Keystone native Claire Taylor reflects on television and the pandemic in her entertainment industry role
At first, Claire Taylor didn’t think the coronavirus pandemic would drastically affect her career. Like others, the director of programming for Denver’s SeriesFest nonprofit believed it would be short-lived and that the television-focused festival would go off in June like normal. As the weeks went on, however, she realized it wouldn’t affect just the 2020 festival, but the festival for the following year and beyond.
SeriesFest provides year-round programming aimed at creatives breaking into the entertainment industry. It culminates in a celebratory festival each summer that includes panels, screenings, competitions, education and more. With production coming to a halt in Los Angeles, New York City and elsewhere in the industry, Taylor wasn’t sure what that would mean for the festival if it lacked network premieres or new scripts.
Some procedurals integrated the pandemic into the storyline with the cast wearing masks, while other shows only recently resumed filming. Scenes and character arcs were rewritten to accommodate for smaller, safer sets. Programs started and stopped in waves — coming back to life this spring — and Taylor attributes that to the rise in vaccinations and the hiring of COVID-19 compliance officers, who help teams change their approach to maximize safety.
The pandemic also has bled into the creative work submitted to SeriesFest. Taylor has seen virus-themed and inspired scripts as well as films made on cellphones or done over teleconferencing software like Zoom — so much so that it has become a category for the festival.
Though SeriesFest only has 64 titles in competition this year rather than the usual hundreds, the hiatus didn’t impact the festival as much as television networks. Rather, Taylor said the biggest impact is other events like Tribeca Film Festival moving their schedules and making June suddenly a crowded time.
“You have to prove to audiences that you’re the one they should be spending money on and tuning into,” Taylor said.
With a theme of “Fest Differently,” SeriesFest did that by switching to a virtual format last year, similar to Breck Film Fest, enabling it to extend its reach with online Q&As with stars from shows like “Outlander” who might not have been able to come to Denver even in a normal year. They also focused on mentorships like the Executive Elevation Mentorship, which matches mentees and mentors of color.
The key to pivoting in the pandemic was to put storytelling at the forefront in people’s homes. Engaging narratives are what the festival is about, and it’s what set Taylor on the entertainment path in the first place.
Raised in Keystone, Taylor first got a glimpse of the entertainment world doing children’s shows at Breckenridge Backstage Theatre. Her mom would have to hold her hand and march the shy child into auditions, but Taylor opened up and became confident once on stage. That led to doing “Grease,” “The Wiz” and “Hello Dolly” in high school supported by theater and band teachers like Stephanie Texera, Cathie Hill and Caroline Foley. She was also influenced by her family’s collective tastes in Mel Brooks films and World War II stories like “Saving Private Ryan.”
Though she grew up playing tennis, Taylor didn’t go the route of extreme sports like other Summit County kids and instead found herself a community of friends that would also get into production, theater and other aspects of the industry.
“I’ve always had an inherent love for storytelling,” Taylor said. “I just think that there’s something really powerful in watching the film you relate to personally, but then you can also find that someone else who has that favorite line from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ or knows all the words from ‘Rent.’”
Taylor got a degree in theater at University of Northern Colorado in Greeley and moved to New York City after selling her car — despite never having been there before. Yet she wasn’t feeling satisfied with acting, so she found herself at Triptyk Studios to try her hand at producing television and theater. The job had her working behind the scenes developing scripts and working with writers, giving notes to composers, running rehearsals and hiring directors.
“Really, as a producer, you have your arms in a lot of different departments which is amazing,” Taylor said. “You’re really in charge of the creative version of the property. That’s where I found my strengths are. I love getting anything up on its feet. Whether its getting a play up on stage and the audience comes in and gets to experience it live, or if it’s just putting something in front of the camera.”
After seven years in New York, Triptyk Studios began opening a studio in Los Angeles, and Taylor started to move west. But she was intercepted by SeriesFest co-founders Randi Kleiner and Kaily Smith Westbrook, who talked to her about the new organization. Taylor liked the fact that she could make a difference outside of established markets and jumped at the opportunity to come back to her home state.
She was hired to run the Storytellers Initiative, a script-writing competition that had her read hundreds of submissions, work with a production company to select the winners and then host a live performance of the scripts being read at the festival.
“That was my bread and butter, right in my theatrical vein,” Taylor said. “But as (Smith Westbrook) and (Kleiner) grew the organization, there was a definite need for someone full-time to have their hands in the creative pot and start to produce and coordinate a lot of these things.”
Taylor became the director of programming in 2016, and her duties transformed to include watching pilots hoping to be greenlit and sneak peeks from networks along with managing more competitions. She works on a women directing mentorship in partnership with Shondaland of “Grey’s Anatomy” fame, as well.
She personally liked producing theater more, but as a huge TV fan, she loves getting to know creators. She also enjoys how the medium of television allows for character growth and change in ensembles during multiple seasons of storytelling.
“It feels very authentic, even if it’s a very fantastical property, because it shows how people and the human experience really work,” Taylor said.
The cast of SeriesFest has remained steadfast throughout the pandemic as Taylor has been working with six other passionate people. She credits the resiliency of Smith Westbrook, Kleiner and the rest of the small team with the success of transitioning to the virtual presence.
A major takeaway of the past year is that they don’t have to contain themselves to six days in Denver and the ease of virtual programming will likely stay for a while. SeriesFest is also exploring a monthly membership as well as a podcast.
“We want to keep celebrating this Denver community. Colorado as a state has some of the premier festivals in the country for film and TV between us and Telluride and Denver Film,” Taylor said. “ … But also, TV is universal. Storytelling is galactic. It is beyond our knowledge even as humans what this kind of sharing does for our souls.”
This summer’s SeriesFest, taking place from June 24 to July 11, will be virtual though Taylor is hoping for an in-person event at Red Rocks Amphitheatre that combines music and television before the festival gets back to normal in 2022. Visit SeriesFest.com for more information.
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