SAVANNAH — Although higher education institutions work to prepare students for real-world situations, it’s difficult to bring the deadlines, quality standards and other aspects of television production into the classroom. While film and television students at the Savannah College of Art and Design are often extras and crew members on productions filmed in the Hostess City, that experience doesn’t allow them to run an entire show.
To take students’ professional preparation to the next level, SCAD recently launched a broadcast-quality sitcom using students as cast, production crew, set designers, script writers and everything in between. With 85 students representing six departments at the college, it’s an excellent example of how different professions are needed to put on a TV show, according to school officials.
The experiment has worked so well that SCAD will be shopping the show, “The Buzz,” around to networks.
“The Buzz” is the only multicamera comedy series produced on a college campus using all students, said D.W. Moffett, a stage, film and television actor whose TV roles have included shows such as NBC’s “Friday Night Lights,” NBC/The WB’s “For Your Love,” ABC Family’s “Switched at Birth” and TVLand’s “Happily Divorced.” This year, he became chair of the film and television program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. (What does a multicamera sitcom look like? Think “The Big Bang Theory” or “Seinfeld.”)
“This puts students so far ahead of the game,” he said. “They learn the pace of the process and what goes into making it work.”
Often actors are learning new lines 15 minutes before the cameras roll. Writers are on set making tweaks during taping, and the cast has to learn fast how to keep up.
“A sitcom is the hardest thing to do,” Moffett said. “It combines live theater and film. We’ve created a lab that’s head and shoulders above what the students could get anywhere else.”
But Moffett is far from the only working professional involved.
Andra Reeve-Rabb, chair of the performing arts department, has an extensive resume. Among her most notable credentials are years as director of prime-time casting for CBS New York on Emmy-nominated and award-winning pilots such as: “CSI,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Two and a Half Men,” “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” “NCIS,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and others.
“One of the greatest lessons we can teach is collaboration,” she said. “This isn’t just an exercise in class. It sets the tone for what they’ll experience in the real world.”
And the lessons aren’t just for those directly involved in the production. Each episode is filmed before a live studio audience. So the laughs, oohs and aahs are genuine, and the spectators get a peek behind the mysterious curtain of the TV world.
“I keep looking at the TV monitors even though there’s live action in front of me,” an audience member whispered to a neighbor, “but it’s cool to see what I couldn’t from home.”
The students, all experienced in various aspects of performing arts, are well aware of the pressures of a live performance, but the added pressure of going beyond a student project helps them strive to do even better.
Heather Schroeder, who’s working on her master of fine arts in performing arts, plays Edward, the owner of the coffee shop called The Buzz, which is the setting of the show. It follows the story of three down-on-their-luck guys trying to navigate post-college life while interacting with a series of crazy characters who come and go at the coffee shop.
“The training that you get from a student film leaves a gaping hole between what you do in the real world,” she said. “I’ve only ever wanted to be on a sitcom and this gives me what no other school can — a chance to work on a real production while I’m still learning.”
As in the real world, Schroeder auditioned for a different part than the one she ended up with. Her character was originally a man, but she brought something to the audition that made the casting director decide to go another way.
“They even decided to keep the name masculine,” Schroeder said. “I like that there’s a different spin on it.”
And the actors are encouraged to improvise and make the characters more organic.
“We respect what the writers put on the page,” said Casey Edwards, who’s also a performing arts major and plays Reggie. “But often in the moment, we come up with lines that just work. We’re given a license to try something different.”
SCAD will shop the show around to networks. Although that’s not the purpose of the project, it could be another learning experience if it’s picked up.
“’The Buzz’ is illustrative of all of SCAD. SCAD builds bridges so that alumni may walk from university life directly into the professional world,” said SCAD President and founder Paula Wallace.
If community reaction is an indication, the show may get to the next rung of the ladder.
“It caught on right away like wildfire,” said Reeve-Rabb.
Indeed, the final taping of the season was standing room only with regular folks among the students, faculty, family and friends.
As with live events, it’s best to expect the unexpected. In the middle of taping, the exuberant actors broke a chair. Since it had been used in all the previous scenes, every scene would have to be reshot if it was removed.
“Is there a furniture design major in the house?” Moffett called.
Sure enough, a few students came forth and righted the chair enough to get through the rest of the taping.
“We’ve broken two couches and three chairs getting through this episode alone!” exclaimed Reeve-Rabb after the production wrapped for the season. “It’s very physical!”