Beaufort Academy students go for the laughs (and teacher's job) with Web series

pdonohue@beaufortgazette.comMarch 15, 2013 

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Beaufort Academy teacher Tom Savage, center, and his creative writing class, from left to right, Brandon Massalon, Jeffrey Miller, Miranda Weslake, Nicole Schmiege, Charles Sanford, Rebecca Strawn, Briley Langehans and Carli Cline get into character Thursday morning at Beaufort Academy. The class wrote, produced and starred in their web series "Lay Off" as part of a project last trimester.

SARAH WELLIVER — Staff photo Buy Photo

Beaufort Academy teacher Tom Savage and the students of his creative writing class had filmed, starred in, edited and posted three or four episodes of their original Web series, "Lay Off," to YouTube when Savage first encountered a problem familiar to most successful Hollywood producers and directors.

Aspiring actors -- or in this case, students -- began jockeying for roles and guest spots in the series.

"It seemed every kid in school was desperate to be on the show," Savage said. "They would come up to me and be like 'Hey, Mr. Savage, how about if I came in and did this or said this,' and I would have to be like, 'No, I can't take this script right now.'"

To the surprise of Savage and the eight senior students involved in the project, each episode of their scripted comedy, about Savage's students scheming to get him fired and reclaim a treasured free period, wasn't simply disappearing into the Internet once posted to YouTube every Friday night.

People actually were watching it.

"I was really surprised when we got Facebook and YouTube comments from people that we didn't know," said Miranda Weslake, one of the students involved in the project. "The comments said stuff like, 'This is really cheesy, but it's so great. I can't wait until the next episode.' It was awesome to us that people outside (Beaufort Academy) were watching it."

Ten episodes and more than 2,000 views later, "Lay Off," which concluded its first and only season last week, was a bonafide hit among the students and faculty at Beaufort Academy and has inspired some of the students involved to ponder new career paths.

Not bad for an idea inspired, in part, by the iconic Comedy Central show "South Park."

'CAN WE DO SOMETHING LIKE THAT?'

Savage, now in his third year at Beaufort Academy, had taught his students to write poems and short stories and was looking for something different he could introduce to his creative writing class.

He found his inspiration for that "something" in "Six Days to Air," a documentary following the creation of a single episode of "South Park" in just six grueling days, and "CTRL," a Web series created by "Arrested Development" star Tony Hale.

"I just wondered whether we could come up with a concept for a Web series of our own and produce a five-minute episode every five days," Savage said. "But that was the deadline. It had to be done in five days. Each episode had to be up on YouTube by Friday night."

Savage pitched his idea and screened a couple episodes of "CTRL" for his students. They were sold.

"Honestly, the idea of making a Web series seemed like a lot less work than we would have had to do for the class anyway," Nicole Schmiege joked.

The students soon began brainstorming concepts for their show, a process that included compiling a list of popular television shows -- sitcoms such as "The Office," "Parks and Recreation" and "Modern Family" -- they thought might be easy to emulate in tone given their time and budget constraints.

There were some off-the-wall ideas, namely "The Magical Pens," a series described by the students as being about a single magic pen mixed in a box of regular pens that would give its custodian whimsical, almost Mary Poppins-like abilities.

The pen would be given each week to a different student with his or her own motivations for wanting the magical pen.

The more they talked about the concept, the more they laughed at its implausibility.

"I think you're seeing why that didn't work," student Jeffrey Miller said with a smirk.

Finally, they settled on "Lay Off," a concept based loosely on real jokes the students made about wanting to see Savage sacked so they could have a free period.

"It was something that we always sort of joked around with him about, and eventually we decided that might not be such a bad idea," Carli Cline said.

The show would mimic "The Office" and "Modern Family" in that actors would break the fourth wall by acknowledging the camera and give short, on-camera interviews to help provide added narration to each episode.

The students, with a little direction from Savage, came up with a rough story arc, about four episodes by everyone's estimation, and off they went.

A TIME CRUNCH

As they got ready to begin production, Savage set the class' challenging timeline for producing each episode.

"We'd do script-writing on Mondays, a read-through on Tuesday, filming on Wednesday. We'd screen the episodes on Friday, and it had to be posted to YouTube on Friday night," Savage said. "It's a pass/fail assignment, so if it's up on YouTube by Friday night, everybody gets an A. If it's not up on YouTube, everyone gets an F. It's a real-world experience. Everyone has deadlines."

The project also would be collaborative. Every week, a different student would be responsible for editing and posting each episode to the Web, and whoever wasn't on camera became a de facto camera man.

It was guerrilla filmmaking.

Before long, everyone was enjoying being a part of the project, including Charles Sanford, who readily admitted he badly wanted out of the class before Savage pitched the Web series.

Ironically, Sanford became the show's breakout star, in large part because of a comic timing that actors twice his age would envy.

In a particularly funny scene, Sanford smirks into the camera as he turns one of his grades -- a 76 percent -- into "1776," a silent jab at Savage, a Londoner by birth with the accent to match.

"I really grew to like the class," Sanford said. "It kind of became a part of me."

The show also pays homage to Savage's English heritage with a Benny Hill-inspired sequence filmed in downtown Beaufort that fans of British comedy would find both comforting and familiar.

"That really was their idea," Savage said. "A couple kids in the class are really big fans of English comedy, and they suggested it. It worked out really well."

As each episode was posted to YouTube, the show's following on campus grew.

Other students clamored for walk-on roles, and those in Savage's other classes asked to watch the episodes.

Savage and Miller watched the students' reactions from the back of the classroom with equal parts excitement, pride and trepidation.

"It's awkward when you're in it, but to watch them and listen to them laugh at the moments we wanted them to laugh at was really, really cool," Savage said.

As much fun as they were having, by the time episode eight hit the Internet, the students had decided there wouldn't be another season of "Lay Off" when the new trimester began this month.

They were ready to be done with it, in part, because they had set their sights on a new goal -- winning the 2013 S.C. Young Filmmakers Project.

A NEW PROJECT

Savage and the students already are hard at work on a short film for the 2013 S.C. Young Filmmakers Project, a contest hosted by the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism, Trident Technical College and the S.C. Film Commission to create a 30-second to two-minute film about the "physical and mental benefits of spending time outdoors in a natural setting," according to organizers.

The students' film will be shot on location at Hunting Island State Park, but they still were ironing out the concept last week. Winners will be announced in May, and the top 10 films will be screened at the Charleston International Film Festival.

Savage also added that the class might make a short film and enter it into next year's Beaufort International Film Festival.

Having self-produced their own Web series, a process that required almost daily collaboration and created surprisingly little tension, the students said they are closer now than ever.

"We are kind of like a small family, and we found that we can actually agree on a lot more than we initially thought," Cline said.

"This is, by far, one of my favorite classes, and the class that we most look forward to coming to," Briley Langehans added. "We genuinely like being here."

But best of all, the series has inspired at least two of the students to consider careers in film.

Rebecca Strawn, who said she most enjoyed writing the series, might pursue a career in screenwriting, and Weslake already is researching jobs in film editing.

Savage said the class was his favorite to teach, and though his friends often rib him about it being a vanity project, he said he has enjoyed the process as much as the students.

"This has been so collaborative," he said. "I'm working with these guys. It's not just like standing up here and saying, 'I know this, now you know that -- maybe.'

"It very much felt like we were working together as a team, and it's so gratifying to hear them say they've enjoyed it so much."

Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/IPBG_Patrick.

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