Monday saw the debut of the weekly web series Gravityland by John Herman, a renaissance “media maker” of many talents. The serial show follows a number of characters in a small New Hampshire town, including a fictional pop star, Gabriella (Lauren Hill); a Herman Hesse-quoting, kleptomaniac radio DJ, Jake (Phil Kliger) and his sister, Joni (Emily Briand); and a schlubby bachelor, Richard (Chris Bujold) who has to put up with a torrent of unsolicited advice from his mother (Betsy Kimball).
What I find most interesting about the show is that it demonstrates the maturation of web-enabled, interactive, multimedia storytelling. Rather than just distribute video online, the audience is invited to remix Gabriella’s music video, ask Richard’s mother for advice via the blog, tune in to chat with the cast and crew live, get a glimpse behind the scenes and eventually write the script for an upcoming episode. A companion comic book, “The Old Man and the Whale,” will further flesh out the narrative world (not to mention generating merchandising revenue).
Of course, all of these tie-ins mean that Herman is going to be a busy, busy man. But he was nice enough to answer some questions I sent via email.
NewTeeVee: How does your improv experience play into creating a show “on the fly” like this, with audience feedback and characters living through blog comments?
John Herman: Gravityland is a mixture of improvisation and (what I consider) very scripted material. Many of the people behind the show share my background in improvisational theater — which helps a great deal during production. In many ways, I wouldn’t know how to work any other way. Creating a show like this really puts the audience and cast into positions of great trust. During an improv show, the audience’s presence drives the performance. It’s thrilling. With Gravityland there are so many ways for viewers to get involved that it recreates that feeling for me. It is a new level of intimacy that I don’t think is representative in a lot of entertainment.
NewTeeVee: Do you feel the web opens up new opportunities to focus on building a troupe of players and filmmakers in New Hampshire instead of building a project meant to be a ticket to Hollywood?
Herman: Absolutely. The gift of the web is the opportunity for regional artists to find a global audience. I doubt hopeful young actors will stop packing their bags and heading for Los Angeles or New York, but my sincere belief is that, thanks to the web, we can confidently tell our own stories from our own communities in our own special ways with a sincere chance of attracting a dedicated and appreciative community.
NewTeeVee: What are your goals for the show? What would a success look like — be it in terms of viewership, audience participation, press coverage or personal experience?
Herman: Gravityland spins a lot plates. There is a tie-in comic book, audience-inspired episodes that need to be shot, a collaborative music video, the daily blog, etc. Success to me would be simply pulling the whole thing off and getting through season one alive. But seriously, I would love for Gravityland to attract a dedicated community of viewers who not only enjoy watching the show, but, when inspired, get involved in it. My greatest joy is hearing from cast members in awe that Gravityland is truly accomplishing what it set out to do. We are doing it together. We are doing it regionally. And we don’t have a million-dollar budget.
NewTeeVee: Any plans or ideas for this or other projects going forward? Anything you’ve learned so far that you’ll bring with you to future endeavors?
Herman: In the coming weeks, the audience will be increasingly welcomed into the fold of actual production. Eventually viewers will choose which characters continue and which will not. For now, I want to see how far this rabbit hole goes, but, of course, there are new ideas every day. I am shooting at least one other show this summer. Creativity begets creativity. A collective of improv comedians is secretly writing scripts right now. With any artist, I imagine the moment you think you’ve reached the peak, then you see more adventure above and beyond you.