Web TV Series Involves a Dozen Digital Media, Creative Writing and Theatre Arts Students

The stars of "Pen and Jo," a new web TV comedy series created by UMass Lowell Honors Student Elise Gorzela, are Annie Walsh and Melina Leon Image by Sam Linstead
Annie Walsh, left, and Melina Leon star in the new, student-produced web TV comedy series, "Pen and Jo."

By Katharine Webster

“Pen and Jo” steal their neighbors’ mail and read it. They kidnap a mailman, interfere in each other’s relationships, dis their neighbor T.J. but go to his parties, get analyzed for being too co-dependent and stalk a musician.

The fictional sisters, played by Annie Walsh and Melina Leon, are the brainchild of honors English major Elise Gorzela, who wrote, directed and edited five episodes of “Pen and Jo,” a web TV comedy series, after taking a screenwriting class last spring. 

“I wrote about two sisters arguing about juice in a grocery store, and I just kept writing about them,” says Gorzela, who is minoring in digital media and works as an assistant in the campus television studio.

The project, Gorzela’s honors capstone, was an educational experience for more than a dozen students who learned how to act, produce, research music and locations and do camera work. Most, like Gorzela, are English majors concentrating in creative writing who are also minoring in digital media.

“Pen and Jo” is the first web TV series created by his students, says Wael Kamal, director of the Digital Media Program and one of Gorzela’s honors advisors.

“Elise not only used and integrated all the skills she’s learned in digital media classes, but she and the other students ventured into new territory with a web TV series,” Kamal says. “Although ‘Pen and Jo’ is a comedy series with short episodes, an incredible amount of hard work went into it. I’m very impressed by how well the students worked and learned together as a team.”

Elise Gorzela (in fat suit) and Reid Kapala discuss what items "Harold" (Mike Caizzi, standing) will steal in Episode 3 of "Pen and Jo" Image by Sam Linstead
Writer and director Elise Gorzela, in fat suit, consults with producer Reid Kapala and actors Mike Caizzi and Parth Valecha about a Christmas party scene.
Gorzela says she chose web TV as a format because it was inexpensive and could reach a wide audience. She and her friends began shooting June 10, using borrowed university equipment and costumes, and worked nearly every Sunday during the summer, finishing up with two shoots in September. 

The series premiered in early November on YouTube and in the Honors College at two viewing parties: one for the students’ families on a Saturday, and another on a weekday for three dozen faculty and students, who laughed at every absurd episode. That viewing was followed by a panel discussion on what the students learned.

“It was a crash course in budget filmmaking,” says Reid Kapala, who produced the series. “I still don’t really know what a producer does. I bought the pizza and water, I was the assistant director, I was in charge of continuity and I made sure we stayed on schedule.”

Kapala, who also took Screenwriting last spring with adjunct instructor Elizabeth Mezzacappa, encouraged Gorzela to make “Pen and Jo” after she wrote a couple of episodes for the class. (Mezzacappa not only agreed to advise Gorzela on her honors capstone, but she also played the therapist the sisters consulted in Episode 4.)

Sam Linstead, the cinematographer and lighting designer, learned both skills on the fly.

“I’ve only experimented with photography before,” he says. “I pretty much learned while doing it.”

Cast and crew of "Pen and Jo," from left, include Mike Caizzi (homeless man), Melina Leon (Jo), Annie Walsh (Pen), Elise Gorzela (writer and director), Reid Kapala (producer) and Anthony Gervase (music research and moral support). Image by K. Webster
Elise Gorzela, fourth from left, and cast and crew members discussed the making of "Pen and Jo" at the Honors College premiere. The series was Gorzela's honors capstone project.
Leon, who played “Jo,” was the only student in the series besides Dani Lavoie, who played “Denise,” T.J.’s girlfriend, with previous acting experience. Leon, an English major with a concentration in journalism and professional writing, is minoring in theatre arts. 

She was one of a handful of students to audition for the show, and the only one involved who wasn’t already part of Gorzela’s circle of friends. At first, working with her co-star, Walsh, was a challenge.

“In the beginning, I drove her crazy because I didn’t know my lines, or I’d break character and make everyone laugh,” Walsh says. 

“You’d make mistakes on purpose so Melina could correct you,” Gorzela says.

“Annie’s being dramatic,” Leon says. “I went in with a more professional point of view, but she made filming a lot more fun.”

As the series progressed, the two relaxed into their characters. Walsh learned her lines and they both improvised more, especially in sections where Gorzela had planned physical comedy without dialogue – for example, in Episode 5, when the sisters try on a series of ridiculous outfits to go see Gobobo, a musician they idolize. (In real life, he’s senior Zachary Boudrot, a peace and conflict studies major and musician who wrote the “Pen and Jo” theme song.)

Stay tuned: Walsh plans to go into film, Leon plans to keep acting and Gorzela says she will keep writing and creating stories through film or television. Meanwhile, the whole crew hopes to film Season 2 in the spring. 

This time, Gorzela will make room for more improvisation, especially by Pen and Jo. Kapala is encouraging Gorzela to write an episode in which Pen, Jo or both sisters marry their despised neighbor, T.J., played by Jimmy Rocha ’17.

“They both love attention so much that I don’t think they could handle him marrying just one of them,” Kapala says.