Soap opera's plots draw on reality


February 15, 2005|By Dana Klosner-Wehner | Dana Klosner-Wehner,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PD (PATRICK Daniel) Thomas, a six-year Long Reach resident, has created a soap opera, Snowden Crossing, which airs on Howard County Public Access Channel 73.

Set in a fictitious suburban town outside Washington, the show revolves around two families, the MacKenzies and the Kings, who have been feuding for generations. The story lines include interracial relationships, homosexuality, drug and child abuse -- the normal stuff of soap operas. But in this case, the lesson is that individuals must make choices to help themselves.

So Matthew McNicol, a gay character, decides to come out to his parents so that even if the world is against him, he will have the comfort of knowing that his family accepts him, said Thomas, who writes, directs and produces the show. Snowden Crossing features 56 actors, as well as musicians and a technical crew. All are volunteers.

Writing for television was not something Thomas dreamed of doing when he was working full time as a technical writer for Zen Technologies, a software developer. Now that Thomas has 13 episodes on the air (and 11 completed scripts waiting in the wings), he says he has been "bitten by the bug."

"It's amazing how you can watch the actors bring the words to life. And they get it," Thomas said. "The words are so much better coming from them."

The show started in an unexpected way, when Thomas was cast on a public access comedy show, produced in Washington.

"I like to do volunteer work. I saw an ad asking for volunteers for a show," said Thomas, who called and offered to help behind the scenes. He was asked to audition and got an acting part.

The cast and crew spent the summer taping two episodes. Then the writer left and the show fell apart, Thomas said. "The actors were disappointed. So I said I could write a show," he said.

But when he sat down to write, Thomas realized it was more difficult than he had thought. He was about to give up when he saw another ad -- this time on Howard County Public Access Channel 73 -- that said air time would be provided for programs that could benefit Howard County residents.

That's when the light bulb went on, Thomas said.

"Writing a soap opera was a natural," said Thomas who grew up watching Dynasty, Dallas and other soap operas with his parents, aunts and 10 siblings.

"Everyone had a favorite. ... But everyone was into it."

Thomas says he knew what he wanted in his soap opera. "I wanted sharp one-liners; I wanted nice family moments," he said. "And I wanted a little more reality. On the shows I watched, poor people were always portrayed owning homes and all the kids had cars. In my experience, poor people don't own homes." Thomas said he lived in a ghetto in Florida before moving to the suburbs in New Jersey.

In search of reality, Thomas went to local agencies and support groups, including the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County and the local chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), to get true stories and a better understanding of the issues he intended to portray.

"He wanted to know a parent's reaction when a child comes out," said PFLAG Chairwoman Colette Roberts. "He wanted to know how parents struggle or [do] not struggle with it. I brought him to our parents group [and] he really listened."

Thomas took the information a step further, listing agency phone numbers and Web sites during his show's end credits. The Snowden Crossing Web site also has links to various agencies.

"He has energy through the roof," said Jennifer Hill, who runs the Comcast public access studio in Ellicott City. "He brought complete scripts with his application. It was amazing. He is the most dedicated, driven person I've seen have a dream and make it happen."

The show is now taped at two offices -- at Zen Technologies and The Language Doctors Inc. translation services in Washington, owned by Stuart Bennett, who plays one of the lead characters. The show is also taped in people's homes and at Donna's Cafe, off Snowden River Parkway in Columbia.

About 24 hours are spent shooting on weekends: 12 hours Saturday; 12 Sunday. Another 16 hours are spent writing, editing and formatting the show.

The hard work is paying off. Snowden Crossing is now aired on public access channels in eight states, and the list is growing, Thomas said.

For the actors, there is nothing like working in front of cameras for a show that they know will air.

"In acting classes, there are no consequences," said Long Reach High School junior Bruce Wilson, who plays teenager Matthew McNicol and hopes to become a professional actor. "But now things need to be done. I'm learning different ways to memorize lines, and I'm working with really good actors. When you work with good actors, you get better yourself."

"This teaches me how to work with a director," said Upper Marlboro resident Arva Sheri Curtis, who plays Veronica MacKenzie, one of the show's leading characters.

Thomas has left his job at Zen Technologies and plans to move to California next month to pursue his dream of becoming a television professional. But he will continue to write Snowden Crossing, and Long Reach resident Ernest Glover, one of the show's actors, will take over as producer.

Snowden Crossing airs on Howard County Public Access Channel 73 at 12:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Wednesday. Information: www.snowden Information on becoming a producer on Howard County Public Access Channel 73: 410-461-8098.

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