Sizzling seniors: WLACC plays host to video shoot for TV pitch
Joan Hallinan was working the front desk at the West Linn Adult Community Center recently when a call came in from New York City.
As coincidence would have it, the caller — Oregon City native Travis Ferguson — was looking for her. Or, more specifically, he was hoping to get in touch with the Age-Cured Hams — an theatrical improv group for seniors that Hallinan helped start at the WLACC in 2013.
Ferguson, a writer, actor and producer who recently opened his own talent agency called Hell's Kitchen in New York, was in the process of developing a pitch for a TV show called "Grannies with Guns." To film what is referred to as a "sizzle reel" — a short, trailer-like film that's intended to sell producers on a pilot — Ferguson was preparing to travel back home and enlist help from older actresses. His father, Jerry Ferguson, had a friend who suggested the Age-Cured Hams.
And so it was that on Thursday, Aug. 23, Ferguson and his crew spent several hours at the WLACC filming scenes for the sizzle reel with the help of Hallinan and other "hams."
"All of us are in it, at least as extras," Hallinan said. "But we have two that are the stars: Alice Johannson and Kathleen Atkins."
For the shoot, one of the classrooms at the WLACC was transformed to resemble a senior living facility. The four main actresses were filmed at a table playing dominoes, while those serving as extras were gathered in chairs around a television playing a classic film.
"I was very happy with their talent and enthusiasm," Ferguson said. "They're very unique actresses for a very unique project."
Ferguson, who graduated from Canby High School, has spent the last 11 years in New York making a name for himself in the entertainment industry.
"I've worked for Broadway companies, worked for film companies, and I've been an actor part-time," he said. "Last year, in June, I launched my own company … I represent, as actors, transgender people, non-binary artists, artists with disabilities and artists of color."
Ferguson has also been writing since high school, and in 2011 he wrote an off-Broadway musical called "The Legend of Julie Taymor, or The Musical That Killed Everybody!" About five years ago Ferguson started writing what would become "Grannies with Guns," and he decided to get serious about it as he watched the television streaming industry grow exponentially.
"Amazon is spending a record $6 billion on content next year, and Netflix and Hulu are trying to match," Ferguson said. "There's not enough content to fill the demand that streaming networks want to put on their platforms. It used to be that you could only have 12 hours (of programming) a day … now there's an unlimited amount of shows."
Ferguson described his show as a mix between "Golden Girls" and "Breaking Bad," with a bit of "Thelma and Louise" thrown in as well.
"There's four senior women who each, in their own story, have lost their retirements, pensions, in some cases their homes and health," Ferguson said. "This is obviously a situation a lot of seniors are in in this country, in this economy. These four women say they could waste away in retirement — or go on an adventure."
The adventure, in this case, is robbing a bank — the same bank that foreclosed on one of the character's home. Ferguson said he was inspired in part by the 2013 film "Nebraska" and its portrayal of seniors who run into financial turmoil.
"We spend a large part of our lives in retirement, but a lot of people don't end up with anything," Ferguson said. "I liked the idea of four women saying that their lives aren't over."
Despite the title, Ferguson said the show by no means promotes gun violence and is not intended to be a commentary on gun control debates.
"I wouldn't say it promotes any kind of violence, and the women themselves don't commit any overt violent crimes," he said.
In conceiving the idea and writing the script, Ferguson had a very specific subgroup of actresses in mind — one that the Age-Cured Hams and other local women like Virginia Kincaid (a professional actress) and Bette Longden (a comedian) fit perfectly.
"I wanted little white-haired old ladies who could prove how great they really are," he said. "It's just a tale of adventure and bravery – strong women being heroes."
Hallinan, for her part, said the improv group was surprised and happy to be recognized by Ferguson.
"I did go and look at the (agency) website to make sure this wasn't some sort of senior scam," Hallinan said. "What I can't believe is how word of us got all the way across the continent."