Michelle Stafford: From Network ‘Soap’ to Webisode Comedy

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ONE

When Phyllis Summers fell down a flight of stairs on August 2, 2013, her millions of fans at first were shocked, and then lost in grief. She went into a coma and has remained so since. Family visitors to her Georgia Island bedside, including her husband, her lover, her son, and her rival, Sharon Newman, never see her face, except when Sharon does so in a fevered dream. There are some who feel that the highly sexualized Phyllis finally has gotten her due.

On October 17, 1994, then 29 year old actress Michelle Stafford debuted in the role of Phyllis Summers on the daytime television soap opera The Young and the Restless, a show that had already been airing for over twenty years on CBS. Originally conceived as a short time new character, Stafford’s Phyllis became unexpectedly popular; Stafford remained with the program for fifteen years, though she took a two-year hiatus in the late 1990s.  She was nominated for daytime Emmys ten times and has won twice.

The labyrinthine threads of soap opera plots are beyond following except for the most die-hard fans. Stafford’s character cut a wide sexual swath with her multiple intersecting and overlapping affairs, even false paternities with lovers.  A Wikipedia entry tries to explain the storyline in the last few months that Stafford played the role of Phyllis. I won’t bother explaining the other characters.

In 2013, it was revealed that Nick had lied and claimed paternity over Summer (now 18 years old), despite the original paternity test taken years ago being corrupted. He takes a second test, which still proves that he is the father. However, Sharon now wants Nick back, and tampers with the test results, allowing everyone to believe Jack is now the father of Summer. Phyllis ultimately hears Sharon confessing to this at Cassie’s grave, resulting in an altercation between the two and ending with Phyllis falling down a flight of stairs. After the fight Phyllis is transported to the hospital and is comatose. She is surrounded by her family, and her son, Daniel Romalotti, returns to see his mother. Phyllis briefly awakes with Jack at her side, and he proposes, but Phyllis is unresponsive. She then has a panic attack at the sight of Sharon at the window. This causes her to relapse into a coma and is diagnosed with a bruise on her brain. This causes Daniel to request that she be moved to an experimental facility off the coast of  Georgia, where he resides.

Now, here we are back in Georgia with Stafford’s character in a coma. Why does she remain so? Why is her face never shown? When Stafford notified the producers that she wanted to leave the show, an exit strategy became necessary. The fall down the stairs served as a plot transition, one left unresolved. Because the producers hope Stafford will return to play Summers again, they have refused to simply let the character die. In fact, Stafford’s character is still sometimes seen on the show, the last time in a flashback on January 15.

Stafford as the no-nonsense Phyllis Summers.

Stafford as the no-nonsense Phyllis Summers.

Stafford loved the show and the challenges that playing an ongoing character represented, but at a certain point it had played out for her. She had always wanted to play comedy roles— clearly not an option in the perfervid dramatic angst and confrontation that lies at the heart of every bleating daytime drama.

A mere three days after her climactic stair fall, Michelle Stafford premiered on August 5, 2013—on YouTube and her website, the first of a ten episode web series titled The Stafford Project. It was co-created, co-written, and co-directed by her and two friends, Page Dorian and Paige Long. Sevier Crespo was executive producer; cinematographer and editor was Franklin Guerrero, Jr.

TWO

Today, everything in the world of content production is quickly evolving in distribution and viewing. Day and date release of feature films, ever-shorter windows between theatrical release and cable exhibition are its most evident manifestations; also in the game is Sony Studios rushing to use its Playstation as a portal for new content. The number of new series produced only for the web are proliferating like hamsters in spring. The added “democratization” of new media content has become likewise a runaway phenomenon on YouTube, with thousands of “selfie” video-astes producing material for their own “channels.” An early entrant in this me-me-me field was Chris Crocker, infamous for his “Leave Britney Alone” rant, and in his most recent incarnation as a gay porno star. As an early YouTube phenom who spawned a feature length documentary masterpiece of juvenile, narcissistic (but fascinating) self-love/loathing, “Me at the Zoo,” Crocker was a kind of prophet of where democratized web video could go.

What separates The Stafford Project from much of the self-indulgent garbage that floods YouTube is its clear headed and sardonically funny as hell referencing the world of established media, especially hoisting old media daytime television on its own petard via a self-produced, very accessible and still developing vehicle—the webisode. In ten installments made between July and December of 2013, Stafford and her co-creators take the viewer on a journey into the helter-skelter daily life of a soap opera actress trying to fend off network producers pressuring her for more public lifestyle visibility—all while she is valiantly being a mother to her four year old daughter, Natalia, and while seeking true love in a dating field of weirdo men even more like a child than her daughter.

Watching the ten-minute first episode serves as a good introduction to the series’ mouthy smartness:

Stafford’s agent and producer are pitching her a career changing profile, all to be documented with a video crew following her in the reality TV mode.

Increasingly, however, the crew becomes participants in some of the wackier scenes, including one when the cameraman uses a brief absence by her suave French dinner date, putting down his camera and sitting next to her to warn her that the guy is a sociopath. Though Michelle dismisses his warning, it later proves to be spot on as the jerkoff assaults a hapless parking valet, then urinates on the key stand.

THREE

There has been much talk of old media/new media at the recent SXSW festival. Veteran rocker Neil Young spoke about his high-end Pono music player as the device to finally bury the highly compressed MP3. And Millennials, already hooked on binge Netflix viewing, are looking for the next new video platform.

I have been intrigued that an established actress who has spent major career time in that most traditional of television dramas, the daytime soaps, decides to break out—not with a short dramatic film, or by pitching a prime time series about a working mom navigating the hazards of dating in that pool of Narcissus, Hollywood—(Stafford surely is well connected to many network movers and shakers.) She and her team decide to bypass any of the established routes in order to produce their own web series, on a shoestring, with no commercial sponsorship—ten-minute comedic vignettes about the foibles of a 40s something actress looking for love in all the wrong places.

Production crew in opening scene of Episode 5 "It's Just a Heart."

Production crew in opening scene of Episode 5 “It’s Just a Heart.”

One of the most hilarious scenes is from episode 9, when a self-described alpha male who chatted her up at her gym, is out with her on a lunch date. He asks Michelle to pick up the check in exchange for a second party check he’ll give her. He then proceeds to verbally abuse “women” who aren’t immediately responsive to his most primal sexual needs. Her response must ring a sympathetic chord in the heart of any adult woman trapped in a public place with a “dude” like this. With her video crew looking on gleefully, she upbraids him: “I’m just trying to help the next sister in line… I wouldn’t give you a blow job if your dick was dipped in chocolate.” She leaps up, pulling the video guys out of the restaurant along with her. Part scripted, part improv, it’s a damning and hilarious breakout moment for the actress.

What are Stafford’s goals in creating a web series, especially one as rudely hilarious as this? I decided to ask her. It’s easy enough. Her parents are close friends. I trust that if I ask her, she won’t think me cut from the same cloth as the loonies that date her in the series’ episodes. Her style in answering my questions has the same lovely quippy take as her dialogue in the series. That, of course, makes me the “straight man.”

I believe that the first episode of The Stafford Project went up on your site and on YouTube only three days after Phyllis Summers fell down the stairs and into a coma on The Young and the Restless. Clearly, plans for the web series were percolating during your last season on Y&R. How did The Stafford Project come about? Were the basic themes of juggling career, motherhood, celebrity, dating—there in the beginning concept?

Yes, Phyllis went into a coma on a Friday and the first episode of The Stafford Project went up the following Monday!  I had worked on a web show that my friend Paige Dorian produced and she told me how much it cost.  It wasn’t extremely costly and I knew I could fund it myself.  What was happening on the web fascinated me… I thought that I could tell my story as a web series.  I wanted to tell the story loosely based on my life.  I keep finding myself in ridiculous situations.  The way I came to being a mother, dating… It’s all comedy.  My life has been comedy.  Many women can relate.

Promotional still of the harried mom with blissful daughter, Natalia.

Promotional still of the harried mom with blissful daughter, Natalia.

Was the series planned for the web from the beginning, or was there an initial effort to develop it as a regular network or cable series? And what about now—after you’ve had such strong interest in the character and the storyline?

It actually started as a documentary.  I had my friend follow me around with a camera during my quest to have a child.  I started with adoption and I was shocked that at every turn there was more drama, more obstacles, which of course lead to more insanity and comedy.  Early on in that process I had written a two-page story called Looking for Jennifer about what I had gone through so far.  My friends thought it was shocking, hilarious, and touching all at the same time.  That’s when I bought a camera and asked my friend to follow me and shoot.  Then eventually having a child (as a single parent) I thought, “Ah, it’s over.  I can relax now.”  Of course it just got crazier… Ya know, with the dating and kid and career.  At that point I thought I should write a script.  I mean, I jumped through fire to have a kid, through fire.  The idea, the aspect, of a woman doing that is very primal and it was also insane (what I went through)… Which is always funny.

Each episode seems to become more ambitious in scale, style and casting. Was there an overall planned storyline or sequencing to the 10 episodes, or did each one develop from the previous? For example, how much is scripted, how much improvised?

Ahhhh!!  You noticed… I love it!  I think we were finding our way together as storytellers.  We actually had 10 shows outlined.  Well, actually when we shot the first one we just had all the ideas sorta swimming around in our heads.  The first episode was so successful we got a little more serious after that.  I said to The Paige’s (my partners) “Oh lord, we have to put out episode two right away”.  I mean, people were loving it.  There is a consistency on the web that you don’t want to violate.  Then our second episode was just as successful.  After that is when I outlined the next 8.  We pretty much kept to the outline except for episodes 9 and 10.  Those two changed.  We found as we wrote that this woman (Michelle) needed some fight at the end.  She had been stepped on, she needed to get her balls back.  But yes, every episode became loftier.  We had no idea how successful it would be.  No idea.  We all went with it.  It was hectic.  We (me and the other writers) have a lot of respect for each other.  That’s the only reason we didn’t kill each other during the whole evolution.  We had started with the idea that we would just outline and improvise but you really need a specific actor to make that work. Not all actors are great with that.  We didn’t want to leave so much responsibility on the actor.  We decided to make it scripted and if an actor wanted to try something, we’d let them go for it.

Rehearsing episode 10 with l-r: Finola hughes, Stafford, Ian Buchanan, Nadia Bjorlin.

Rehearsing Episode 10 with l-r: Finola Hughes, Stafford, Ian Buchanan, Nadia Bjorlin.

You said that being a co-writer as well as the lead actress has made a difference in how you regard acting— if I understand correctly, that you feel more inclusive of the other actors with whom you are playing. Can you elaborate?

Yes, I realized how important the actor is to the project… dare I say, they’re everything.  I really had no idea.  You can have a great script and a not great actor and it’s just that…. But a great script and a great actor is magic.  We would write something that I thought was funny and when the actor would say it with their spin it was just amazing!  It just came to life!  We cast our friends in this and they were all amazing.  Some were not actors.  We would say “just be you” and they were incredible!  Also, I learned how difficult it is to really convey your ideas on a page and produce a project.  I could have never done this project alone.  The Paige’s and I are this magical threesome.  We knew that we didn’t want to ruin it by someone coming in too early to take it to the next level.  We knew that we had to get through 10 and then decide what we wanted to do with the show.

Stafford "in bed" with cameraman Franklin Guerrero, Jr.

Stafford “in bed” with cameraman Franklin Guerrero, Jr.

The shooting style of the series is a bit reminiscent of The Office.  Your own complicities and whimsical looks to camera (and actually having the crew on camera), the staccato camera zooms and shaky cam. How effective do you think these techniques are in creating the look and feel of the episodes?

It was 50 percent us and 50 percent camera style.  Seriously, our cameraman Frankie saved our ass many, many times.  He was also our editor so he knew what he wanted while he was shooting.  He is amazing.  He got the thing we were going for and just added to it.  We also created a fun and light set.  I wanted everyone to feel creative on this project.  I mean, it’s a web series, funded by “Bank of Stafford”, it ain’t serious… I didn’t want a serious set.  We wanted very subtle looks to camera.  We wanted the comedy to be subtle, born from the insane situation.  I mean, I really did have a guy get up with his guitar and sing in the restaurant on our date.  That situation is filled with funny if you play it right.  You don’t have to underscore anything.

You never specifically mention The Young and the Restless in any of the webisodes. Were the producers or the network CBS reluctant to have an association? What has been the reaction of your fans to seeing you as a much more accessible and vulnerable person than the Phyllis Summers character in the Y&R daytime series?

No.  I don’t mention Y&R… I also never say my last name.  Ya know, I’m playing Michelle but not really Michelle, meaning me.  It’s sorta a caricature of me.  Mentioning Y&R would be too specific which might end up limiting us.  CBS ended up being very supportive of the project.  The fans, that is a very interesting question.  In the world of social media I got to find out right away what the fans thought.  It was VERY helpful.  On a daytime show you go into the home of someone every day.  You already have a very close relationship with your viewer.  It’s impossible not to.  A daytime viewer takes things very personally because they relate to you so closely– since they have been with you all week in their home.  I understood that when I was on the show.  I was on Y&R for 15 years.  There are people who are never gonna let me go.  You touch people’s lives in a different way.  To do a show about myself, completely, insecure and flawed and trying to just make it through the day… Many women related to that.  They saw themselves and were able to laugh at themselves through me.  That’s a very cool thing.

With Kelly Preston in parodic perfume commercial, Episode 4.

With Kelly Preston in parodic perfume commercial, Episode 4.

You have said you are not interested in returning to The Young and the Restless. Have you had any “heat” for future writing and acting because of the smartness of the web series?

Yes, I have. Initially, I just wanted to do this show so people could see me as a comedic actor… being on a soap, I mean, that’s not your “go to” for a comedic actress.  It’s a funny thing in the comedy world.  It’s actually harder to break into, but once you’re in, you’re in.  It’s slow moving but we have been accepted in four web festivals so far and people are loving the project.  Even when it’s not for them, they connect us, with somebody else because they love it so much.  It’s a very good time for funny women right now.  I plan to monopolize on that.

How is the shooting atmosphere on your web series different from that of The Young and the Restless? What size and kind of crew did you have?

HA!!  So different.  We have about 10 people max.  I mean, honestly, I was the producer, writer, lead actress, financier, casting director, set decorator, props, craft services… and assistant to Ms. Stafford, which is not an easy task J

How was The Stafford Project financed? Do you have expectations of a return on the investment?

Ah!! The Bank of Stafford!  I believe I will get a return.  I wouldn’t have worked so hard if I thought differently.

Do you feel you and your co-writer/directors have been successful in creating the kind of series you had hoped for? If not, what may have made it difficult to realize your goals?

Yes and no.  I think we kicked ass with what we made happen.  I watch some shows and see mistakes.  Not enough coverage, acting choices that could have been stronger.  All in all, people liked it, and we made it for very little money.  As an artist, you are never complete.  You will never do a project and think “I was perfect, wow, I’m great!”  There is always the thought of doing it better or differently so I’m not gonna beat myself up.  In the end, we were three chicks who never wrote together and never produced together and we created a successful web series.

Do you have plans to do another “season?” Have you been approached by any entity to develop the series for a cable or network market?

Yes we do.  We have been approached.  We have been approached from the beginning.  Sometimes it wasn’t the right fit.  We are now open to someone coming in and developing it with us.  We needed to find who we were as writers.  We have that down so now we’re very ready for a funny, funny person to jump on board with us.

Sennett Studios circa 1915, Edendale, (present day Echo Park).

Sennett Studios circa 1915, Edendale, (present day Echo Park).

You and I both live in an area that was the site of early Hollywood filmmaking: the Echo Park/Edendale, Silverlake, Los Feliz neighborhoods. In that first decade of the 20th century, the movies were screened in storefront venues with small screens; they were called nickelodeons. The films were quite short—one-reelers, not longer than 12 or 13 minutes. More than a century later, it feels as though the new model of web series, especially in ones like The Stafford Project that are as short as those one-reelers, actually evoke that history.  Any thoughts about that?

When you told me that I was blown away… I didn’t know that information!!  I have shared that info with many people since!  It is EXACTLY what is happening now.  It goes to show you that people don’t really change, do they?  At the end of the day they just want to be entertained.  They want to be affected.  They don’t care where or how as long as they are.  If a show is good it’s good.  People will watch… Eventually.

People have been watching. While not exactly “viral” the ten episodes of The Stafford Project demonstrate just how established artists in traditional media, artists who feel constrained by the limits of commercial programming structures, can break free.

Never before has it been so possible to jump in, re-create yourself—and see where it takes you. With not a whole lot at stake either as an irretrievable career misstep, or with much money—there’s little reason not to forge ahead. New content like that on Stafford’s website and YouTube and Vimeo don’t have to be only for emerging filmmakers. Now that’s “democratization.”

You can see all ten episodes here:

http://www.youtube.com/user/realstaffordproject

Stafford in full vamp mode on a Hollywood rooftop.

Stafford in full vamp mode on a Hollywood rooftop.

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