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This week I faced the challenge of writing a short film script for the Queen Theatre film and commercial acting classes I teach Rosenberg, Texas. Writing is easy. Writing something interesting is more difficult. Writing a story that uses every student in the class and meets every demand of in-class production only … well, that’s just superhuman.

Okay, maybe it’s not a terribly heroic feat but writing overnight on the day shooting begins and putting together a clever 12-page script feels pretty darn significant. I finished writing at 5 am, consulted with my AD late morning, made edits early in the afternoon, and by 6 pm we got production underway with the first class. By 9:10 pm, we wrapped shooting with the second class.

Let me better explain the real challenge. We are shooting one film over the course of 4 weeks using only classroom time, which is 90 minutes per week per class. This is our one big project for the course. As an added limitation, the students in the kids’ class can only shoot from 6-7:30 pm, and the teen/adult students can only shoot from 7:30-9 pm, or a bit later. At no time will actors from different classes cross paths during the shoot, yet they need to all appear in one film.

To keep the production simple, I created a story entirely set in one location: the theatre where our classes are held. It’s also an advantage for the inexperienced actors in our classes. For many of them, this film marks their first time on any set. It doesn’t confine us at all really. We have use of the stage and entire theatre space, the adjacent art gallery, the lobby, the backstage area, and the bathrooms, and we will use almost every inch.

The next step was to find a device that would keep all the teen/adult actors from actually having to directly interact with the younger actors. I found one. It came to me as I started exploring the premise of the story, a speech competition. I had to somehow separate the 5 older people from the rest of the group, and I did it by creating characters  that could function independently, for the most part. Three of the characters are speech contest judges and pretty much travel as a pack. The fourth character is a high school student who works part-time at the theatre. The fifth character, and my favorite, is a 13-year old boy whose reason for being at the theatre isn’t apparent, although he’s clearly up to no good.

The beauty of teaching the same students week after week is that creating characters for each of them became much easier. As I was writing dialogue, I could hear it coming out of the mouth of each actor assigned to say the lines. While we didn’t shoot any dialogue scenes with the younger group, the pay off was immediate with the older group. The lines given to each character fit the actor superbly. In fact, the actor who stood out the most among the older group has the LEAST acting experience. Thanks to well-crafted lines meant only for him, he delivered it in a way that seem effortless and very funny.

Another asset to this nearly guerilla-style shooting is having an AD who understood my vision from the moment she read the script and helped bring it to life in a way that made me feel like she was renting space in my head. She even added brilliant little touches to make the first shoot more memorable and marvelous, and gave us a peek into what other ideas she’s got brewing for the upcoming shoot days.

Day #1 is history, and as we navigate our way through the next three days, spread out over four weeks, I look forward to seeing what we can make of this little story about a speech competition gone terribly wrong. I’m especially interested in how my actors respond to the challenge of film production in practically bite-size, 90-minute chunks.

Acting students Mike and Michele, and teaching assistant John prepare to shoot a scene of FAMOUS LAST WORDS in Rosenberg, Texas.

As our AD/DP Erika sets the shot, acting students Mike and Michele and teaching assistant John prepare to shoot a scene of FAMOUS LAST WORDS in Rosenberg, Texas.

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