It's been three decades since Lee Sherman Dreyfus declared that Madison was 30 square miles surrounded by reality. This number in the slogan has grown since along with the city, climbing to somewhere in the neighborhood of four score on land plus a few more on water. Whatever the exact figure may be until the city's next growth spurt, reality looks to be encroaching on this little sanctuary through our televisions.
Reality TV has been a pop culture force to be reckoned with for nearly a decade, but Madison and its denizens have largely been on the periphery of this insta-celebrity action over most of this time. There are some exceptions, of course.
First of all, the city is a regular stop on the cattle call circuit. Various shows and production companies have held first-round casting sessions in Madison. America's Next Top Model casting calls have been held in town several times, the most recent being last weekend at The Pink Poodle boutique on the west side. Also stopping by in recent years is Bunim/Murray Productions, which is best known for the reality-archetype The Real World and its spinoff Road Rules on MTV. This latter show even made a quick stop in Madison on its cross-country fifth season back in 1998.
A few hopefuls from in and around Madison have been cast here and there too. University of Wisconsin-Madison alumnus John Baumgartner was cast in 2003 as one of the 16 finalists on the inaugural season of the NBC series Average Joe. More recently in January 2008, Clinton native and University of Wisconsin-Whitewater student Steph Syverson was one 24 finalists for the first season of Make Me A Supermodel on Bravo, and one of the first ten eliminated in a pre-season casting special. Barely a month later, Waunakee native Allison Kuehn took her bow as one of 14 cast members in Cycle 10 of America's Next Top Model, appearing in three episodes before being eliminated.
Far more familiar, though, is the story of Denise Jackson. The phenomenal singer-songwriter who graduated this spring from La Follette High School came close to making the final casting cut on American Idol not once but twice. Despite those disappointments and a moot controversy following a performance at Café Montmartre, she perseveres in her pursuit of the big time. Jackson's compelling story, as well as that of her musical patron and collaborator Rafael Ragland, is chronicled by John Mendels(s)ohn in this week's Isthmus cover story . Titled "'American Idol' and beyond", it explores their tale of hope amidst the challenges of poverty and pitfalls of crime.
This week, though, the television stars aligned and brought several more local stories to the forefront, both related to two of the better known versions of reality on big and small screens alike.
Madison West High School senior-to-be Tierney Chamberlain was selected as one of 12 finalists on the brand new ABC series High School Musical: Get in the Picture. A spin-off of the wildly successful Disney television franchise, this summer reality series will follow contestants as they rehearse in a summer music program in Salt Lake City. Their goal is a spot in High School Musical 3: Senior Year, the trilogy-completing entrant in the song-and-dance series that will be released theatrically this autumn. This grand prize includes a spot in a music video that will playing during the end credits of the film, along with a talent agreement with ABC and a two-single recording contract with Disney.
Get in the Picture debuted on Sunday, July 20 with the opening half of a nationwide casting process. The first episode followed a series of in-person tryouts in Orlando, as well as a series of targeted visits to those who submitted video auditions from around the eastern half of the U.S. One casting agent, or "faculty member" in the parlance of the series, made his way to Madison to audition West High student Domingo Meneses for the program, and while there, solicited a song from Chamberlain. Both were among 34 hopefuls invited to the casting semi-finals, from which six would be selected to join six more from the western half of the country for a spot on the program.
Chamberlain was one of the six chosen for a shot in the picture. Her time at the music program in Utah, which will be told as the season unfolds, builds upon a solid resume of high school musical experience at West, which includes roles in Fiddler on the Roof, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and A Chorus Line over her freshman through junior years. Chamberlain had the role of "Cassie" in this third stage classic, and a sample of her performance can be viewed in an online video clip featuring her singing "The Music and the Mirror" from the 1976 monster hit recently revived on Broadway.
An older video clip portentously titled "A truly American Idol," meanwhile, features Chamberlain singing "The Star Spangled Banner" in a crowded gym at West High.
Viewers of High School Musical: Get in the Picture are already raving about her voice and performances so far. "Tierney Chamberlain established herself as a frontrunner in the semi-final round with a standout performance of 'What I've Been Looking For,'" declared a writer for BuddyTV in a synopsis of the second episode which aired on Monday "Tierney Chamberlain's voice is honestly too good for this competition," declared a writer for the Portsmouth Herald in New Hampshire. "The question is, do her moves and personality match?"
They did enough her performance before the final cut, in which she sang a duet with fellow contestant James Wolpert. "Tierney and James went first, setting the bar really, really high," exclaimed the viewer from the Granite State. "They sounded incredible together. I still say that Tierney's voice is just too strong for this competition, but obviously she deserves to move through."
Others concurred. "They sang Natalie Imbruglia's 'Torn' and were absolutely fantastic," declared another viewer. "As the first team they set the bar very high. They have very different vocal styles but Tierney was able to give herself more of a 'rocker' edge to match up with James. They both had good emotion and well thought out staging. Very impressive for one day's work."
Appropriately enough, a video clip of their duet is already online.
"I can see her going far in this competition," in-depth recap of the first two episodes was published on Reality TV Calendar, and , the Dane County house developing giant that was recognized as the 2008 Builder of the Year by Professional Builder magazine. The company is inviting viewers and volunteers to follow the action their interest in participating -- will go about building the dream home under the direction of Pennington and his crew. Also essential to the makeover, as well as the stagecraft of the show, are the thousands of volunteers who will be on hand to assist in the process. More information about the makeover and accompanying shoot is detailed in a Top Chef: The Tour stops in town on Wednesday, August 27. Though the time and location haven't been announced yet, the tour includes appearances by Top Chef contestants, cooking demonstrations, and more.
Maybe the chronological proximity of these reality TV moments in Madison is a fluke. But it might not be. Perhaps the quintessential 21st Century television format really is encroaching on our reality. Then again, it could be the other way around.
David Medaris also contributed to this article.