April 27, 2023
"Straight to Series" and "546" Workshop Hatches College Television Award Winners
By Hugh Hart
Earlier this month [ED: April], SCA students walked away with top honors at the TV Academy Foundation's 42nd College Television Awards ceremony. Caleb Townsend's Provenance, set in the world of art auctions and produced in the Straight to Series class, won Best Drama. Wei-Lai, written by Tony Gx Shi and developed in the CTPR 546 workshop, won Best Comedy Series for its wry portrait of a misfit Chinese American boy.
Townsend MFA '23 came up with the premise for Provenance while overhearing his girlfriend's business calls during the COVID shutdown. "My girlfriend Kelsey Shell worked for an art advisory group out of San Francisco for many years. During the pandemic, with both of us doing our jobs across the table from each other, I started writing down her side of phone conversations. The kind of stuff she was talking about - - crazy characters and art and wealth-adjacent stuff - - fascinated me. Hearing about all the drama and intrigue, I started picking up on themes that resonated not just for me in television but anybody who tries to do creative work."
In the spring of 2021, Townsend successfully pitched Provenance to Straight to Series professors Tony Jonas and Gail Katz, who also chairs the Film and Television Production Division. By the following fall, Katz and Jonas had assembled a team of five additional writers and four executive producers tasked with transforming Townsend's treatment into a three-episode TV show. Townsend, a former sound editor, had worked on movies by the Coen Brothers and Alfonso Cuarón but he'd never run a writers' room before. "It was a lot of fun and completely exhausting," he recalls. "We spent the fall breaking the story with the writers."
One of those writers, Sayali Upadhye MFA '23, gained admission to the class on the strength of her No Name comedy script. "I felt like I could fit into the team because I brought some humor to it," says Upadhye, who co-wrote the show's first episode with Townsend. "I was really nervous at first because this was my first television gig, but now I want to be a showrunner and work in TV!"
As the storylines took shape, Townsend collaborated with producers to cast the show and prepare for physical production. "About halfway through the fall," he says, "Professor Michael Provart brought on production designer John Zachary Thurman and they started working on the standing office set on SCA’s Stage 4 and our Auction Room, which lived in the SCA Gallery." Funded with a budget of about $45,000 provided mainly by The Alan S. Lorberbaum Family Foundation, students shot three episodes of Provenance over the course of three months. "We're talking about a team of 70+ crew and over 110 cast and background," Townsend says. "Most of them hadn't worked together before and this was their first time doing a production on this level. Which means it was kind of chaos, but we figured it out."
As lead producer Bijan Kazerooni BFA '22 recalls, "There was a mismatch between the demands of this course and the amount of time students had to offer. Our solve was to hold large team meetings where we could set game plans early; then students could address their assigned action items on their own time. We sought to lighten the load on the students so our team could bring their best to set." Kazerooni, who now works on the Amazon Studios series production team, says "I apply the information I learned in Straight to Series on a daily basis. You get out what you put in."
Around the same time that Townsend submitted Provenance for Straight to Series consideration, director Robin Wang (MFA '22) found himself in his aunt's Beijing home at one in the morning pitching Tony Shi's Wei-Lai script remotely to the CTPR 546 workshop run by John Watson. Partnering with producer Naomi Shroff-Mehta (MFA '22), the presentation went well, Wang recalls. "I went to sleep and when I woke up, I saw congratulations messages on Instagram and realized ‘Wow, we got picked!’"
Shi, who moved from China to Vancouver at the age of eight, cites his own experience as inspiration for Wei-Lai. "I wanted to explore how Asian parents expressed parental love differently than perhaps a 'white' parent," he observes. "I remember being 10 years old and wondering why my family didn’t say ‘I love you’ or ‘I’m proud of you’ when I brought home a straight-As report card. So the film addresses these feelings you have as a child where you misunderstand your parents as much as they may misunderstand you."
Shi's script, which follows a boy who offers himself up for adoption at his neighbor's home, resonated strongly with Wang. "It's about displaced Chinese culture and adopting [to life] within the American homeland," he says. "That speaks poignantly to me because I left home in China at the age of fifteen, went to Singapore for high school, then Duke for undergrad, and then I came to USC. I'm constantly crossing borders and stepping into another land or space going "‘Oh, this is my new home now.’"
Wang, Shroff-Mehta, and producer Andy Yi Li cast child actors Arthur Zhang and Benjamin Widner to star as Wei-Lai and his best friend Luca. Midway through the fall 2021 semester, filmmakers shot the 14-minute short over the course of three three-day weekends on a budget of roughly $10,000 drawn from SCA's Film and Television Production Division and a Wei-Lai "slush fund" created by CTPR 546 class members. Producers secured locations in Alhambra and Temple City to serve as backdrops for the film’s pivotal Chinese restaurant scenes. “All those locations felt authentic, so that was pretty sweet,” says Shroff-Mehta. “The main point of Wei-Lai is that it's grounded and very specific but it's also able to tell a universal story so we wanted to get all the details right. Otherwise, it's not going to sing."
And sing it did, especially for Shi when he saw the final cut for the first time at a December screening. "I didn’t want to get in the way of the production crew so I did not go to set, except one time to be in the background," Shi says. "Seeing my words on the page being brought to life by great actors for the first time? That was definitely an emotional experience!"
To learn more about the College Television Awards and this year's ceremony, visit: https://www.emmys.com/news/foundation-news/cta-221207