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Playwright Susan Miller brings drama to the Net (extended)

By Joan Lipkin

Enterprising artists like writer Susan Miller and director Tina Cesa Ward see the potential of the Internet because of its speed, audience potential, freedom of expression and relative low cost. And they're not alone. Their new show, Anyone But Me—created specifically for the Internet—is being featured on the innovative new Web-based network StrikeTV ( www.strike.tv ) , which was started during the writer's strike to produce and promote original programming for the Web.

Frustrated by the lack of creative outlets, talent from shows like The Office, The Daily Show, Malcolm in the Middle and Friends, sought out opportunities to ply their craft. StrikeTV's line up of some 40 shows comprises the largest collection of original Hollywood-produced content ever created for an Internet audience.

Anyone But Me, which premiered on StrikeTV in December and as an Editor's Pick Video on AfterEllen.com, is officially hot. The people behind AfterEllen.com—the Web site for news, reviews and commentary on lesbian and bisexual women in entertainment and the media—are so psyched about the new series that they have begun streaming episodes.

Produced by Miller and Ward, the show is about New York teens coming of age in a post-9/11 world. The series introduces a new generation—ethnically diverse, gay and straight—searching for love and acceptance as they confront their own diverse identities and sexual awakening.

Read more story below....

Executive producer and writer Miller is an Obie award-winning playwright ( My Left Breast ) and was a consulting producer/writer on Showtime's groundbreaking series The L Word and ABC's landmark series thirtysomething, among other TV hits. Director/writer Tina Cesa Ward screened her short film, In Their Absence, at more than a dozen film festivals around the globe and was awarded best short film four times.

I sat down cyber-style with Miller to get the scoop on Anyone But Me on how this new show is rockin' her world.

Joan Lipkin: I appreciate your work as a playwright, Susan. In fact, we are in the same play anthology, Amazon All Stars, and your plays have been produced throughout the [ United States ] . You were also recently selected as a core writer at The Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis, where you can develop new plays. So why the Web?

Susan Miller: It came to me. Like the best ideas. From a place I wasn't expecting. ( In this case, from director, Tina Cesa Ward ) . I've written and produced television series, like The L Word and thirtysomething—so it didn't seem outside of my realm at all to help create a Web series which takes the best of television as its model. Only we do it in shorter episodes. ( Eight minutes! ) Theatre is something you should be able to make happen anywhere. But, there are more and more obstacles. This seemed to have no bounds. You know? It's a new form—wide-open territory. That's exciting to me.

JL: Yes, very. I'm curious. Why the eight-minute format? Are all the shows on StrikeTV eight minutes?

SM: Actually, most Web shows run from three minutes to eight minutes.

JL: Amazing.

SM: It seems to whet the appetite for more. And, of course, they are less expensive to shoot.

JL: How long does it take to shoot an episode and what is your involvement?

SM: I'm an executive producer, as well as a writer, so I am always on set. We typically shoot two episodes in three days. Complete madness. But we get it done. And one of the things that sets us apart, I think, is the quality of our production. We not only have a beautifully talented ( and beautiful! ) cast, but Tina and I are both kind of perfectionists in our work, so we set the standards pretty high.

JL: How did you and Tina meet?

SM: Tina wrote me an e-mail, saying she was looking for a consulting producer for a series she had in mind. I didn't know her, but I looked at her work and the idea for the show and I was hooked. I still don't know how she got to me. But good thing I'm in the "saying-yes" part of my life.

JL: Amazing what can come out of yes. There's a story that John Lennon first fell for Yoko Ono when he went to see an art exhibit of hers, climbed a ladder to see one of the pieces and at the top was written the word "yes." So, once you said, "yes," Susan, how long was the series in development?

SM: We began work on revising scripts and casting about a year ago, and shot our first two episodes in May.

JL: You've been at the forefront of some other major projects, too. What was it like to be one of the early writers for the L Word, the series about lesbian characters that made television and cultural history? How did you map out the storylines for the characters? Did you follow a similar process for Anyone But Me?

SM: Being part of the first season of The L Word was just amazing. Wild. You know "the chart"—Alice's chart—well, it started out on Guin Turner's wall. I don't remember who put it up, but we all wrote in our liaisons and sordid pasts—and somehow that made it into the show.

JL: Many of us have a version of the chart in our past. I think that's why it struck such a chord, although often we wind up saying, "Whatever could I have been thinking?!!" Anyway, please tell me more about the process of writing the show.

SM: Like most TV series, the staff sits around a big conference table, and we throw out ideas for the character arcs and story lines. Around 4 p.m., we grab for the chocolate.

JL: Everything goes better with chocolate.

SM: Yes. And then we just keep going until we find the thing that works. You know, you're sitting around a table with people who have opinions, and ideas ( sometimes crazy, sometimes brilliant ) and we all have this need to be heard. So it can be intense and exhausting. But, it was always exhilarating to break ground on what turned out to be a huge success.

JL: Huge. I wonder if anyone really understood at the time what a phenomenon it would turn out to be. I understand that producer Ilene Chaiken tried for years to get it made.

SM: It was Ilene Chaiken's baby. And we all wanted to please and help her. Working on Anyone But Me, it's Tina and me sitting around a much smaller table. Usually in my apartment. Though sometimes we email our revisions back and forth. Tina had the two main characters pretty well defined. But we did re-imagine Vivian's Dad and her Aunt Jodie. We've also brought some characters much more into view than they were originally. And changed one lesbian into a gay guy.

JL: Well, maybe that's only fair.

SM: We're constantly looking at the story lines and characters, seeing who pops, what struggles or amusing situations will best engage the audience. Mainly we want to keep it real. There's no formula for what we're trying to achieve.

JL: How many episodes do you have in the can?

SM: Four. And two more in pre-production.

JL: So where do you get funding for a project like this?

SM: Ahhh. That. Well, we're building an audience. And hoping sponsors will see just how many people are drawn to our show. We tap both the youth market and the generation of their parents.

JL: Yes. I think that's one of the things that makes the show really special.

SM: We're also the only show on StrikeTV that is shot in New York. And which really deals with the aftermath of growing up in a post 9/11 world.

JL: And it is a very different world than the one we grew up in. It is incredible to see a love relationship between two 16-year-old girls, Vivian and Aster. Or Breck, a gay teenage boy on an Internet show. What are you hoping is the future for the show?

SM: That we reach people. That they give a shout out to other people. That we continue. I'm so proud of Anyone But Me. It's about something. It's about difference. It's about relationships. ... It's about us.

JL: It seems like it's about a lot of us. What do you know about the demographics of the viewers, i.e. female, male, lesbian, gay, straight, etc?

SM: As you know, we made the editor's pick and THE. BEST. LESBIAN. WEEK. EVER. on AfterEllen.com and they are streaming our show on their Web site now. But, I've had really positive responses from straight women and men, from gay men. From straight teenagers. We have a multi ethnic cast. And we depict both gay and straight relationships. We explore the city and the suburbs. So, I think we have broad appeal.

JL: What are you hoping people might experience?

SM: An affecting, enjoyable, addictive eight minutes.

JL: Consider me one of the hooked. And I love that I can catch the show at any hour or time zone and that we can follow the process on your Web site, www.anyonebutmeseries.com to learn more about the show and read your blogs.

SM: And the wonderful comments from people who are watching us.

JL: Yes. Whether we're talking theatre or the Internet, it's all about the audience.

Joan Lipkin is the artistic director of That Uppity Theatre Company and a judge for the Kevin Kline Awards. E-mail her at JLipkin@aol.com .

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