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Shaun Zaken and Mary Alyce Kania

In University Place, left, Shaun Zaken, a second year student in the School of Speech, and Mary Alyce Kania play dewy-eyed freshmen who both work in a coffee shop. However, it's strictly platonic; she has set her cap for someone else.

Forget Melrose Place, Dawson's Creek and Beverly Hills, 90210. The buzz at Northwestern these days is about University Place, a soap opera about college life created by Northwestern University undergraduates that premiered last fall.

The house was packed at the Ryan Family Auditorium of the Technological Institute to see the first episode of their student-produced, student-acted and student-written soap.

"The audience laughed at the right places and sighed when it was sad. It was a totally interactive thing," says senior Chad Hodge, who with Sabrina Eisenstadt is co-executive producer.

The brainchild of theater major Eisenstadt, University Place chronicles the travails of 12 undergraduates at a fictitious university.

"You could call it a cross between Beverly Hills, 90210 and Dawson's Creek," says Eisenstadt, a third-year student who grew up watching All My Children and General Hospital with her mother. What she and her 70 undergraduate collaborators are trying to develop is a show that all students can relate to.

"We want to establish University Place as a campus tradition," says Eisenstadt. If it attracts network attention, so much the better, say members of the show's executive board.

When Eisenstadt came up with the idea for the show, she "hired" two radio/television/film majors, Stefanie Stein and Alex Hughes, to write the pilot. Stein and Hughes recruited 10 more writers, who were each given a plot line to work on. After churning out the first episode, a crew was assembled and auditions held.

Close to 200 people from an array of academic disciplines tried out for the soap last spring when the casting directors, senior Elisa Gil-Osorio and Hodge, who now manages all business and external affairs for the show, held auditions. The two also looked through freshman "face books" and approached students on campus who they thought had the right "look" for the soap.

Half the selected cast turned out to be students majoring in theater, a less than surprising fact given Northwestern's reputation as one of the best training grounds for acting. But Hodge, who did television commercials while still in high school, was wowed by the untrained actors, like Medill senior Josh Inch, who also made the cut. Inch gave up a spot on Northwestern's wrestling team to play the role of Luke on University Place.

Although the makers of the soap intend to keep their show light, upcoming episodes will bring up some troubling issues, including date rape, alcoholism, poor grades and money problems. And high on the list of topics will be the obligatory heavy dose of romance and relationship difficulties.

The first episode previewed some of the dilemmas to come: Will All-American, soccer-playing Paul leave his younger girlfriend behind for a high-paying job in Silicon Valley? Will Luke, the "bad boy" of University Place, win over the cautious, career-oriented Gina? Will Jamie give up the "kind-hearted brother" role and let the woman he loves know how he feels?

Only watching University Place will reveal the answers to those questions. In the meantime, Eisenstadt and Hodge have proven extraordinarily resourceful in pulling the show together on a shoestring budget. A contest among campus bands resulted in an energetic, highly professional theme song for the soap, while a bar night at a local tavern and an appeal to parents last spring brought in much-needed cash.

Shot on 3/4-inch videotape, the first show was produced for roughly $4,500, a tiny fraction of the budget for even one episode of a network soap. Costs, of course, were kept down because of the small army of unpaid students doing everything from lighting, acting and camera work to providing refreshments. Hughes and Stein wrote four episodes that follow the pilot, and the crew shot them in the winter. All five episodes were shown back-to-back on campus on several occasions this spring.

Working on the soap opera proved to be a greater time commitment than any of its cast members or executive board members ever imagined. Their days often were filled with meetings, rehearsals and long weekend shooting schedules.

Senior Bill Holderman, who played Paul, the fellow who may (or may not) be Silicon Valleybound, learned a basic Hollywood lesson: Shooting sessions are arduous and always take longer than expected. "Even if you have only two lines to say, you'll be on the set for six hours," he says.

But for almost everyone involved, working on University Place was a labor of love. More than a few called it a defining experience in their years at Northwestern. And many of the show's cast and executive board members have been bitten by the entertainment bug. Several were students in the Business of Show Business, a course offered by the School of Speech. The class was taught by Los Angeles entertainment lawyer Peter Nichols (S78, GS78), who flew to Chicago every other week during the fall quarter.

About a dozen of the University Place collaborators went to Hollywood last summer to gain firsthand knowledge of the television and film capital. Hodge and Holderman had internships at small production companies and talent management agencies. Actor Inch worked for an Evanston-based Web publishing group when he was in Los Angeles and did a commercial promo for the Montel Williams Show.

University Place lost its first cast member when junior Cheryl Tsai was recruited by an agent and dropped out of school to pursue an acting career in California. But the show goes on. Tsai was replaced by senior Medill student Janet Choi, who in turn was superseded by Peggy Yu, a freshman in the School of Speech.

For more on University Place and whether it becomes a campus tradition, well, stay tuned.

Wendy Leopold is a senior editor in Northwestern's Department of University of Relations.