Green Guide

Man wants children's show to highlight Appalachian culture

Posted September 4

— When the cast and crew of "Penny P's Backyard" paused for another break between takes of filming a two-word scene, one of its young stars sighed deeply.

"I thought this was supposed to be the shortest scene?" asked Ruby Provo, a 9-year-old who plays Nelly, one of four friends who are the focus of the children's television show that its director hopes will tell a new story of Appalachian culture while making history for its use of renewable energy.

Filming the show's first scenes at the historic Yellow Sulphur Springs resort, Ruby and the children who play Penny P, "Ramp" and Sadie experienced firsthand the truth of the old film industry adage, "hurry up and wait."

While director Chris Valluzzo, a documentary filmmaker whose day job is at Virginia Tech, huddled with crew members to discuss blocking and lighting, the cast entertained itself.

Kylie Miller, 13 and the show's titular main character, did pirouettes in the muddy grass. Izzie Valluzzo, Chris' 9-year-old daughter who plays Sadie, flicked a prop light on and off. In the log cabin that serves as the four friends' on-screen film studio, Isaac Hadden, 14, crouched beneath a window sill, still ready for the cue that calls for his character, nicknamed "Ramp" after the wild onion and looking just like a young Gene Wilder-as-Willy Wonka, to pop into frame with an "I'm here."

"Isaac, what are you doing?" Ruby asked.

"Just hanging out," Isaac told her cheerfully.

With each scene, Valluzzo is fulfilling a dream he's held to for more than a decade, to film something at the old resort. When he first discovered the springs, the film Valluzzo had in mind was a horror story.

The concept has changed dramatically over the years — don't worry, there are no dark plot twists planned for the children's show — but his desire to film at the Yellow Sulphur Springs never went away.

"This place is really magical to me," Valluzzo said. "It's just this island that nobody knows about."

"Penny P's Backyard" is an ambitious attempt to see through that dream. Valluzzo wants the show to open up Appalachian culture to a national audience the way "Sesame Street" opened up urban culture when it debuted in the 1960s. In the episodes, the four friends will explore nature, art, music and more, all from Penny P's backyard at the Yellow Sulphur Springs.

"This show will be a love letter to Southwest Virginia," Valluzzo said.

Valluzzo said he wants to counter the negative national stereotype that follows Appalachia and show the vibrant "other side" of the region.

"I want people to understand, from Portland and L.A. and even across the pond in Europe, that what you know about Appalachia is what the national media has been telling you," he said. "What we're here to do is show you a different part of it."

Right now, the show is still mostly an idea on paper. The first phase is the "proof-of-concept" the cast is filming now — a 10-minute example of the show. If that's successful, they'll go on to film a pilot episode.

Valluzzo has big plans for the pilot. He intends the show to be produced entirely using renewable energy through a partnership with Solar Connexion in Blacksburg. The solar energy company came on board after Valluzzo pitched the idea in an email.

"I have to admit, we get quite a few unsolicited, crazy idea emails," Solar Connexion's Cortney Martin said. "So we were like, 'Oh, is this one of those?' But then after we met with him, we really got excited."

The show's Appalachian theme fits right in with the company's renewable energy mission, Martin said. "Sustainability is really a big part of the Appalachian culture. Everything ties back to the sun," she said. "To be able to use that to provide energy for production just really fits."

If the proof-of-concept works, and if Valluzzo can raise money for the filming, either through grants, donations or sponsorships, he believes the pilot episode would be the first in television history to be filmed exclusively with renewable energy.

That's all a ways off, but after about three years of planning, just getting to filming was still pretty exciting.

"It's pretty cool," Valluzzo said. "It's starting."

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