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Portraying the Real Appalachia: New Kids' TV Show Explores Arts and Science in Our Backyard

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A Blacksburg film maker says that for too long, the media’s represented Appalachia only in negative stereotypes. He wants to change that image with a new children’s television show that explores the region’s assets. It’s a blend of arts, science, and Appalachian culture that teaches kids about the amazing things you can find in your own backyard.    

The main characters belong to an afterschool film club. They use their cameras to explore their world and broaden the audiences’ perspective on Appalachia - kind of like a Sesame Street for the outdoors.

“For me,” says film maker Chris Valluzzo, “That’s the really key thing; trying to show the larger world, that has been fed one line about the people of this area, for the better part of 200 years. I want to flip that and show the other parts.”

In each episode, they interview local experts for their ‘movie project’.

“The basic core of the show is, we’re taking STEM education, which is, science, technology, engineering and math and we’re fusing it with Appalachian folk culture and folk science.

So, in the pilot episode, the science is going to be plate tectonics. Because the show is set in Appalachia, we want to talk about how the mountains are formed. And in a conversation with a geologist, we’d hear terms like ‘heat’ and ‘pressure’ and the bending and molding and folding of earth, relating to the forces of the earth in plate tectonics. An Appalachian folk artist, who would use near identical terms, would be a blacksmith and a potter. They use heat and pressure to bend, mold, and fold earth into their creations."

"I want 'Penny P' to do for Appalachia what 'Sesame Street' did for the urban environment."

The show is called Penny P’s Backyard and it’s being filmed in what looks like a living fairy tale - an early 19th century hotel, surrounded by cottages, tucked away in an impossibly beautiful clearing in the woods.

“This is a gem in the middle of Christiansburg and nobody knows about it,” says Valluzo.

The same could be said about this part of Virginia.  Home to artists and scientists and leading-edge technology that’s been percolating here for hundreds of years.

Jason Tice, a producer on the show says, “You know, we live somewhere very cool and very beautiful but we don’t always notice it.

So, Penny is going to notice her backyard in the series. We’ve got a modern era where people are becoming disconnected at times from even their own yards. Penny P’s assignment is her own backyard to understand what is happening right around her.”

Tice worked with Valluzzo on the 2007 documentary Hokie Nation about Virginia Tech Football culture, arguably this part of Virginia’s greatest pride.  In this project, the region itself is the main character.

“Where’s Penny P. going to go today?" asks Tice. "Where’ she going to explore? What is she going to find? ‘Oh, I have that in my yard’ and these kids can go out and really apply these things to their own back yard - not just what’s in Penny P’s backyard, but ‘what’s in your backyard?’

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Front Row: L-R Ruby Provo "Nelly"; Izzie Valluzzo "Sadie"; Kylie Miller "Penny P"; Tinzin (Security) and Isaac Hadden "Ramp"; Back Row. L-R Joshua Wright (Grip&Electric or G&E), Darren Van Dyke (Director of Photography), Ben Page (Gaffer), Chris Valluzzo (Creator/Director)

Chris Valluzzo says, “There’s something about this area that I haven’t come across in really, many other places.  There’s something remarkable in every bend of the road and over top of every mountain that opens my eyes, not only to the beauty and grandeur of the place but also beauty and grandeur of the people here. For me that’s the key thing of the show."

Valluzzo grew up in Northern Virginia and went to school at Virginia Tech. A huge bluegrass music fan, in 2009 he made a documentary on Giles County, old-time fiddler Harry Reed. A few years later, he was part of the production team on the series Song of the Mountains, a nationally syndicated PBS television show syndicated nationwide. 

He says this project is his most ambitious yet.

"I want Penny P to do for Appalachia what Sesame Street did for the urban environment; not solve its ills, not address its problems, but simply open it up to (show it as) a place where caring, kind people who love their kids, who thrive and are intelligent, live.

And I think that both the inner city and Appalachia are places like that and both places have gotten bad raps by the national media. And the only way I know to change it is to produce a show showing how good it really is.”

To donate your support for this project, go to Locoarts. Be sure to put "Penny P" in the subject line.
Watch the trailer for Penny P.'s Back Yard: