UNCSA alum Anderson and friends join forces to create ‘The Drama Dept.’

by Keith Barber

Mike Anderson. (courtesy photo)

Friendship, like the immortality of the soul, is too good to be believed. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

With a little help from his friends and scores of financial backers, Mike Anderson, a 2006 graduate of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, is poised to create his first television pilot.

Inspired by Anderson’s days as a drama major at UNCSA, “The Drama Dept.” tells the story of first-year drama students at one of the nation’s top acting academies — a conservatory that is facing drastic budget cuts. Anderson describes the ensemble cast of 8 to 10 characters as typical first-year drama students — emotionally unstable and incredibly egotistical. The financial dilemma of the arts school reflects the draconian budget cuts UNCSA is currently facing.

“We’re interested in opening up a national conversation and dialogue about the importance of art,” Anderson said. “This is personal and near and dear to our hearts.

“Across the country, arts budgets are on the chopping block,” he continued. “There seems to be this prevalent attitude among those in government that arts are somehow less valuable to a student’s education.”

It all began 18 months ago when EJ Cantu, a fellow UNCSA alumnus, came to Anderson and pitched the idea of a TV show based on their time at the arts conservatory in Winston-Salem. An actor and playwright, Anderson enthusiastically came on board as the show’s creator and head writer. Anderson and Cantu reached out to director Jesse Patch, a member of the Irregulars — a film production team based in New York City — as they began to build their team.

Two weeks ago, Anderson and company built a profile for “The Drama Dept.” and posted it on the website — the world’s largest funding website for creative projects.

“We set out to raise $10,000 on Kickstarter,” Anderson explained.

“The thing about Kickstarter is you set a time limit for yourself, so we are actually more than halfway to our funding and we have 17 days left. We’ve been very lucky; we’ve had a lot of support from [NC] School of the Arts alumni and faculty and total strangers.”

As of this week, “The Drama Dept.” had raised $5,384 of its $10,000 funding goal from 84 backers with 17 days left in its pledge drive.

“The great thing about Kickstarter is it’s a micro-donation website,” Anderson said. “It’s really about making donations from as little as a dollar to $25. Most projects get donations of $25 or less.”

Once Anderson and his friends meet their fundraising goal, the real work begins. Developing narratives and plotlines for a television series is a grueling process that involves countless hours of writing, editing and the purest form of collaboration.

“One thing about TV is it’s an incredibly collaborative form because it becomes so big with narratives and plotlines,” Anderson said. “One of the reasons we chose TV is it allows you to tell a story over a very long time. When you get to know characters over several seasons, over several years, the story has a chance to go further and resonate deeper if you only met these people for an hour or two in a play or film.”

Currently, Anderson and his team are scouting locations in New York City for the pilot episode of “The Drama Dept.” In the pilot, it’s revealed that the arts school has taken in a larger than normal group of first-year drama students to help offset state budget cuts, “so the program is kind of deteriorating,” Anderson said.

The primary storyline focuses on the struggles of eight first-year students to find their way and discover their passion for theatre.

“What we want to do that is funny but touches your heart,” Anderson said. “It’s incredibly realistic and grounded — somewhere between ‘Friday Night Lights,’ ‘Arrested Development’ and ‘Party Down.’ We want to do for classical theater what ‘Glee’ has done for musical theater.”

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