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Cal U television station shooting soap

| Sunday, Oct. 7, 2001

A select number of area cable television viewers will have the opportunity to tune in 'In Neon' during the spring season.

A troupe of California University of Pennsylvania students is playing out a soap opera fantasy of that title, videotaping six one-hour segments for the school's cable television station. The programs are to be shown on cable systems that already carry CUTV, along with the Pittsburgh community access channel.

'In Neon's' creator, CUTV director Erik Sprowls, said describing the show as a miniseries would be a bit too grandiose, and he prefers to call it simply a continuing story.

Sprowls said it is a slice of college life, including such aspects as 'back stabbing and who did what to whom.'

Romance is part of the mix, as is sex, but Sprowls said lovemaking scenes would end at the bedroom door. Showing sheets is out, he said.

The setting sounds familiar - 'eight primary characters who live together in the same huge house,' according to Sprowls.

But Sprowls said he came up with the premise a number of years ago before the similar setting of the 'Real World' debuted on MTV. He also emphasized that 'In Neon' is a scripted drama, not reality television.

The cast for the soap was chosen at open auditions and Sprowls said it includes 'normal Joes,' as well as those students interested in entertainment careers.

'I wanted eight normal people with different characteristics,' Sprowls said.

With nonspeaking roles as an extra in the movies 'The Temptations' and 'Dogma,' which were shot in Pittsburgh, senior Amber McDonald has a little professional experience.

The radio and television communications major from South Park also is an anchor on CUTV news broadcasts and has performed in other student video productions. While the reach of CUTV is limited to about 100,000 potential viewers, McDonald has already experienced a touch of fame. She said people come up and ask, 'Didn't I see you on TV?'

Dante Morelli, a senior from Murrysville, also has experience performing in college productions, as well as being the voice of various Cal U sports teams.

Morelli said he researched his role as Marc Bowman, a student blinded as a teen, by studying Al Pacino's performance in the movie 'Scent of A Woman.'

Ted Froats, who would like a career as a television performer, landed a starring role in 'In Neon,' even though he's only a freshman.

He said Sprowls' scripts for 'In Neon' are superior to the contrived storylines of average soaps. 'I like 'In Neon' because while we certainly have our own cliffhangers, we keep it realistic,' he said.

'This hits just so close to home,' said McDonald of the storyline. The plots are character-driven, according to Sprowls.

He acknowledges that 'In Neon' is a low-budget production that has to get by on 'charm and charisma,' but he said new digital cameras give it a professional look.

The show is being made with a volunteer cast and crew. Sprowls pointed out that the process of making a soap is something the students couldn't learn from a textbook.

Other students in featured roles include Grant Jack, Brianne Dalfonso, Jarod Show, Mary Muhly and Jessica Vatter.

While CUTV has been producing award-winning college shows since the mid-1980s, 'In Neon' has been a challenge. A continuing soap has only been attempted a couple of times at large university campuses, Sprowls said.

Plans call for 'In Neon' to be carried on the Pittsburgh public access channel, adding a potential 250,000 viewers to the CUTV audience. Sprowls also plans on distributing the show to a network of college stations, and even hopes to offer it to independent broadcast outlets.

Two episodes of 'In Neon' have been shot thus far, with four remaining on the production schedule.

Whether the college soap finds an audience remains to be seen. The first two episodes won't be shown until February.

Stay tuned.

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