A warming winter morning in the Chapel Hill sun, the snow is melting. Willa Brigham sits at a table reviewing her notes and Lee Wing is all excitement, ready for the shoot. Four kids come in to meet the crew and explore a bit of the "set," which is, today, the rehearsal room for the Playmakers Repertory Company on the UNC campus. These preschoolers will learn about makeup and costumes, have their faces painted, get dressed, and act out a play: "Two Princesses, a Tiger, and a Robot."
It's another day in the life of "Smart Start Kids," a television show designed for and starring 3, 4, and 5 year olds. The show actively involves the children on the program and at home in an interactive brand of television that educates while nurturing individuality. Unlike most other programs of this genre produced for school-aged children, "Smart Start Kids" is produced specifically for preschoolers by WRAL owner Capitol Broadcasting.
On the air for under a year and half, the show just completed its 23rd installment. But already it's gaining significant attention--last month The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' Midsouth region awarded Smart Start Kids an Emmy in the Children's/Educational category. Everyone having anything to do with the show is visibly excited.
Lee Wing, producer and creator of the program, has been working on developing it for more than 10 years. It began in 1994 as a radio show, "Call-In Kids," a five-minute spot where children could call in and tell their stories with host Willa Brigham. That aspect of the show has been retained for television in two segments--"Our Story," where Willa leads the children in a story whose course they essentially determine, and through an 800 number that children can call to leave a voicemail telling any story or adventure they've had that may then be put on the show accompanied by animation.
Wing stresses that the show gives kids the opportunity to express themselves. That's the main thing--expression, positive reinforcement of self-expression at an early age, before they go to school. This, coupled with accessibility, defines "Smart Start Kids."
And there's room for parents to get involved, too. "Families are watching the show together," says Phyllis Parish, the show's executive producer. "They're going as families to visit places on the show." Some of these places, visited on the "You've Got Connections" segment, include the North Carolina Museum of Art, the North Carolina Symphony, parks, farms, libraries, and backstage at the Playmakers Theatre.
The program gets its name from its affiliation with the North Carolina Partnership for Children's Smart Start program. Equally funded by state government and private sponsors, Smart Start has 82 local offices across North Carolina that administer funds to provide and improve childcare as needed. Wing says one of the greatest things about the program is that it gives a unity to the statewide program that is otherwise diversified through local autonomy. "What's really important is working to establish a grassroots connection between aspects of child development for people all across the state," she says.
The show's host, Willa Brigham, emits a soothing light through an engaging smile (complete with dimples) that bursts into song, mid-sentence. Already an accomplished storyteller, she is thrilled to be able to do the program.
"It gives me a chance to do what I do--I'm a storyteller, I'm a motivational speaker, I'm a performing artist. I couldn't get to Hollywood, but wherever I stand--whenever I stand in front of an audience--I am in my Hollywood. So I get to be a star right at home."
Wing remembers once when Brigham began the story of the three little pigs for the kids to act out, but no one wanted to be the wolf. She quickly turned the story around and told the story of the three little wolves and the big, bad pig--a version everyone could get along with.
"There's always a message, even though it's not blatant," Brigham says. "You know I don't hit you upside the head, but I tell you that Miss Chicken loves brown bread a doo dah dah duh dahdda ... and brown bread is so much better for you because it has fiber ... " The show seeks to teach not always specific skills, but the base aura of creativity and self-expression without which the knowledge of any skill remains undeveloped. "I'm just an individual that wants everyone to take responsibility for themselves and go forth and do their very best," Brigham says.
Wing has worked to make telecommunications and television useful for the public for over two decades. She worked for the North Carolina Agency for Public Telecommunications, where she spearheaded the television program OPEN/Net, a call-in show dedicated to putting the people of North Carolina in direct contact with their elected officials. Now she runs her own company, Responsive Media, where she produces "Smart Start Kids" and has an unending flow of new ideas.
She is adamant about the possibilities for television being a positive medium for community development. "It's not the media, but the message--it is possible to do things with TV that are good for people," she proclaims.
It does not have to be merely a tool of commerce, an engine to sell through mindless entertainment. She believes it can be a useful tool for personal and community growth, an accessible vector for information that serves the interests of the people at large rather than those of advertisers and communications corporations. The "message" can be a great one and she has worked successfully for more than 20 years to see that at least some of the content of television is produced to that end.
She is a mother, grandmother, songwriter (she wrote the theme for "Smart Start Kids") and lover of jazz (she plays the vibraphone).
She loves talking about the time when the kids went to the N.C. Symphony during a rehearsal and hung out with the musicians, their instruments, and the music--"they got to feel the music." This intuitive subtlety, this pervasive understanding through persistence often comes across from Wing. Feeling the music? Some people go a whole lifetime without having any idea what that means; others can see music as they play it. Wing is making it possible for these children and those watching at home to get a glimpse not only of technicalities and techniques, but also of the feeling, the intuition of creative flow and force underlying and driving things.
At the end of filming, Wing is tired and ready to go. Brigham is still working on audio, and the kids have had their snack and gone off with their parents. It's been a busy morning, and as Wing says, it takes a lot of patience to work with this age group on the part of the staff, the parents and especially the children. But it's worth it. Her company is now concentrating all its efforts on this project--there is plenty to do, plenty more Emmys to win, and further to go into the realm of possibilities. More opportunities to work for others in the spirit of goodwill and sharing, not only of information and material help, but the idea that we are sharing this place and we must all do our part to help one another.
When it's time to go, Brigham extols: "Now go forth and be good."
Smart Start Kids can be seen in the Triangle at 10 a.m. on WRAL-TV, Channel 5., Saturday mornings and 7:30 a.m. Sunday mornings on UNC-TV. For more information on Smart Start Kids, visit www.ncsmartstart.org and click on the Smart Start Kids logo.