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2010 News Releases

Longwood faculty & staff star in Virginia State Parks TV commercials

February 18, 2010

Four Longwood University faculty and staff members are among the stars in the new Virginia State Park commercials shown above.

Four Longwood University faculty and staff members are among the stars of the Virginia State Parks' newest TV commercials, and another faculty member helped with casting.

Two 30-second public service announcements that first aired Feb. 8 include speaking roles by Dr. Naomi Johnson, assistant professor of communication studies, and Dr. Pamela Tracy, associate professor of communication studies. Johnson's husband, Greg Tsigaridas, system engineer for Information and Instructional Technology Services, and Heather Swank, box office manager, have non-speaking parts. Pamela Arkin, associate professor of theatre, was asked to help with casting by Jerry Williams, a Richmond-based writer/producer/director who was hired by Virginia State Parks to produce and direct the ads.

"He wanted real people, not actor types, and he wanted people who might actually go to a state park," said Arkin. "He also wanted people who would understand that it takes a lot longer than you might think to make these commercials - about 50 times longer. There is a lot of standing around and waiting. As it turns out, we got very lucky that we had all of these wonderful people who could do it.

"I have done casting for a living - I once worked for an advertising agency and made commercials - and I still do casting, for our (Longwood Theatre) shows," added Arkin, who received the initial phone call from Williams in March 2009. "I asked for, and was sent, a sheet with the casting requirements, and then Jerry, the executive producer (Jim Meisner, public relations specialist for Virginia State Parks), and I met at Macado's (restaurant in Farmville)."

The commercials were filmed June 12 at James River State Park in western Buckingham County, which took all day, then the next day at High Bridge State Park in Farmville, Sailor's Creek Battlefield State Park in Amelia County, and Twin Lakes State Park in the Green Bay area of Prince Edward County.

Among the Longwood actors, Tracy, her husband, Steven Libby, and their sons, Camden and Keillor, were filmed at James River State Park. Johnson and Tsigaridas were filmed at High Bridge and Sailor's Creek parks, while Swank and her husband, Carl, were filmed at Twin Lakes and High Bridge parks.

"It was more involved than we both expected," said Johnson, whose scene was filmed on a bridge about a quarter-mile from Walker's Diner, where they parked. "We didn't expect that many takes, which was a revelation. Greg and I had to keep saying the same line over and over again, for about 20 minutes, emphasizing different words. But I enjoyed myself. Greg and I like to hike and camp at state and national parks, so it's important to us to support our park system."

Tsigaridas echoed his wife's sentiments. "It was more difficult than we expected. First, we said our lines together, then one of us by himself, then the other. We had to get our cadence just right and put the stress on the last word, 'trails.' And while we were saying our lines, we had a mike-boom in our face, people were walking on the bridge, horses were moving, and they would say 'OK, everybody reset.' There was a lot of coordinating to do. It was a little trickier than we expected."

Tracy, the faculty representative to the Board of Visitors, had to miss part of the Board meeting June 12 for her filming. "I had to have quite a few takes," she said. "I'm a good public speaker, but I'm not a great actress! My husband, on the other hand, who also had a speaking part - he says 'I love the view at Virginia State Parks' - was perfect. He was a natural."

All of the Longwood people, because they were hired actors, were paid $75 each and received an annual pass to all Virginia State Parks. Because of the distance (James River State Park, said Williams, is "in the middle of nowhere"), Tracy and her family received an additional $100 traveling money.

"It was a lot of fun, and it was wonderful to be included in something like that," Swank said. "I've been telling friends all across the country about it; I must have sent the link to 50 or 60 people, some of whom have emailed us back and made comments about us being movie stars. Carl and I often to go to Holliday Lake State Park since it's near our home."

In one of the ads, Johnson, with Tsigaridas standing beside her, says "We love the trails at Virginia State Parks," and in another scene Tracy, on a porch cabin with her family nearby, says "I love staying at Virginia State Parks." Just after Johnson says her line, Swank and her husband are shown (in a boxed inset) walking in the background, and then Tsigaridas, who rides a bicycle to work, is shown riding a bicycle (not his own but Swank's husband). Johnson and Tsigaridas also appear as part of a group listening to a park ranger in a scene in which a girl says "I love learning in Virginia State Parks."

In the other ad, Tracy and her family are in the background in a fishing scene; her younger son, Camden (with Claire Utzinger, the daughter of a friend of Tracy's who teaches at Hampden-Sydney College), says "We love camping at Virginia State Parks" while her other son and husband work on a tent in the background; and Carl Swank, beside Heather, says "We love hiking at Virginia State Parks." With both ads, which include a message by Gov. Bob McDonnell at the end, abbreviated versions of the Longwood actors' speaking clips appear in split-screen images at the beginning and the end.

The ads, which have been posted on YouTube and condensed into one 60-second radio ad, are done in partnership with the Virginia Association of Broadcasters (VAB), said Jim Meisner of Virginia State Parks. The TV ads will run in February and March on the VAB's 35 member TV stations as part of the agreement with the VAB, "and stations are encouraged to run the spots as public service announcements the rest of the year - and they do," Meisner said. "Some stations run them year-round."

"I've been doing these spots for 12 years, but this was the first time an outside director was hired, and we've never used talent like this to the degree we did this year," he added. "Each scene took about an hour. It was a pretty hectic two days. It was a great opportunity and a great experience to work with Longwood. The Longwood people were a pleasure to work with."

Arkin, who has acted extensively, was asked to appear in the commercials but declined. "I'm 61 years old, and I don't like camping," she said. "I like my foam memory mattress!"