Science, art and Appalachia: ‘Penny P’s Backyard’ takes a unique approach to children’s television

The show’s writers pose for a photo in Yellow Sulfur Springs. From left to right, Winema Lanoue, head writer/co-executive producer; Joe Ciccarone, creator/executive producer; Chris Valluzzo; and Joelle Shenk. Photo by Charlotte Valluzzo.

“Penny P and her three friends produce films and animation about the world around them, and in doing so they discover the connections between art and science, finding that the two seemingly different fields can share a common language. This is a fictional, episodic children’s television show that will be shot in the New River Valley,” Valluzzo explained. “I wanted to make a children’s television show, but I didn’t really want to have to leave Blacksburg to So I wrote a show around my home, and ICAT influenced the concept of art meeting science, and that was the starting point for me.

In addition to showcasing the beauty of New River Valley, portions of the show will be filmed on the Virginia Tech Blacksburg campus. The university will facilitate production and consultations with faculty experts for the science portions of the show.

Dismantle stereotypes

“Penny P’s Backyard” showcases the beauty of Appalachia instead of playing with the region’s usual stereotypes. “There is a singular, stereotypical conception of Appalachia as this backward place that struggles with poverty, drug addiction and lack of education. It’s like the only grade you get on Appalachia. But really, if Appalachia c It’s 10 things, that’s one. The other things that make up Appalachia are what the show is about. It’s just about being in Appalachia, living in its natural landscapes. We show a different angle that is often overlooked,” Valluzzo said.

Valluzzo was a student at Virginia Tech, where he took many Appalachian studies courses and graduated in 1998 with a degree in interdisciplinary studies from the College of Liberal Arts and Humanities. His experience in documentary filmmaking is largely based on the culture and music of the region. “There is little the national media does to paint Appalachia in a positive light. I wanted to break that mould. This show gives a chance to people in New York or Los Angeles and other countries around the world to learn more about an area that they only hear negative things about. For me, telling a positive story is a driving force behind making this show,” Valluzzo said, “And honestly, we’re not trying to say Appalachia is problem-free. But we want to start a discussion about good things happening here. There are good people who love their children. There is art and education and interesting stories here, and the region is not a homogeneous area full of problems.

“Penny P’s Backyard” takes concepts from art and science and finds the threads that connect them, highlighting the value of cross-disciplinary education and collaboration. “The story I’m trying to tell is that art and science have a common language. The example I always use is, say, a geologist is talking about plate tectonics, and they would explain how plate motion causes mountains to form through complex interactions of heat and pressure. They would describe the bending, molding and folding of the Earth. This led me to think that an artist who would use similar descriptions for their work would be a blacksmith. Blacksmiths use heat and pressure to create earthen and metal objects. So from there I started looking at Appalachian art forms and connecting them to science,” Valluzzo said. “So in every episode, Penny and her team make a movie about a concept that connects art and science to create a common language. ”

Representation issues

In a world where female filmmakers are rarely recognized and represented, “Penny P’s Backyard” deals factually with the subject of representation and, in doing so, seeks to inspire a new generation of filmmakers who value diversity. “It’s important for me to show children as filmmakers. I like the idea that this group of kids don’t progress through life the way normal kids do. We’re not writing the show as if they were on a play date – they actually planned to do shorts and animation. And Penny is a director, and that’s hard to find in Hollywood. I think it’s extremely important that there are young women who see Penny as a capable director in charge of a film unit. We also introduce film terms and language through the show’s dialogue, so kids watching can really get tips on making their own movies. We want to inspire kids to go out and make movies, and maybe some of them will be very good at it in the future and become famous directors.

Caring for the natural environment

Even when it comes to production, Penny P takes the road less travelled. Hollywood is the second most polluting industry in the Los Angeles area, and Valluzzo has no intention of adding to that environmental destruction, especially since the show will be filming in the ecologically significant regions of Appalachia. “I’ve written 12 episodes of this show, and finding locations is going to be really easy for us. Every place the script takes place is a place I’ve seen. Appalachia isn’t just a backdrop for the show, they actively shape the story,” he said.

“Penny P’s Backyard” is a true local business that uses local talent and all the good things Appalachia has to offer. Valluzzo is particularly careful about the people he hires for the show – and ensures that the production does not add any additional pressure on the environment. “One of our big efforts is to make this show as environmentally friendly as possible,” Valluzzo said, “I’ve hired very capable freelancers in Roanoke and the wider East Coast. This will minimize the travel and ensure we have local talent input.”

Norma A. Roth