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Soap opera uses Beacon Hill as a backdrop

Posted by boston.com  October 16, 2013 04:07 PM

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By Carl Setterlund

“Beacon Hill” shoots outside North River Outfitter

Call it a hunch, but an experienced collection of daytime television professionals have wagered their time and talent on a start-up soap opera based on the stately Boston neighborhood of Beacon Hill.

The series, a low-budget, online-based production, will bear the name of its setting, “Beacon Hill.” Actors showed up on site last week to shoot part of it. The filming at various locations in Massachusetts and Rhode Island wrapped on Saturday with exterior scenes at Charles and Revere streets, and near the Frog Pond on Boston Common.

Although the series, which has now entered post-production, comes from humble origins, it has plenty of clout behind it – “Beacon Hill” was created out of a partnership between leading gay and lesbian fiction publisher Bella Books, and Open Book Productions, which is owned by soap veteran Crystal Chappell.

“We are amazed at the cast that Crystal put together for us,” said Bella Books CEO Linda Hill, a co-creator along with Jessica Hill, to whom she is married. “This is beyond our wildest expectations in terms of who we were able to get.”

Although the Hills live primarily in Florida – Bella Books’ headquarters is located in Tallahassee – they have a summer home in Grafton, which is a suburb of Worcester. Linda Hill said she has lived in Grafton for roughly 25 years.

The plot of “Beacon Hill” revolves around main characters Sara Preston, played by Alicia Minshew, and Katherine Wesley, who will be portrayed by Sarah Brown.

Preston, a reporter, returns home after her grandfather, Democratic Sen. William Preston, suffers a stroke. She had previously been in a relationship with Wesley, who comes from a rival political family. Now Wesley, an up-and-coming Democratic state representative, may run to fill the elder Preston’s senate seat. Further complicating this political potboiler is Wesley’s father, Republican Sen. Tom Wesley, who has ambitions to run for president.

The Hills emphasized that the two leads’ romantic involvement will not be a permanent focus after it’s established as a basic dynamic of the storyline.

“It’s not necessarily a main theme,” Jessica Hill said. “Basically, it’s characters that are gay and they’re leads. I think their relationship will appeal to the lesbian population, but I think and we hope that the broader aspect of the story of the family relationships and political side will bring a much broader audience.”

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By Carl Setterlund

From left: Linda Hill, Crystal Chappell and Jessica Hill

The idea originated over the summer of 2012, partially inspired by the current dysfunction of the federal government. The Hills co-wrote a script for 12 episodes averaging 10 minutes and joined forces with Open Book Productions this spring.

“It progressed very quickly,” said Jessica Hill, who would like to release season one in weekly episodes in Spring 2014. Linda is hoping for January or February.

With 12 recurring cast members, all with daytime or primetime television experience, the Hills said they received positive feedback on their script. The motivation for most involved is to get in on the ground floor of a show that Jessica Hill said they hope to eventually shop around to major networks.

“We think it has tremendous potential to get picked up,” Hill said.

Season two is already in the works, with the potential for the setting to shift to Washington, D.C., where their inspiration, “The West Wing,” was based. Linda Hill said they expect to shoot the second season in Boston next summer.

Filming in the city was done on the sidewalk outside North River Outfitter on the main drag of Beacon Hill and on a walking path on Boston Common.

Other locations included Grafton, Lincoln, Mass., and Cumberland, R.I.

Linda Hill said because they kept scenes to about 10 people between cast and crew, they did not need to acquire special permits to film in downtown Boston.

One of the leads, Minshew, 39, previously played primary character Kendall Hart on “All My Children.” Minshew took over a role – that of Susan Lucci’s daughter – from another actress, Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Brown, 38, has spent significant time on such major daytime soaps as “General Hospital,” “The Bold and the Beautiful,” and on “Days of our Lives.”

Chappell, 47, brought the cast and crew together and will play Minshew’s mother, Claire Preston. Along with her career as a California-based producer, Chappell also held longtime roles on “Days of Our Lives” and “Guiding Light.”

Along with the Hills, producer Hillary B. Smith also has a local connection.

Smith, 56, was born in Boston and went to high school at Dana Hall School in Wellesley. She held the role of Nora Buchanan on ‘One Life to Live’ for more than 500 episodes over two decades until ABC dropped the longtime show in 2012.

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.

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