Selling Ivory Soap

The Best and the Beautiful
Elizabeth M. Mcmillen

A group shot of cast members from HRTV’s new incarnation of “Ivory Tower,” a soap opera centered around fictional Harvard students.

“Ivory Tower,” which debuted in 1991, had been on hiatus for three years when Brandon C. Presser ’05, a theater and television enthusiast, took on the role of executive producer for a revamped, updated version of the show.

The Harvard-centric soap opera was once one of the most popular shows on Harvard-Radcliffe Television (HRTV) during the student channel’s glory days several years ago. Now Presser is on a mission to clean up this soap’s act and reclaim its spot as Harvard’s premiere student-run cable show.

Making Fiction Seem Real

Presser was first exposed to soap operas when an old high school friend of his landed a role on “Days of Our Lives.” Although initially he was only interested in watching the show because of her, he was quickly drawn into the genre’s outlandish plots and characters.

“All the plots were just hilarious,” he said. “It was this whole alternate universe.”

Presser has channeled that very idea into the foundations of “Ivory Tower,” which promises to be a fictional but essentially parallel version of Harvard University.

“This isn’t an anonymous university,” said Presser. “The idea is to turn Harvard into a soap opera. It’ll be everyday life, times 20.”

Alexis C. Madrigal ’04, one of the show’s writers, echoed Presser’s view.

“Harvard is a very unique place, and those are the elements we’re really going to focus on,” he said. “If we’re going to extract elements, sort of take them out and make them ridiculous, it’s going to be those things which are specifically Harvard. The neuroses of everyone, the very intense psychological profiles, the general awkwardness here. I’m actually looking forward to depicting some of those incredibly awkward interactions in really unflinching and squirm-inducing detail.”

To capture the University’s identity, the “Ivory Tower” writing and production staff has been trying, above all, to firmly ground the show’s often exaggerated, ridiculous action on a foundation that’s distinctly Harvard. The show will be filmed on campus, so viewers can expect to see familiar Harvard Yard and downtown Cambridge settings in the background. However, according to Presser, artificial sets have been constructed to resemble libraries and dorm rooms, environments that may not otherwise be available for filming.

The relationships between the 10 principal characters will also be drawn from Harvard life. Characters will interact as roommates, prefects, proctors, teaching fellows and compers, in order to accurately represent the social makeup of Harvard students.

“The prep will be dressed like a prep,” offered Presser.

He stressed, however, that the show’s writing staff will not fall back on cliches and will attempt to develop involved, believable relationships and characters rather than simply exploiting or spoofing soap opera conventions.

“We really want our scripts to be original,” he said. “We’re going to make fun of cliches, but we’re really striving for originality.”

Andrew M. McGee ’05, another one of the show’s writers, expressed a long-term hope of connecting with the audience and building a dedicated following through the cast.

“We hope people become attached to the characters, ultimately, and care about them from a storyline perspective,” he said. “I think that there is perhaps a humor in the concept of the soap opera, but what we’re going for is realistic interaction and emotion. Don’t expect an outlandish spoof—an Airplane! or Scary Movie.”

“Don’t expect an ensemble drama like “Friends,” either, said Presser. “It’s not going to be about a gang of friends and things that happen to them, but rather a big web of 10 characters who all know each other in different capacities. There’s going to be a lot of different tensions going on.”

“There’s all these different connections. You should see the writers’ diagram for this thing,” added Madrigal.

Building the Tower

Presser expects the new season to exhibit a marked evolution from the show’s first incarnation, which, in spite of its massive popularity on campus, was often said to be undeveloped and somewhat crudely executed. Presser has organized an all-new team of 11 writers, 10 actors, 10 technical crew members, five associate producers and several directors.

The selection process was rigorous, according to Presser, who administered the writers’ comp and oversaw the actors’ auditions.

The 35 interested writers were first asked to submit a page-long original character sketch and to write a dialogue involving that character. The second round of the comp involved writing a dramatic climax for a long-term storyline given to them by Presser and the associate producers. Ultimately, the pool was narrowed down to a cohesive, diversely talented staff of 11 writers.

“I think in that final product we have a group that meshes very well, and each member provides very distinctive strengths that support the others,” said McGee. “We just throw out ideas and they congeal together in a very exciting style.”

Acting auditions, fairly traditional in procedure, required actors to read lines from published theater works as well as scenes written by the producers.

“The best thing, I think, is that the cast is just really hot,” joked Madrigal.

Aside from the regular cast, Presser also promised that there will be cameos from “some Harvard celebs” and “well-known personalities” as early as the first episode.

Taking It to the People

Although “Ivory Tower” will only be broadcast on Cambridge Community Cable, Harvard audiences will be able to tune into the show’s season premiere in house common rooms and via webcast on the “Ivory Tower” website. Though a definite screening time has not yet been decided, Presser and the associate producers are already planning an extensive publicity campaign for the show’s Dec. 7 debut. Furthermore, they hope that the screening will be a celebrated, unifying event on campus.

“I think it’ll add a lot to the Harvard community,” said Rebecca J. Levy ’06, an actor and associate producer. “I think it’ll be a real big bonding thing.”

While production schedules will vary, new episodes, with the exception of the Monday night debut, will be shown approximately every other Sunday; Presser intends to complete 11 episodes by the end of the academic year. He also hopes to organize future screenings at the Science Center and Loker.

An online poll will be posted on the “Ivory Tower” website after every show to let fans vote on what they liked, what characters they prefer and what they would like to see in the show’s future.

“We want audience participation and involvement,” said Presser. “There’s going to be a cliffhanger and we’re going to let the audience decide what will happen.”

And although HRTV must enforce certain restrictions on the content of “Ivory Tower,” the show’s producers and writers have no intention of tiptoeing around racy subject matter or outrageous situations.

“I feel a responsibility to have some sort of funny sexual activity going on,” said Madrigal. “I feel like that’s one of my fortes as a writer. Sex is funny.”

“Whatever they write will be preserved,” said Deborah T. Mao ’05 in reference to the station’s broadcast guidelines. “It’s just a matter of how we depict things.”

“There are definitely more than two hookups in the first episode,” said Presser. “[It] will be fun to watch in more ways than one.”

—Crimson staff writer Elizabeth W. Green contributed to the reporting of this story.

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