Out writer Kim Turrisi and soap siren Crystal Chappell collaborate on a hot new Web series that could change the way we view dyke drama.
Ani still loves Gina but Gina can’t commit, probably because Gina has a yen for Tracy, even though Tracy is strangely distracted by the way her hotel chain mogul boss Alan stares a little too long at her boots. But then Ani meets Lara, the anti-game-playing writer who refuses to beg anyone for affection. Will Lara be the one to make Ani forget about Gina? And can Tracy make Gina commit? And will High Bar’s manager and bartender extraordinaire Jamie pour another round of his famous conscience-cooling martinis?
Ah, the drama of daytime! But now you can get your drama fix anytime you want it, because soap siren Crystal Chappell is calling the shots with Venice, the new online-all-the-time Web series born out of Guiding Light, the longest running soap opera in American history. Propelled forward by a dedication to telling a gay story the “right way,” Venice is casting its web far and wide, and plans to take the whole wide world by storm.
The groundbreaking Web series which debuted this month, is organized into five-minute webisodes, and promises to give the lesbian community what they have been waiting for since the bygone days of cable TV shows like Queer As Folk and The L Word. With film-like production quality and five-star talent, Venice is in the process of defining a new marketing and production model for gay Web programming.
Venice is the joint creation of BFFs and artistic partners—acclaimed soap opera actress Crystal Chappell (Guiding Light’s Olivia Spencer) and Chappell’s close friend and collaborator of over two decades, openly lesbian writer Kim Turrisi. The two met when Turrisi, then working for a soap opera magazine, interviewed Chappell when she first starred in Days Of Our Lives. Chappell and Turrisi have long dreamed of creating a Web series, as they firmly believe that the Web is the ultimate destination for all television content.
Emmy Award-winning actress Chappell is no stranger to LGBT audiences; she played Olivia—the single mother who put the ‘O’ in Otalia—in Guiding Light’s historic daytime same-sex pairing. Otalia gave die-hard soap opera fans and newly minted lesbian fans a riveting slow-burn romantic love story—the first of its kind on the then 72-year-old soap opera, and a rarity in general in the mainstream soap opera world. Gay fans by and large became very attached to the storyline, though some audience members, especially lesbians, were frustrated and at times angered by the lack of physicality producers allowed to be shown on air between Chappell’s Olivia Spencer and Natalia Rivera, her ostensible lover played by Jessica Leccia.
Chappell remarks, “I too, was a little frustrated at the end of Guiding Light with the limitations of the two characters. It isn’t a judgment. I would have wanted to take things to a different place.” Independently and together, as Chappell explains it, she and Turrisi came to the realization that, ”The only place I could have the freedom to make those decisions and have it come to fruition is on the Web. When Guiding Light was canceled, I saw it as an opportunity to continue the idea of the Otalia storyline and have a place for those fans to go.”
It follows that the characters on Venice mirror Chappell, Turrisi and director Hope Royaltey’s drive, ingenuity, decisiveness and authenticity. The team’s vision employs “viral media” and “guerrilla filmmaking” tactics, taking advantage of interactive social networking strategies on Twitter, Facebook and venicetheseries.com community boards. Chappell plans on maintaining a high level of creative control in the storyline’s evolution, with the help of direct and immediate input from fans, an impossible feat in traditional television broadcasting. She is determined to build an unprecedented business, production and content model by taking advantage of all that technology has to offer.
Chappell, Turrisi and Royaltey are pushing their Internet presence to the limit by connecting with fans through live feed social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. In just seven months from the creation of Chappell’s Twitter profile (@crystalchappell), her number of followers sprouted to 11,000, and another 5,000 are following the show’s Twitter account (@venicetheseries). Chappell calls herself a “total Twitter junkie.”
As a result, the show had an effortlessly unprecedented international fan base before the first episode even aired, and far exceeded expectations, a phenomenon that was immediately apparent when the number of viewers flooded the servers, temporarily crashing the site (not to fear; the self-taught tech-savvy ladies wasted no time in having servers added to welcome the onslaught).
As veteran TV insiders Chappell and Turrisi were attracted to what they saw as the Web’s unrealized potential to deliver innovative material to audiences while generating a profit. They were also drawn to the medium through their united and determined struggle to overcome the restrictions daytime network television places on the realistic portrayal of gay couples. In the Web, each of them saw a landscape offering an opportunity for artistic freedom similar to that of cable’s early days. The permissive and inclusive globescape that is the Web is the ideal venue for a lesbian-centric soap opera. Chappell sees nothing but opportunity in Venice, not just from a forward-thinking business platform, but from a diverse and global mindset. She is intent on bringing together gay and straight communities and multi-ethnic groups across the globe by translating the series into multiple languages.
Kim Turrisi, Venice head writer, says the initial motivation to go online came from Chappell’s experience on Guiding Light. Chappell saw unprecedented support, not only from Otalia fans, but in the LGBT community’s rallying behind the storyline. She realized that the end of Guiding Light was the perfect time to segue into this new open world of Venice, and the unchartered territory of the Internet. “With the Web, no one is telling us what we can and can’t do. We set out to do an uncensored, realistic show, with freedom for the actors and the writing—so [the Web] was really the only way to accomplish that,” says Turrisi.
The show boasts five gay characters in Season One alone. And rather than a slow burn, Venice fans were treated to a physically intimate scene between Chappell’s character, Gina Brogno, and her love interest in the first 30 seconds of the show’s first episode.
The storyline follows Gina—a single, out lesbian who is a self-made interior designer living and working in Venice Beach, California. Chappell describes her character as “a woman with massive commitment issues. She is in love with one woman and can’t commit to her and gravitates toward another. And there is the relationship with her father. He doesn’t understand her lifestyle. We felt that it was important to bring real-life issues into the lead character’s storyline.”
Turrisi also guarantees a healthy dose of all the traditional makings of a successful television series—including love triangles, dramatic romances and tragic happenings—but with an edgier more diverse cast and a modern-day storyline. One issue the show will eventually have to address, as have other lesbian dramas, is a glaring lack of characters fully representative of the lesbian community. With the help of real time viewer feedback along with a forecasted healthy run, we anticipate the introduction of a more diverse cast of characters.
Turrisi points to the funding of the Web series as the greatest challenge: “There were no deep pockets writing checks for us. Crystal was able to get her oh-so-talented friends to jump on and agree to work gratis. I mean, they used their vacations to work on Venice. The crew also worked for free, which is unheard of…all because they believed in what we were trying to accomplish.”
Actress Nadia Bjorlin (Days Of Our Lives’ Chloe Lane), who plays lesbian character Lara Miller in Venice, speaks in near-cultlike tones of the remarkably charismatic Chappell. “Basically I was stalking Crystal Chappell. Well, who isn’t these days?! The stars aligned correctly. I was really excited to learn she was coming back to Days Of Our Lives. I have always been a fan of hers.” Bjorlin admits she has a “girl crush” on Chappell. “It started off when she would come on set in the morning natural, without make-up—and I think she is even more gorgeous without make-up. And I would find myself feeling a little tongue-tied and kinda stupid. Man, I was totally crushing on her.”
Former Guiding Light co-star Gina Tognoni (soon to reprise her One Life to Live role of Kelly Cramer) plays Sami Nelson in Venice and seconds Bjorlin’s thoughts. “[Chappell],” Tognoni swoons, “is a person with a purpose who is trying to make something of her life. She wants to contribute and she is creative and smart. She doesn’t just talk about it…she is doing it…which I love.” Tognoni is as excited about the premise of the show as she is about working with Chappell. “It is a positive spin on the gay community and it is about relationships...about being human.”
Chappell is more than comfortable as the object of her fan’s adoration, and just as appreciative of the overwhelmingly positive and personal feedback she receives from lesbian viewers. “I was terribly inspired by the support and dedication we got from the Otalia fans,” she says. “I got thousands of emails and letters from all over the world from women who shared their stories with me. There was a great deal of gratitude. There almost seemed to be a sense of relief in finding something they could relate to. I heard the really positive stories of how people came together and went on to have families of their own. And then I also heard the negative stories of not being out or how it has affected their work or how they weren’t accepted by their families. It runs the gamut.” Chappell thinks quietly for a moment, then continues, “When that many people reach out to you, you feel an incredible sense of gratitude. And I learned about things I didn’t even know about. I gave myself an education. And at the same time, I always wanted to create and produce my own show. Things just fell into place. It was a good opportunity to come together.”
Chappell and Turrisi speak candidly about the financial aspects of the project. All money raised for the first season production was from the sale of Venice paraphernalia, such as a much sought-after pair of Chappell’s panties sold via Twitter. They are courting corporate sponsors, showcasing the website’s success in attracting millions of viewers, and are test-spinning a subscription model for Venice at $9.99 per season.
Not only has the show captured the interest and dedication of the LGBT community, but the soap opera world and an international audience have both followed every aspect of Venice‘s creation and launch. Industry insiders have recognized and paid tribute to Chappell’s near-superhuman ability to attract fans across categories. CNN International’s Becky Anderson recently named Chappell “Connector of the Day” due to the huge international fan base Venice has attracted.
But all of this attention does not distract Chappell from the single-most driving goal she has for Venice. As Bjorlin points out, “If anyone could pull off being a diva, it is Crystal, because she is the best at what she does and she has been doing this her entire life. But she is so grounded, good and a really solid person.” And that is evidenced by Chappell’s commitment to the success of Venice: “I’m very protective of this project and I don’t want to just give it to any network. I will be telling the truth about how I see it and how my partners see it. I really have a feeling of how people in the United States and around the world have embraced this. It can influence how people see other people. I want to be able to make changes. We have the power to do that and you never know where it can come from...”
Catch new webisodes of Venice at venicetheseries.com.