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Saying goodbye to Sportacus

To match feature FINANCIAL/LAZYTOWN

It’s the end of an era. Magnus Scheving has announced he will no longer portray Sportacus, the heroic character he created many years ago. LazyTown will continue, and another actor will step into the role. But for multitudes of fans, Magnus will always remain the definitive realization of the blue-suited hero.

As Head Writer for LazyTown, I’ve spent hundreds of hours with Magnus, brainstorming, revising, tweaking – endlessly manipulating story and dialogue in order to create a blueprint for our technically complex production. We have worked around the clock – in offices, at his home, in cars, on planes, and in many countries.

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Magnus insisted on change after change, never settling for what he felt was only good – he wanted great. That didn’t mean we agreed on everything. But at the end of the day, he was the man who had to carry the larger burden of transforming the script into a television show. There were so many moving parts involved, and his responsibilities didn’t end on the last page of the scripts, as mine did.

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One of the more impressive things I witnessed was in watching Magnus give epic recaps of our long story sessions. We would work on script beats for three, four, even five hours. Mind numb, brain exhausted, all I wanted to do was go listen to music or otherwise clear my head.

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But Magnus would say, “Okay, let’s go through it again.” And he would launch into a microscopic breakdown of every single detail – even elements that were only mentioned casually or tossed around as asides. What I wrote down to remember, he kept in his head. And he did this for dozens of scripts simultaneously. It wasn’t unusual for him to bring up an element of a script six months later, that had been considered but rejected at the time. He was able to keep that detail in his data base for future reference – after I had long since deleted it from mine.

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Another important skill he possesses is an ability to maintain a constant connection to the big picture. By that, I mean as the creator of LazyTown, Magnus had plans in mind for live shows, movies, props – even theme parks – that our script writing needed to support. If we threw around an idea about a new gadget, he considered its use in the context of what our needs might be, brand-wise, three years down the road.

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Sportacus is a superhero and thus, a man of action and not necessarily words. The last thing a superhero needs to do is talk endlessly about what he’s going to do. He simply needs to do it. So his character wasn’t always given the most interesting lines of dialogue. Still, a quick review of past episodes will demonstrate that Magnus always instilled his on-camera time with energy, superhero savvy, and kid-relatable wisdom.

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The most challenging aspect of writing for Sportacus was in coming up with the opening sequence of the show – Sportacus alone in his airship. There, he would go about his home life, preparing food, cleaning out his sports closet, etc. But our mandate was to create mini-stories that would show how inventive and sports-related his actions were. So we would turn a Christmas tree decoration into a manic gymnastic display. Making fruit salad became a master class in juggling and vaulting.

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For every story idea that eventually became an episode, we pitched dozens that were rejected. Some of them even made their way to script stage but for one reason or another, they were deemed unworkable. And some scripts needed dozens of rewrites – the most being 47 drafts (I won’t mention which show required that many revisions). We created tales of dragons, moon landings, snow monsters and birthday parties. Sportacus has been made invisible, sent into sugar meltdowns, trapped in a trash compactor, and he has come face to face with a menacing robot. In bringing these stories to life, Magnus has done thousands upon thousands of jumps, spins, kicks, flips – and he has done his “signature” Sportacus move uncountable times.

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So while he will no longer wear the costume of Sportacus, Magnus’ time as the blue elf will endure. The other Sportacii that will take on the role will be amazing and entertaining, no doubt. They will each bring something unique to the character, and will find a way to make it theirs. LazyTown will continue, in one form or another, for a long time.

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But there’s only one first of anything. In creating and defining the role of Sportacus, Magnus Scheving has given kids around the world a role model for good health and fair play. His efforts will resonate for years to come – wherever there are kids who love to laugh and play, along with a slightly above-average superhero.

 

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If there’s a Hollywood creative job that Doug Wood hasn’t done, it’s because that job hasn’t been invented yet. He was born in Chicago, where he acted in productions at The Next Theatre Company, The Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, Victory Gardens Theater, The Forum Theatre and The Second City, among others. He formed a comedy duo with Cheryl Rhoads, entitled The Fine Line, playing comedy clubs and theatres in Chicago and later L.A., including The Improv and The Comedy Store. Wood has worked as the creative executive for the Annie Award-winning films The Iron Giant and Cats Don’t Dance. He also served as the creative executive for the Emmy Award-winning TV series Tiny Toon Adventures, and Animaniacs. Wood has created two successful animated television series: Little Einsteins for Disney and Mama Mirabelle’s Home Movies for National Geographic (for which he also authored the children’s book, “When Mama Mirabelle Comes Home). In addition to his work for Disney, he has written television shows for children at Nickelodeon, PBS, Discovery Kids, the BBC, Fremantle Media and more. At the Motion Picture and Television Fund he volunteers his services instructing senior citizens on the craft of Improvisation. In 2011, Wood directed, produced (with Jennifer Clymer), and wrote (with Maureen Kelly) a live-action short, Hi, Lillian, which stars veteran actor, Pat Crawford Brown, an improv student of Wood’s at the MPTV Fund. The film has won the Audience Award for Best Short at three film festivals: Dances With Films 15, Prescott Film Festival, 2012 and the 12th Annual Valley Film Festival. Wood also won an award for Best Emerging Filmmaker at the Prescott Film Festival. Hi, Lillian  is an Official Selection at the AWEsome Film Festival in San Jose, CA, the Reel Recovery Festivals in L.A., NY and American Independent Film Festival and the Legacy Film Festival in San Francisco.

You started out in the theatre, with all of its high highs and low lows – auditioning, finding the heart and soul of a character, receiving audience approval. Eventually you turned toward stage comedy; why did you make that transition and do you think comedy was always a driving force? 

“It wasn’t an intentional choice—it just happened, as is the case with many careers in this strange industry.  I was acting in serious plays in Chicago– I had done a show with Steppenwolf, then got my Equity card when I was cast in the Midwest premiere of The Shadow Box.  When that show closed I formed a comedy duo called The Fine LIne with a woman I had met during my two-year improv program at Second City under the great Josephine Forsberg.

It was something to keep me busy until I got cast in another play.  But after performing in comedy clubs, we started getting gigs in fancier nightclubs and within a few months I was able to quit my job at a bookstore and actually make a living as an actor.  I wound up doing The Fine Line for seven years.

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But I should mention that The Fine Line was not stand-up, it was sketch comedy—short vignettes on male-female relationships.  So we treated each sketch as a mini-play and had the awesome opportunity to explore different characters and different themes.  As The Fine Line moved from nightclubs into Equity theatres and television, the sketches were able to tackle more substantive subject matter, so in a way, I never strayed too far from my theatrical roots. 

I’ve never been able to see a clear break between comedy and drama. To this day, in all my writing, I aspire to find the humor in serious material and explore darker themes in the funny stuff.  And the choices I make are generally based on trying to keep things as real as possible, even the kids cartoon shows I write.  My favorite films (by Robert Altman, Nicole Holofcener, Alexander Payne, to name a few) shift effortlessly between comedy and drama because those directors acknowledge that life itself is a dramedy. 

And my favorite TV series (Taxi, Enlightened, The Comeback, Mad Men, Six Feet Under, The Larry Sanders Show, Friday Night Lights, The Sopranos to name a few) are all tonally mixed and character-driven.  As a kid The Dick Van Dyke Show was my favorite series because it was so much more real than other shows.  I usually find really broad material grating and unsatisfying.”

Improv is an innate skill that can be developed and mastered, but can it be learned? It seems like it requires a particular kind of freedom and/or daring that may not be natural to some people. 

“I don’t think one can learn to be a good actor or a good writer if one doesn’t already have natural-born talent in those areas, although, studying can certainly improve one’s skills.  But I genuinely believe that anyone can learn to be a good improviser.  It’s so much simpler than most people expect—it’s all about turning off the critical left-brain and being instinctive—acting from the gut instead of the mind.  I believe this because I’ve seen it over and over again with my own eyes.

For the past nine years I’ve been a volunteer at the Motion Picture and Television Fund (“the Old Actors Home”) where I teach improv to the senior citizen residents once a week.  The class includes both professional actors and non-actors and after a while I can’t see any division between the two.  It’s really satisfying to see my students learn to be “in the moment” and become playful children again.  When that happens, the words just fly out of their mouths and they give no thought at all as to what their next line of dialogue will be.  I should add that nothing is off-limits and more often than not the seniors take the material into R-rated territory.”

As an improv performer and teacher, do you find yourself giving a running mental commentary to most encounters in your daily life? And is this a potential source for what you may transform into written material at some point?  

“I don’t do this intentionally, but I did learn early on the importance of observing, so yes, I quietly soak everything in and am a huge people-watcher.  Sooner or later some of it is bound to wind up in my work.

Careers in Hollywood aren’t planned so much as they emerge over time – and you have become one of the prominent creators and executives in the world of children’s entertainment. Have all your roads naturally led you to this place, or did you make a wild left turn at some point?

“Lots of wild left turns.  I can honestly say I never even remotely intended to become either a studio executive or a writer/creator of family entertainment.  Opportunities present themselves and you sort of go with the flow.

 I feel fortunate to work in an industry that allows one to jump from one thing to the next– alternating writing, directing, producing, developing, acting and consulting.  Experience in one discipline often informs the others so the shifts aren’t at all counterproductive. 

What do you look for in a property that tells you kids will enjoy it? Whether it’s one of your own creations or a product you are being asked to shepherd, are there key elements that are personal must-haves for you to be interested?

“Humor and relatable characters are the most important ingredients for me, and there has to be genuine emotion in the storylines otherwise the shows just aren’t about anything.  

Unfortunately, the current trend in preschool programming is for curriculum-driven shows that can be didactic and condescending.  Executives are uncomfortable with conflict and emotion, which, of course, is what writers are always drawn to.

The note we get most often is that the characters have to be completely likable and “aspirational,” so displaying insecurity, anger, sadness or fear is pretty much off-limits.  Not only does this make for bland and humorless entertainment, it also doesn’t provide kids with the tools they need to exist in the real world.  It also explains why many parents no longer want to watch TV with their kids.  Sadly, smart and witty shows like Sesame Street and the Peanuts specials are a thing of the past.”

 

As an executive, did you think like a writer? And as a writer, do you think like an executive?

“The most fun part of my job as an executive was working hand-in-hand with writers and artists.  Nothing makes me happier than being surrounded by talented people.  I love working collaboratively with writers in a room, beating out a story with note cards on the wall.  Most executives, however, don’t have creative backgrounds so they’re often baffled by the creative process.

I remember being horrified the first time I was asked to compile a writers list for a project on which we hadn’t yet received the original writer’s first draft script—in other words, it was just assumed the first writer would be replaced and totally rewritten even before anyone had even read one page of the script.  And this turned out to be a common practice, not an anomaly.  

So, in answer to your question—yes, I did think like a writer while I was an executive but that trait often put me at odds with other executives which is why I ultimately decided to return to my writing.

As a writer, I try not to think like an executive until I at least get a first draft down on paper.   Trying to please people while creating isn’t a good idea.  But thinking like an executive is useful when I’m consulting on someone else’s screenplay because they usually want to know how to write something that will actually sell.”

You have found success as a hyphenate writer-producer-director on a live action short. Has it whetted your appetite to continue on that path?

 “Yes.  When I made my first short film, Hi, Lillian (which I co-wrote with Maureen Kelly), I did it mostly as a learning experience.  I was a little embarrassed by some of the technical flaws so when it began to win awards for Best Short at film festivals, I was pleasantly surprised and strongly encouraged to make another film.  Mostly because I was eager to apply what I had just learned (and to avoid a lot of the mistakes I had made.) 

I raised money via Indiegogo so my second film, Entanglement, (which is almost complete at the time of this writing) is far superior in terms of production quality, and a little more ambitious in terms of story.  Making it was an incredibly satisfying experience, mostly because of the level of talent involved including the actors, producers and crew.  I still have a lot to learn as a director so I’m hoping I’ll have the opportunity to do another film, although I don’t think I’m capable of forcing myself to go back to all my friends and family who donated money and ask for more. 

The most satisfying aspect of directing an indie film for me (and I suspect a lot of filmmakers), is that it’s a rare opportunity to have some control over your own material, to be able to say what you want to say.  I recently had lunch with a former writer who had enjoyed some success in the industry.  When I asked her why she gave up writing for television she said, “the n-word:  notes.””

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What do you hear from parents and kids who’ve seen you play the Grinch? Are they scared of him or do they pretty much get the joke?

“It’s up to two factors – the text has to tell a story that even the youngest kids can understand, and the production crew and the actors must deliver an atmosphere and a performance that finds the central message and communicates it. So with that in mind, we all know the Grinch is a grumpy guy, he frowns, he sings about being annoyed with Christmas. But kids know he is broken in some way. They see his silly behaviors, and they understand that the Grinch isn’t scary, he’s sad.

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It’s a fine line, but Dr. Seuss created a character with real emotions, it all started with his book and the values in it. The book was a reaction to the way Christmas was changing after World War Two – the commercialization of the holiday, the emphasis on material things. We dress up the story with music and dancing and a lot of silly fun. But the foundation was set in stone many years ago.”

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Now you’re playing a role that kids will remember forever.

“It’s what helps get me on stage sometimes three or four times a day. Our first director, Jack O’Brien, encouraged us to remember that we are telling a simple, honest story to a new generation of kids. For many of them, it will be their first experience in a large theatre, seeing a big production. So not only will they carry a Christmas memory with them, in many cases they’ll take away a larger-than-life experience that might encourage them to go see live theatre throughout their lives.”

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Two of your signature roles, Robbie Rotten and the Grinch, have you wearing a lot of makeup, yet you are able to communicate emotion to the audience. How do you use your body to do that?

“It’s the same old story, it’s not about the makeup. That’s just the cherry on top. As an actor, makeup is just one of your tools, like dancing ability or a nice singing voice. Audiences watch an actor’s eyes, that’s where we’re able to get a message across. And kids do that too, they watch an adult’s eyes to see where they stand, in the home or in the classroom. And kids in the audience, they know when something isn’t real or authentic. No amount of makeup will fool a kid. Kids are the most difficult and also the most rewarding audience. They keep performers honest.”

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You’ve become known for your physical comedy, much like Charlie Chaplin. Have you studied him?

“Oh yes. My university thesis was on Charlie Chaplin and his art. One of the stories that really touched me the reason he created the character of the Tramp, it was a key to so many things he did later. When Chaplin was a boy, his mother was sick and his father had to find work far away. Charlie and his brother Sid would play, but when they got hungry, there was no food. So Charlie and Sid would sit in the alley behind a neighborhood bakery. They couldn’t afford to buy bread so they would just close their eyes and smell the freshly baked breads and pastries. They would imagine that they were eating it, and for a short while, they felt full! They could go back and play with their friends until they felt hungry again, then it was back to the alley to imagine some more delicious food. That’s the power of imagination, and the power of Charlie’s connection to who he was before he found fame. People at their most basic. And so you show your imagination on stage – if you do it properly it’s like doing research on the human condition. How far can we go here?”

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Obviously you’re very comfortable on stage. Do you manipulate your performances to match what’s going on with the audience? Do you get a sense of where they’re at and then use that to guide you?

“What goes on between an actor and the audience, at its best, is a dialogue. Sometimes you watch an actor on stage and somehow the performance isn’t getting through. The fourth wall is not only closed, it’s soundproofed. That’s because the actor isn’t connecting with the living and breathing human beings in the room with him. The audience feels the distance and they react accordingly.”

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As an actor, you have to fire up your sensors at 100 percent all the time. You have to be in touch with all those heartbeats in the audience, connect with them. Sometimes during the Grinch performances, a child will shout out something. And I’ll turn right around, look them in the eye and respond to them. They light up like a Christmas tree – the Grinch talked to me!”

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Do you see yourself as a role model, since many of your roles are geared toward children?

“I’m sure I am to some kids, but it’s the characters I play, they’re really the point, not me personally. I work to be a good role model to my own kids, that’s what parents do. But my public life is about the characters I play, and what kids can take away from those performances.”

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Tell us about your anti-bully project.

“I’ve always been interested in promoting the anti-bullying effort, and my organization, Regnbogabörn, has found many successes. Recently we started a web site, which is sort of like TED.com. It’s called Lectures.is, and we present speakers who deliver helpful messages, no longer than seventeen minutes, on a wide range of topics that will help parents, teachers and victims of bullying. The web site is designed to give people more information about various conditions like ADHD, Asberger’s, and others, so that we can recognize our differences and understand them. We think that will help to decrease bullying to some degree.”

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How do you feel about the state of live theatre these days?

“It means so much to me, this work we do. You know, every time there’s a recession, the first thing that goes on the budget chopping block is the arts. People question why we should pay for something we don’t need. It’s just people playing around, indulging themselves.

But I ask: can we not afford beauty? Is something that elevates our lives, raises our awareness, increases our humanity, is that worth preserving? One member of the Icelandic Parliament put it very well, I thought. He said those who think that money gives you all the wealth in life, they’re actually quite poor. And I agree with that.”

 * For tickets and more information about Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! see: http://www.grinchmusical.com/buy-tickets

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2005: Iceland – It was another long day of production on the LazyTown sound stage. In fact, it was the start of the next day, as we continued our creative brainstorming session past midnight. Everyone was packing up their belongings and heading home for a few hours’ sleep. There would be yet another early call for the crew and cast to assemble for that days’ shoot.

The phone rang. Usually, the answering machine would pick up the call, but for some reason, this time it didn’t. A colleague, Dean Koocher, picked up the phone.

On the other line was a gentleman named Rob Stock, calling from Belleville, Illinois. Rob didn’t know it was the middle of the night in Iceland. He had tracked down the office number and simply called, hoping to connect with someone. He said that his young daughter, Jenny, was a big fan of LazyTown. He had scoured the local stores, and had checked online, but was having a hard time finding any merchandise for sale. In particular, he was trying to find a “Stephanie” costume for Jenny to wear.

Dean knew that my home in the US wasn’t far from Belleville, and he put me on the phone with Rob, thinking I might be able to help.

But LazyTown had only debuted on Nickelodeon a few months earlier, and there was simply no merchandise available at the retail level just yet. Rob asked if there was anything else we might have – photos, or possibly even autographs.

Rob explained that Jenny had been diagnosed with leukemia. She was in the middle of long months of chemotherapy sessions. They were prolonged and brutal, and young Jenny’s energetic, normally upbeat personality was being drained.

One of the few things that made her smile – a bright spot on chemo days – was watching episodes of LazyTown. She was charmed by the stories, the silly humor, its can-do spirit. Most importantly, it gave her something to look forward to. Instead of dreading the hours spent having toxic medicines course through her body, she could find some relief by focusing her attention on the antics of Sportacus, Stephanie and the LazyTown gang.

As it happened, I was due to make a trip home, which was fairly close to where Rob and his wife Greta took Jenny for chemo treatment. I gathered autographs from the cast members, took tons of photos, and found some props that the production graciously allowed me to have. And I took the whole package to Jenny.

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She greeted me with a tremendous hug that belied her fragile physical state. The smile on her face lit up the room as her parents and nurses watched her unwrap one-of-a-kind mementos from her favorite show. She thrilled at the personal notes from the cast, and she seemed to gain energy not from the gifts themselves, but from the kindness of those who had given them.

Rob and Greta beamed, filled with joy at seeing their daughter so happy. They had been through grueling months, and there would be many more to come. But in that moment, their weight seemed lifted.

Eventually, Jenny’s strong will and her unbreakable spirit – along with top-notch medical care and the loving support of her family – beat back the leukemia. Jenny grew healthy and was even able to travel to Iceland where she met her heroes on the very sound stage where the episodes were produced. Jenny returned to school and, last year, she graduated from high school with top honors, well on her way to what will surely be an amazing life.

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Because of the persistence and dedication of Rob Stock and her whole family, Jenny found the strength to survive her illness. And LazyTown played a small part in her recovery, thanks to a Dad who wouldn’t give up until he found a way to make his daughter smile.

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No doubt there are many stories of children connecting to their favorite shows during times of crisis. But this one feels special; it’s almost unbelievable the good that came from what might otherwise be considered a run-of-the-mill kids’ TV show. A production shot in the middle of a lava field somewhere in Iceland went halfway around the world, into the heart of a little girl with a desperate illness. That, combined with a very determined and loving father, produced something that feels an awful lot like a miracle.

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Writing for Robbie Rotten

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A rubbery face. Physical grace. Comedy gold all over the place.

That’s Stefan Karl, the gifted actor who plays Robbie Rotten in the global hit series LazyTown. Stefan is a classically trained actor who has appeared on stage in dozens of serious roles, as well as performing the Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, in sold-out theatres all over the United States.

But he’s best known for his antics as the lovable villain, Robbie Rotten, whose only goal is to return LazyTown back to its formerly lazy ways. To accomplish this, Robbie employs a menu of outrageous, Snidely Whiplash, bad guy behavior – from sending his nemesis, Sportacus, into outer space in a rocket, to hauling the town’s apple supply away in the belly of a flying dragon.

But Robbie must never be seen as evil. Toddlers watch the show, and so whatever trouble he causes, it must be comedic, first and foremost. In lesser acting hands, that could easily produce cliched mugging to the camera and repetitive (and boring) faux-menace. But Stefan possesses an extraordinary capacity to find those details that transform a silly monologue into a thing of beauty.

As head writer for LazyTown, I’ve been lucky to create many fun disguises for Robbie. And the real satisfaction comes from knowing that, whatever I come up with, Stefan will bring it to life with panache.

One role in particular is a good illustration of his talent: in 2004, we produced over 30 episodes of LazyTown. Each show contained choreographed action sequences, a music video, dance numbers, special effects and puppets mingling with live actors. There was barely time to breathe or think straight. Our schedule was brutal, and the actors were asked to learn scripts that were constantly being revised – often at the last minute.

We found ourselves in the uncomfortable position of having to cancel a planned shoot for the following week. After spending the entire weekend attempting to solve our problem, we realized that we had no material to shoot on Monday morning. An entire crew, assembled and waiting, would have nothing to do. That’s an expensive dilemma.

I came up with a quick solution – one that could only be realized with Stefan Karl on the team. I stayed up all Sunday night writing a new script called Miss Roberta. By 7 a.m. on Monday, the script was copied and distributed. The costume department designed a fast – and brilliant – disguise, transforming Robbie into the very proper and very funny Miss Roberta.

Stefan quickly digested the script, found its core, and proceed to play the hell out of that part. If you ever get a chance to watch the show, you may have a greater appreciation for his skills, knowing how little time he had to prepare. It’s a delightful, hilarious turn, and it’s a role I hope we can one day revisit.

Here are some classic images of Robbie Rotten in his various disguises, as portrayed by Stefan Karl:

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