The View From Away: Hooked by the 'Rock Island' line
When we first moved to Maine, I developed a comedy/variety radio show to be a companion to or replacement for "A Prairie Home Companion." The pilot came out well, and it has proven to be a tough sell. It introduced me to the Portland creative community, though, which it turns out is remarkably deep.
I also made some friends and met some future collaborators. A few have turned out to be both. One cast member who befriended me turned around and cast me in one of his voice-overs. Another graduate of the radio pilot has become my partner in a project that has been unique for me: a children’s series we are hoping to produce in Maine.
“Rock Island” is the brainchild of Peter Panagore. Peter is a Congregational minister and graduate of Yale Divinity School. Readers may be familiar with him already. He is the writer and on-air host of "Daily Devotions," a media ministry seen locally on WCSH and distributed by other media. Peter is also a talented and experienced actor.
When he auditioned for my radio pilot, "Club 86," there was no part that was a perfect fit, but he was loaded with intangibles such as professionalism, directability, and a supportive attitude, qualities that will anchor a cast. I had him read several different roles, determined to find a place for him. He seemed surprised when I told him he was in. I took this as another intangible, modesty, with a charming smidgeon of actor’s insecurity.
The real reason for his surprise was that he had come away from the audition convinced I hated him. He confessed this a couple of years later when he invited me to brunch and to hear his friend’s blues band play at a local restaurant. I chose to believe Peter thought I hated his audition, not him personally. Whichever it was, he had gotten over it, because the main reason he invited me out was to enroll me in a longtime pet project.
As it happens, Peter the minister, television host, actor, storyteller, family counselor, social activist, etc., had a secret desire to be a children’s television show host.
More accurately, over the course of his ministry, Peter had noticed that children’s feelings are more complex and their perceptions more acute than most adults realize (especially true at around the ages they start school, when their world expands geometrically). Too often they are shunted aside emotionally, told they “shouldn’t” feel this and “don’t need to worry” about that – talked at instead of talked to. The media are largely geared to distracting kids from their inner life. Children are spending more time interacting with more forms of media, and that genie is not going back in the bottle any time soon.
Peter’s idea was to meet children where they live, by creating a world that mixed fantasy and reality, puppetry, computer images and live action in an entertaining way that also honored and respected their way of looking at things. He wanted to build on the best of what "Sesame Street" has accomplished with entertainment and education, combined with the deep respect for the way kids see the world that Mr. Rogers accomplished.
And, oh yeah, he wanted me to write it.
I do not remember if I actually looked over my shoulder to see who he was talking to, but I do know I thought about it. The only interaction with a child in the radio project we worked on involved a 13-year-old daughter telling her mother she hated her for not letting the daughter wear the mother’s trashy top to school. Hardly "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." In L.A., my sensibility was several standard deviations darker than normal, even among comedy writers, a field that does not attract a lot of Yale Divinity School graduates.
Peter was right about the children’s television landscape. It’s hard to avoid kids’ programming at my house, and I like to keep tabs on my television friends who have moved into kidcoms on Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and the like. The developmental programs skew toward interactive, meaning they stop a story about building a house every few minutes so your toddler can choose whether to pound a nail with a hammer or a fish. Good if you’re raising carpenters or Dadaist artists.
In the kidcoms, the adults tend to be dumber than the children, the children are incredibly precocious, and nobody ever gets hurt despite constantly doing things that would kill them in real life. Surely television could provide children more than unnaturally clever dialogue and information preschoolers really don’t need to know.
However, Peter hit me in the soft underbelly of my personality, my massive ego. He was impressed with my writing and directing, he thought we could work together, he thought I was a good person (the only statement that made me question his judgment). By the end of brunch, we agreed to explore the idea further.
Soon afterwards I saw him deliver a guest sermon at a local church. He was magic when he pulled out a puppet and invited the little kids to the front. I began to see the project through his eyes as I watched the children riveted on his simple message of love literally eye to eye with them, and I decided to get involved.
There have been a lot of twists and turns in the road since then. We both believe Maine is a great environment for producing the show, but it has presented significant fundraising challenges. Show business is approached with caution up here. But as we approach the stage where we can make a pilot episode, it is getting more and more exciting.
I hope Maine becomes identified with it, as Minnesota is identified with "A Prairie Home Companion." I hope I do my part well enough that Maine wants to be associated with it. I have a smidge of insecurity, too.