laughter is contagious."
"Windy Acres" represents a new direction for the moviemaker best known for Vermont features Where the River Flows North and A Stranger in the Kingdom. But the in the world of sitcoms, the premise is as old as the hills. OK, as old as "Green Acres," "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Newhart." When Stephanie Burns loses her high-powered job in New York, she piles her kids into the car and heads to Vermont. The destination? A failing farm posing as a bed-and-breakfast with The Logger acting as director of agritourism. The odd couple's first encounter sets up the program's dramatic conflict. Country mouse vs. city mouse. Old timer vs. flatlander. Even before chores, you know where it's going.
Former Montgomery resident Randi Hacker wrote the original script as a low-budget feature. "To me the material lent itself more to TV," says Craven, who reconstructed the narrative to work episodically. The pacing and character development had to be tweaked for the tube, too. To get the hang of it, Craven, who doesn't get television at home in Barnet, studied shows such as "The Simpsons," "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "The Office."
"I also looked at 'Northern Exposure,'" he says. You can see the quirky results in Bill Raymond's farm-phobic Uncle Garald and smoothie-drinking Aunt Laura, played by Tantoo Cardinal. "Comedy deals with exaggerated perspectives of character, but you want to avoid the one-dimensional stereotypes," Craven suggests. New York-based actress Seana Kofoed came in on two days' notice to play Stephanie. She holds her own against Rusty Dewees' LaFlamme -- the character around whom "Windy Acres" blows.
Craven could learn a thing or two about comedy from Dewees, whose own wise-ass woodsman creation has been a stand-up success all across Vermont. After the sitcom's lively, animated intro, laughs were scarce during the Champlain screening. Without canned laughter or commercials, the first episode of "Windy Acres" seemed less like groundbreaking regional television than, well, a Jay Craven movie.
Craven says the project's worthiness will be determined by viewer reaction. Starting October 27, "Windy Acres" airs for seven consecutive Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Vermont Public Television. He hopes to recoup the production costs -- $300,000 -- through DVD and video sales, and to apply some of the technical efficiencies he learned shooting the sitcom to his next film project: the movie version of Howard Frank Mosher's Disappearances.
In the meantime, Craven remains interested in the concept of series television in Vermont. If there's demand for another -- preferably winter -- season of "Windy Acres," he's willing to shoot it. "But it could also be a detective series or a comedy in a different setting," Craven continues, noting that inmates he worked with recently at the St. Johnsbury Correctional Facility suggested their situation would make the perfect Vermont sitcom. With a chuckle, he offers another alternative setting: "How about the offices of a small weekly newspaper?" Very funny.
Rouses Point or Rouses Pointe? Dancer-impresario Jason Andrew is giving the North Country a cultural leg up with a rare exhibit of Rudolph Nureyev photos. The show, which opens Friday at his Rouses Point home, "brings together 24 black-and-white photos from London and New York City and my own collection," says Andrew, who owns two Andy Warhol lithographs of the late ballet dancer who defected from the Soviet Union in 1962. Most of the images are from a ballet, The Ropes of Time, which was commissioned by the Royal Ballet for Nureyev. Long before Baryshnikov, the athletic mover elevated the image of male dancers around the world. Andrew, 33, is concentrating on Clinton County. He's launched a nonprofit, Norte Maar, that aims to bring choreographers, visual artists and composers together in collaborative creations. Last summer Andrew organized a two-week Fête de Danse that included a performance excerpeted from the ballet La Bayadere in the parking lot of the Plattsburgh Wal-Mart. "There is a dance community out there," says Andrew, "but it lacks organization and producing ability -- on both sides of the lake." Finally, a dancer who likes to partner...