KU playwright earns Daytime Emmy nod for ‘Paz’
Although playwright James Still has explored the dark depths of the soul in his plays “And Then They Came for Me” and “The Velocity of Gary,” he has received the most widespread attention for fathering a talking penguin puppet.
Still, a Pomona native and 1982 Kansas University theater graduate, is the creator of “Paz.” The children’s show and its flightless aquatic host of the same name are part of “Ready Set Learn!,” which airs Monday-Friday mornings on The Learning Channel and Discovery Kids.
His popular program recently received a Daytime Emmy nomination for outstanding preschool children’s series, pitting it against “Sesame Street,” “Hi-Five” and “Blues Clues.”
“At first, I felt very cavalier about (the nomination),” Still says from his home in Los Angeles. “Then one morning I turned the TV on and started to surf through the channels, and I started to see just how much is on TV. That’s when it hit me that we were one of FOUR shows that were nominated.”
“Paz” is a mixture of live-action sequences and cartoons centering on the young title character, his mother, grandfather and three animal friends. It strives for a comfortable balance between life lessons and cozy entertainment.
“The thing that moves me most is when I see how real a character becomes for a kid,” he says. “They really do think of a character almost like someone in their life. Maybe that’s the power of television and the intimacy of TV.”
32nd annual Daytime Emmy Awards
When: 8 p.m. today
Where: Sunflower Broadband channels 5 and 13
¢ “Paz,” created by Kansas University alumnus James Still, airs Monday-Friday mornings on The Learning Channel and Discovery Kids, Sunflower Broadband channels 42 and 104.
Although the Daytime Emmys are televised live tonight, Still’s category was covered in a separate ceremony last weekend.
“I’ve always kind of avoided awards because I never wanted to get sidetracked about what was important to me,” says Still, who is credited as producer, head writer and story editor of “Paz.” “But I decided to go this year because I worked really hard on this show.”
Donned in his penguin-like tuxedo, Still ended up a spectator at the event when it was revealed “Sesame Street” won the category for the umpteenth time.
He says, “If you’re gonna lose to somebody, it’s an awful good one to lose to in terms of historical significance.”
The velocity of Paz
Despite having no children of his own, Still has always felt a strong connection with youngsters.
“I try and be around kids a lot,” he says. “I like kids. I’ve taught a lot over the years. I have very strong memories of my own childhood.”
As a semi-successful playwright living in New York in the mid-1990s, Still often tried to break into the world of children’s television. He “used to pound on Nickelodeon’s door,” but the network would never give him a meeting.
Fortunately, children’s book author Maurice Sendak (“Where the Wild Things Are”) came across Still’s screenplay for “The Velocity of Gary.” Sendak was impressed enough with the fledgling writer to offer him a job on “Little Bear” – ironically, a TV series he was executive producing for Nickelodeon.
For Still, the writing process is similar whether he’s penning adult material or stories aimed at kids.
Clips of audio interview with James Still
“Of course, there are differences. Paz is not going to swear on the air,” he explains. “But in terms of how I feel when I’m doing it, I don’t feel any different. I’m still trying to write in the truest voice I can for each character.”
He won’t cite a favorite among the 80 episodes that he has helmed. Yet he admits to being particularly proud of one called “Things Change,” which was nominated for a Humanitas Prize for its sensitive treatment of how kids cope with death.
In the episode, Paz and his grandpa take a nature walk and notice a bird’s nest that has been blown out of a tree. Paz finds a dead baby bird on the ground and tries to wake it, thinking it’s merely asleep. Grandpa has to explain the reality of the situation.
“Love it or not, kids ARE going to watch TV,” he says. “Then it becomes about WHAT are they going to watch. That’s where I feel like I can make a difference.”
Still began honing his skills during his college years at KU in the late 1970s and early ’80s. He says the university’s environment helped cultivate his creativity.
“The faculty were just incredible mentors,” he says. “Ron Willis and Jack Wright were really big shapers for me in terms of ways of thinking and challenging myself. Secondly, it was just the practical experience I got. I was there as an undergraduate, and at the time you could choose an emphasis, and I chose directing. So I directed full productions at KU.”
When Still came back to Lawrence last October for a university performance of his play “Amber Waves,” KU theater and film professor Willis was delighted to be part of the cast.
“One of the things James brings to the table is a resolute and intense kind of honesty,” Willis says. “He’s not writing for glitzy success. He’s writing for things that are meaningful, sincere and honest.”
Still actually returns to Lawrence this weekend to visit family and tackle some groundwork for a new play.
“I’m working on a big theater project, and it turns out KU has the largest collection of a particular subject I need to do some research on: the Delaware Indian – the Lenape Indian.”
Overall, Still says one particular element learned at KU helped best shape his professional career.
“It was having to do it myself that taught me the most,” he says.
Sounds like a lesson Paz might someday learn.