Quick: Paper or plastic?
Six years after School of Drama alumna Roberta Valderrama (’00) graduated, she landed her first regular role on television. She will be starring in 10 Items or Less, a sitcom of less than epic proportions about the quirky staff of a grocery store (Greens & Grains) premiering next Monday on TBS.
Improv actor and show creator John Lehr stars as Leslie Pool, a man returning to Ohio to run a grocery store he just inherited from his father. According to the press release, 10 Items or Less is the first in a slate of late-night comedy series being developed by the network.
10 Items or Less incorporates both improvisation and traditional sitcom scripting. “As soon as you get on the set,” said Valderrama, “the director gives us a little backstory and the basic gist of the scene and then lets us loose. It’s mostly unscripted; the actors know nothing about the storylines in advance. The creators just write an outline about where they want the story to go and they’ll say, ‘You’re looking for the manager — you can’t stand him — now come up with 10 different instances about things that could go wrong for which you go to the customer service desk and find the manager... And go.’”
As might be expected, hijinks ensue.
Another scenario involves the therapy sharing circle for the store’s employees. Sounds a bit like The Office, doesn’t it? Valderrama’s character, Yolanda Nelson, is pregnant and the identity of the child’s father is a bit murky. “So basically, I’m supposed to let the cat out of the bag [as to who the father is],” said Valderrama, “and the rest of the cast will improv it out.”
Much of the cast had a great deal of prior improv experience, but Valderrama’s improv skills originated in her School of Drama curriculum, especially in acting classes and movement classes with Kaf Warman.
The cast of 10 Items or Less comprises many actors who have previously had small roles in other popular shows. According to TBS, “The somewhat dysfunctional staff at the Greens & Grains includes Carl (Robert Clendenin — That ‘70s Show), the sweet, doofus stockboy who serves as Leslie’s sidekick; Yolanda (Roberta Valderrama — ER), the sharp-tongued dominant force in the produce department; Buck (Greg Davis Jr. — The King of California), the bagger who is looking towards the future by attending night school; Ingrid (Kirsten Gronfield — Steve Saves L.A.), the quirky, soft-spoken customer service representative who lives for Renaissance festivals; Richard (Christopher Liam Moore — Judging Amy), the dignified cashier who dreams of becoming a professional ice dancer; and Todd (Chris Payne Gilbert — The Broken Hearts Club), the sexy butcher who hopes to one day to be a stock car driver.”
According to Valderrama, Carnegie Mellon’s high prices and pressure-cooker environment are what prepared her most for the rigors of the acting business. Not only did the School of Drama prepare her in terms of the curriculum and networking opportunities, but it also developed her work ethic and her tenacity. Valderrama put herself through college and worked five jobs to stay in school — including a stint as a cook at Skibo. “I also lived in a kitchen pantry once for $80 a month,” she said, “and with the cut system looming overhead, slacking off wasn’t an option. Just that spirit of trying to make it and not taking no for an answer prepared me for the last six years, hitting the pavement until I got what I wanted.”
Although 10 Items or Less is by far her favorite gig, she has also had small roles in other major network television shows, including the abovementioned role on NBC’s ER, on which she played a candy-striper who stalked an attractive doctor.
Valderrama advises current aspiring actors and drama students to “keep doing what you’re doing, if you really believe in yourself. Don’t listen to the naysaysers about the business. CMU gives you the tools you need. Being in a conservatory for four years is just the beginning of the battle.”
“I would love to get the support from Pittsburgh and my alma mater,” said Valderrama. “Watch my show. It has so much heart but is still a little edgy and definitely hilarious.”