by Clark Groome
When director, creator and writer Brent Roske was beginning production on the Web series “Chasing the Hill,” Chestnut Hill native Melissa Fitzgerald was contacted by her former agent. Because Fitzgerald, who had a recurring role on Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing,” on which she worked with “Chasing” executive producer Richard Schiff, was committed to political drama and was a political activist, Roske wanted her to be part of the project.
The show, which has produced the first three of a proposed six episodes and is available online at www.chasingthehill.com (it is not a scheduled TV series), is about a Congressional race between fictional incumbent California representative Kristi Ryan and several challengers.
Fitzgerald, 47, was busy as a producer when Roske called. She was still working on her Ugandan documentary retitled “After Kony: Staging Hope” (see Len Lear’s article about that project in the Oct. 27, 2011 Local) and hadn’t had time to act. “It had become too difficult to try and juggle going to auditions and producing,” she said in a recent telephone interview.
But after reading the “Chasing the Hill” script, she was hooked. “It’s so hard to find things that are really well written,” Fitzgerald noted. “I was really spoiled after being part of ‘The West Wing,’ which was so beautifully written.”
She called Roske back and told him she’d love to do it. “He offered me the role of someone who works for the woman running for Congress. I said, ‘I played a staff person for seven years (in 100 episodes) on The West Wing, and I’m older now.’ He said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I want to run for Congress.’ He said that we could do that.”
While her candidate, Samantha Clemons was not in the first episode, an ad that she ran against Ryan was. She appeared in the next episode and is the primary focus of episode three, entitled “The Enchanted Life of Samantha Clemons.” This program, like its two predecessors, contains a mix of real-life politicians, actors and a pol playing an actor.
Most of the dialogue takes place among Fitzgerald’s character, former California Governor Gray Davis and long-time political operative Lawrence O’Donnell (now an MSNBC contributor) as Governor Jack Ross.
Also front and center is former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, someone Melissa has known since she was a kid. Rendell and her father, James J. Fitzgerald III (now a Pennsylvania Superior Court senior judge), worked together in Arlen Specter’s Philadelphia District Attorney’s office. For many years — in spite of growing up in a Republican family — Melissa has been an active campaigner for Democratic candidates, her old friend Rendell among them.
She describes herself as an “actor-vist,” which is one of the reasons she’s so pleased to be part of “Chasing the Hill.” “Doing a show about politics,” she said, “is exciting and timely and relevant. We get to [deal with] issues that aren’t always addressed.”
Melissa’s interest in politics may be a product of her parents’ influence, she said, but much of her attitude about acting and the arts was established as a student at Springside School. The 1983 graduate was an active member of the theater group that was then called Chestnut Hill Academy Players and later renamed “The Players” as it became a major extra-curricular part of the two schools’ coordinate program.
“(The Players) was a great program. Its commitment to excellence from a very early age was important, especially in this profession. We could not be late to rehearsal. If you were, you were out of the play. (In the acting world) there are so many people who want to do it that if you’re not showing up, showing up on time, showing up with your A-game, there’s a thousand people right behind you who will. I definitely got that message from the Players and (faculty member) Owen Boyer early on.”
After Springside, Fitzgerald went to the University of Pennsylvania, earning a B.A. in English in 1987. She then headed to New York, where she studied acting with Sanford Meisner at the famed Neighborhood Playhouse. She has always believed, she said, that “Arts in the schools are very important, especially to reach students who aren’t reachable in the same way other students might be.”
After moving to the west coast, she said, “I started a non-profit called ‘Voices in Harmony’ to work with at-risk teens on a mentoring theater program. It wasn’t because we want to make actors out of those teenagers. We don’t. It’s a horrible profession. It’s about them experiencing and having their own voices, self-expression and sharing their stories with their community and with other communities. It’s about skills. It’s a practical-based program with responsibility, participation and integrity, all the things I learned in Players.”
Her activism includes her art. “It’s important,” she said, “that art have social relevance,” and that is part of the reason she’s involved with “Chasing the Hill.”
While only three episodes have been shot, she does expect that there will be three more. She describes a Web series as being the TV equivalent of Off-Off-Broadway: done on a shoestring and mounted when the money and people are available. While anyone can watch “Chasing the Hill” for free, viewers are asked to pay $1.99 for each episode. This is not a requirement, but Melissa noted that it’s an important source of income for the show.
She also pointed out that during her conversations with Gov. Rendell (shot at the Democratic National Convention), he suggested off-camera that she move back to Philadelphia and run for Congress.
She’s considering it.
So going from “Chasing the Hill” as fiction to chasing the Hill (Chestnut Hill, that is) for votes seems to be a real possibility. Melissa reported that Rendell said that would be “Art imitating life.”