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Stephens College professor turns fictitious Missouri town into online reality

Monday, August 5, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:47 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, August 7, 2013
Paula Carter portrays the acting mayor for Daffodil Township in Kate Berneking Kogut's new project "American Riviera." The fictional town is being built around Kogut's Web series with extensions such as a Web-based newspaper and the town's government website.

COLUMBIA — The Night of Narcissus Celebration is one of the main events in Daffodil Township in mid-Missouri.

One autumn afternoon, the whole town comes together to exchange daffodil bulbs, sing, games and enjoy a cupcake decorating contest. Men enter the Daffodil Dandy pageant, which decides who will have the privilege of presiding over the blooming of the daffodils the next spring.

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The thing is, Daffodil Township doesn't exist. But Kate Berneking Kogut, writer, producer and director of the Web series "American Riviera," wants her audience to believe it does.

"I'm pretty much building a town," said Kogut, an assistant professor of creative writing at Stephens College.

In Kogut's latest project, the residents of Daffodil Township are preparing to become a new coastline town — even though the community is landlocked. Under this story line, the residents have no firm scientific data, just a psychic's strong prediction and environmental trends. While the storyline will be humorous, Kogut hopes to engage her audience in the underlying environmental and community themes.

Kogut hasn't limited the scope of the characters in Daffodil Township to online videos. She has taken her idea, once intended for a feature film, into multiple media formats — a town government website, an online newspaper, the Web series and possibly a blog — to give an in-depth feel to the town and its residents.

"There are so many more avenues that are available that we didn't have in the past," said Richard Lawless, who plays the baker and is one of 24 members in the cast and crew in "American Riviera." "Everything will come together."

The videos were shot on private residences in mid-Missouri, just where Daffodil Township would be in real life.

Kogut said the story pretty much started with the idea of "What if?" What would happen if mid-Missouri suddenly became a coastline? What would the characters do?

"I wanted to show how the residents were reacting to this event," she said. "As I develop these characters, they reveal things to me. This story is very character-driven."

The website will contain background information on characters and the town, including historical documents, newspaper archives and possibly tweets from the mayor.

"American Riviera" is scheduled to debut this fall. The websites will be up and running before the Web series premieres so the audience can get familiar with the story background, Kogut said.

She plans to post season one episodes, which vary in length from less than a minute to about four minutes, in late October or early November. She doesn't know yet how many episodes will be in season one.

Episodes will follow a "mockumentary" style, similar to "The Office" and "Modern Family." While the narrative storyline will show what is happening, the residents of Daffodil Township will share their private thoughts through interviews.

"We had four cameras running, and we were catching so much of the day," camera operator Taylor Grant said. "The hardest part was catching the feel. We would transition from a narrative style to a reality TV style, and we needed to switch between with ease to draw people in. We wanted to make people feel like part of the story."

Kogut hasn't thought much yet about getting the word out about "American Riviera." She's been busy working on "I Am One," a movie about bullying, with Steph Borklund, assistant professor of film at Stephens.

One of the biggest challenges for the "American Riviera" audience will be trying to determine whether the town is real, Grant said.

"There are a lot of avenues to reach others," Grant said. "People will be going: 'Is this real?' 'No, I don't think it is.' 'No, it is real.' It has that kind of aura about it."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.


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