The two nerdy college boys are playing Risk, which, apparently, is something nerdy college boys really do. But one (only one?) has his mind on girls. He wants his buddy to interrupt the battle for world domination and help him talk to the cute babe on the other side of the student lounge.
His opponent would rather play. He hems. He haws. Finally, he acquiesces, with a proviso: If his pal finds dating nirvana with this hottie, he has to remove his troops from Northern Europe. And off they go to arrange an assignation.
Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy aren't the only soaps set to show up on TV in the fall. We're at a taping today of University 101, written, staged and shot entirely by students in Drexel University's Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design. Only the actors are pros. It's set to premiere in September on DUTV, which reaches 360,000 homes in greater Philadelphia.
The plot - vapid vixens, scheming studs, blackmail, sex - is just like that of most soap operas, with the killer added attraction that it's set amongst TV's most desirable demographic. But the production is very different. No fancy folding canvas-backed chairs with crew names on them. No custom University 101 baseball caps. The sets are Drexel dorms and offices.
Between takes, director Alexandra Hanes, a sophomore from Paoli, adjusts some gaffe tape holding wires on the wall. On a real set, the electricians' union would go berserk - not to mention that a real director would never dream of doing such menial work.
Lacking decent seating, Hanes kneels on the floor of the fifth-floor lounge in Caneris Hall, peering at the monitors from two (not three or four) stationary (not on tracks or dollies) cameras. There's no stentorian assistant director to shout for quiet on the set. Hanes has to do it herself, and she doesn't exactly have the authoritarian mien of Stanley Kubrick.
Eventually, a hush descends.
At the end of the take, she tells actors Brandon Johnson and Ben Stanley they were perfect.
Big mistake, she quickly laments aloud. "They told me in directing class not to say that." You never tell actors they're perfect because you want a fresh take every time, she explains later. Tell them how great they are, they'll just try to repeat the performance, and it will be flat.
University 101 is above all a learning experience for the undergraduates, a regular class with full credit. Music industry students are doing the scoring, fashion design students the costumes, interior design students the sets.
Students in the screenwriting and playwriting program made up the scripts. Six-time Emmy winner Lorraine Broderick, former head writer on Days of Our Lives, As the World Turns, All My Children and The Guiding Light, was the professor.
Now film and video students, under the direction of Felicia M. Behr, former ABC-TV senior vice president of daytime programming, are completing production of the show's five episodes.
That the guest professors are not chopped liver can be credited to Westphal dean Allen Sabinson, who, in a wide-ranging TV career, has overseen productions everywhere from A&E (before it became Reality City) to ABC to Showtime. University 101 was his idea.
"I didn't stand in the way of anything the students wanted to do," he says. With one exception: The character of an evil university trustee was changed to an evil outside counsel. No need to aggravate the bosses.
Somewhat surprisingly, the students chose to include no bedroom scenes in this soap, but a cleavage shot is written into the script, for Sam, the object of our Risk player's desire, played by Chelsea DiPilla, 22, of Somers Point, N.J.
Like the rest of the cast, who make about $200 a day for their once-a-week work (the show shoots on Fridays), she's no household name. But she's had a few other paying jobs. You can see her at ShorefireNJ.com, a video guide to the Jersey Shore, where she's one of the hosts.
Students take turns at production jobs, lighting, camera work and the like, and the big plum: direction. There are three different directors for six scenes in three locations today.
Hanes has been a lowly boom-mike operator, just as director Kevin Martin of Fort Lee, N.J., is doing for the Risk scene. It's a hard job for beginners. That darn stick keeps dropping into the picture. Lenneal McKudu is the third director. He's a senior from Johannesburg, South Africa, where a group of eight schools came recruiting a few years ago.
"Drexel caught my eye," says McKudu, who says he has wanted to follow a film career since he was a preteen. He's not sure where he's headed after graduation on June 18. "L.A.'s on my map, but I'll go wherever I can get the money to make a film."
Videographer Ashley Hulse, a sophomore from Manasquan, N.J., wants to shoot nature documentaries for National Geographic. Chris Mercury, from Downingtown, in charge of lighting the lounge scene, figures he'll do the same kind of work after he graduates, though he might "dabble" in directing.
"Their ambitions are wonderful," says Sabinson, who knows how tough it is to get ahead in the entertainment industry. "But at least they will be way ahead of most of the other kids who show up looking for film and TV work."
And for some students, University 101 is its own reward. As shooting moves to the dean's office, three interior design majors, Jennifer Hirsh of Rydal, Marianna Giuffre of Little Silver, N.J., and Suzanne Farrell of Marlton, sit on the sidelines.
Set design is a little different from the elevation drawings and theoretical palaver they deal with in classes. "We actually have to put stuff together in a room and make it work," says Farrell. "You have to ad lib and play it by ear."
Lamenting that there are no males in her interior design class, Giuffre sees a brighter spot in the interdisciplinary cooperation: "The film kids are so cute."