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Visual Art
Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Apr. 10, 2013 7 years ago

The Sarasota Film Festival showcases student screenwriters

by: John Ewing

- Greg Bowdish is a novelist, screenwriter, and BlueCat Screenplay Competition semi-finalist. His novel, Love's Naked Nature, will be out this spring.For a screenwriter, having your script performed live is a rare and invaluable opportunity to assess your work and hone your craft. The words on the page come to life, the dialogue and physical interactions of the characters become real and observable, and the pacing of the written script collides with time and space. Ideas become tangible and the writer can easily see what works and what doesn't. But that word “rare” is important here. In the real world few budding screenwriters ever get the chance to see and hear their scripts performed live, so they miss this essential part of the writer's development. On Monday night, nine area students got that opportunity.

Part of the Sarasota Film Festival (SFF), the Youth Screenwriters' Circle LIVE! is a staged reading of original screenplays written by students from the Pheonix Academy and Sarasota County Technical Institute who took part in a screenwriting workshop by the SFF's Outreach and Education Department. This year the event was held at the Keating Theatre (at Florida Studio Theatre) and the scripts were performed by the Sarasota High School drama department.

“This is a chance for them to really shine in the spotlight that they may not normally have,” explained Allison Koehler, the Director of Education for SFF. Allison both writes and teaches the curriculum for the SFF Outreach and Education Department programs. In the screenwriting program at Phoenix Academy, the students learn about screenplay formatting and storytelling and end up with a five to ten-page screenplay. At the Sarasota County Technical Institute, where screenwriting is actually part of the curriculum, Allison teaches a two-hour workshop on screenplay editing.“This is my fifth year,” continued Allison. “When I started we had three education programs and had 1500 kids coming through, and now we have 13 [programs] and 5,000 kids. We have a filmmaking program, we have two screenwriting programs, we have three screening and reviewing programs, we have a field trip that runs during the festival. We reach about 40 schools and 5,000 kids from preschool to senior year in high school, all free to the students, and we're the only festival in the country that does this. It all culminates in our Hollywood Nights Student Cinema Showcase, which is the final Sunday of the festival.”

While the students usually get months to write and edit their scripts for Youth Screenwriters' Circle LIVE!, because of scheduling conflicts this year and spring break, many only had four days. If anything, this only seemed to intensify their enthusiasm for the program, judging by all the applause and cheering after every reading and the smiles on the faces of the writers and actors.

The scripts themselves were a testament to why such programs are so valuable. Each one dealt with real-life issues (sometimes conveyed through otherworldly characters and situations) and it was clear that the program allowed the students to express themselves in a new and exciting way. The subject matter dealt with everything from crime, to human social interaction, to date rape, to politics, to relationships, to reflections about one's own life---some very adult themes being pondered by younger minds. From my seat in the audience, it seemed clear to me that this is the type of program that teaches kids a unique and interesting skill, then empowers them to use it to explore things that are important to them or evident in their daily lives. It encourages not only creative, but critical thinking.

The SFF Outreach and Education Department already has some success stories.

“We've had a couple of kids come all the way through and submit films to our adult programs and get selected,” Allison explained. She then introduced me to Michael Elnes, who was in the SFF Reel Life Studio program (a hands-on filmmaking program for high school students) four years earlier and now is working as the Sarasota Film Festival's Education Assistant, where he takes care of day-to-day logistical issues such delivering t-shirts and assembling scripts.

Another Sarasota Film Festival Education and Outreach program success story is YouTube star Datev Gallegher, whose one channel, Lady Dottie, has nearly 6.5 million views and over 30,000 subscribers. She talks a bit about the program in a video on her personal channel called “Draw My Life,” which appears at the end of this article.

The SFF Outreach and Education Department is funded by education grants and local sponsors, but as it grows, more financial help is always welcome.

“Hopefully we get recognition on a national level soon, because no other festival is doing what we do,” Allison said. “My goal has always been to partner with the schools, since they are cutting all the arts budgets, and get us in as teaching artists working with the teachers on how to integrate film into language arts, into their arts class, into drama. So we're trying all those different avenues to get film education in there.” As a sad note to the effects of budget cuts in education, Allison went on to tell me that Phoenix Academy is closing this summer. The good news is that the students will be integrated into other schools where they will have ample opportunity to take part in the Sarasota Film Festival's Outreach and Education Programs.

If you missed the Youth Screenwriters' Circle LIVE!, make sure you get a ticket to one of the Hollywood Nights screenings this Sunday. Hollywood Nights I features a red carpet walk and screenings of films by local elementary students, while Hollywood Nights II features films from area high school students.

Datev Gallagher's “Draw My Life”

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