This Class Bites: A Model of Artistic Collaboration

May 20, 2021

 

Because current mitigation measures would not allow us to put on a traditional musical this year, Mr. Halvorson and his IB Theater students put together a never-before-seen type of show that made the best of our available resources. Anyone watching the Winter Web Series can appreciate the comedic dialogue, numerous pop culture references, and clever use of teenage stereotypes in this unique production. However, it could not have been carried off so smoothly without the teamwork and ingenuity of the cast and crew.  

As for the plot, both students and teachers collaborated to create the storyline. With Twyla Roberts and Mr. Halvorson leading the way, the cast members each contributed something to the story to make it original. 

“It was their brainchild,” Mills Howell said, “and we tried to make it as ridiculous as possible.” 

For those of you who haven’t seen the web series yet (links provided at the bottom), the plot goes something like this: the Advanced Filmmaking Class at Bram Stoker High is tasked with creating an A+ worthy film centered around vampires. However, because none of the students can agree on what the film should be about, they all split up into 4 groups and compete for the A. In the process, each of the students mysteriously turns into vampires, leaving two special agents to discover the truth. 

As any of our English teachers can tell you, part of what makes a narrative sing is symbolism. The use of subtle motifs can add another layer of expression and can take a show from good to spectacular. And in a show that was purposely shot in the mockumentary style, the use of flamboyant, professional makeup was too obvious and wouldn’t fit with the theme. So how do you convey students’ transformation into vampires? By using props, or more specifically, sunglasses. This motif took a thirty-minute brainstorming session to settle on, with ideas ranging from masks with teeth to glitter makeup to using the Snapchat dog filter, but in the end, sunglasses made it easier to tell who was who. 

In the videos, the sunglasses are used to convey students and teachers’ conversion into vampires after being bitten by Alyssa, played by Mills. Though it was never explained as to how Alyssa herself became a vampire in the first place, her sarcasm and moodiness, combined with the strangely ominous sunglasses, made for a character that audiences knew to be suspicious of. This distinguished her from the rest of the students once they transformed, all of whom became zombies of sorts, blindly following Alyssa’s lead with a cult-like zeal. 

“That was my favorite part of my character––I didn’t necessarily have to base my vampire off of what other people turned into,” Mills said. 

Which leads us to the next component of genius storytelling – the fact that this was written entirely by the students in the production. The IB Theater class came up with the vampire theme, with Emma Vagnoni crediting Twyla Roberts with the original idea. This served as an inspiration for the rest of the characters and created a springboard to go off of, as well as providing an opportunity for several humorous references throughout the series, which could be found in the four “filming groups”. While these references may be obvious, they help to ground and balance an otherwise out-there narrative with pop culture references that a modern teenage audience can relate to and recognize, such as “The Bloodfest Club” (The Breakfast Club) and “The Good, the Vlad, and the Ugly” (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). The other two groups were modeled after the Star Wars saga and, while I was unable to uncover the main inspiration for the “dark and brooding” group, it can be inferred that Gothic literature/film most likely influenced their storyline. This set the basis for each group’s characters, both for their respective movie groups and for the student personas playing those characters. 

What do I mean by all of this? Take Austin George’s Victor, for instance. He drew his inspiration for his sarcastic, over-enthusiastic persona from Gordon Ramsey and combined that with the atitude of a stereotypical teenage movie snob. This later developed into Victor’s vampire personality, in which he proceeded to take over the entire “dark and brooding” group’s movie with frightening enthusiasm. Another example of clever writing can be seen in Emma Vagnoni’s Watson, who was loosely based off of Paris Geller from the Gilmore Girls TV show. 

“I knew right away that I wanted Watson to resemble that kind of bossy leader character,” Emma said. “I also wanted her to be a little bit more relatable, and so I thought adding a little bit of lightness to the character, especially at the end, would make Watson a more lovable, dynamic character.” 

This fit rather well with the group’s “coming-of-age movie” theme, as Watson’s development mirrored that of her film character, Ella Grace. Her rival-turned-love interest, Montgomery, played by Patrick Champion, channeled an exaggerated, overconfident, “better-than-you” energy that played well against Watson’s perfectionism. Each of the group’s themes also lent themselves well to their characters in the form of common teen movie tropes, such as the catty mean girls in the “dark and brooding” group, the stressed-out nerd in the Western group, and the overly lovesick girls in both the Star Wars and the coming-of-age group.  It is clear in all of these students’ examples that careful thought was put into making their characters not only relatable to our CCES audience, but also in taking those well-known clichés and crafting them into distinctive characters. 

Not only did this project enlist the creative minds of students, but teachers also played a large role in the character department. While he didn’t have much influence over the plotline itself, Mr. Kittredge expressed how fun it was to create his own character.

 “I got to come up with my character’s name–Agent Dave Cooper–as well as an elaborate backstory,” he said. “Mr. Halvorson set us up with a good script while still allowing us flexibility in our dialogue. He also took my suggestion that we should have a hand sanitizer shot!” 

Mr. Whited, like several of the students, took a different approach in his role as the principal. After being told by Mr. Halvorson that he should basically play a more sinister version of himself, he drew inspiration from Thanos and Darkseid to craft his role and mastered his evil laugh. Though he took great pains to create an iconic character, this was actually Mr. Whited’s first time acting. 

“I really liked it,” he said. “I have made YouTube videos and different things like that, but I am just myself. It is neat to try and be someone else for a part.”
However, one can have all the amazing characters in the world, but the production means nothing if it isn’t shot in a creative way. The entire web series took on a mockumentary style similar to that of “The Office,” yet another reference that implicitly beckons to a modern teenage audience. However, the genius of shooting in this way is not merely the familiar camera angles, but the fact that it allowed for any mistakes to add to the feel of the series rather than detracting from it. 

Mr. Halvorson puts it best: “The primary focus was on acknowledging the fact that we were new to this filmmaking process and that there would be some rough edges. By creating the ‘mockumentary’ style, it would be acceptable if things weren’t brilliantly lit, or we cut off a person, or the sound wasn’t perfect. Especially with the idea of amateur high school filmmakers, that ‘rough’ look would make for a consistent feel as we steadily improved our understanding and ability to film in such a short amount of time. When I presented that idea, it allowed us to be as ‘bad’ as we wanted, which also added to the fun and comedy of the overall production.” 

That fun and comedy translated well to the dynamic on-set, which, as Rachel Brasier described it, was far different from the typical musical. Rather than spending time rehearsing with an entire cast at once, the filming was concentrated on specific groups, with each group coming up with their specific lines that day that they shot a particular scene. The script was then given to everyone on the day of the shoot, and there the magic commenced. 

“We just did it on the fly,” Mr. Wilkie (a.k.a. Agent Walker) said. “We didn’t have to be perfect and we were encouraged to have fun with it.” 

Behind the scenes, much was being done to prepare the set for shooting. Annie Schlemmer worked behind the camera, holding microphones where needed and making sure there were no cables in anyone’s way. Kate Toellner, the sound crew leader, was tasked with making sure that everything was quiet on set before shooting and adjusting the sound quality so that everything came through on the cameras. Her favorite part of the whole process was seeing how everything behind the camera translated to the screen. 

Of course, none of this could have happened without the entire cast and crew working as one collective body. Though they were all given free reign to come up with their own ideas, there was a sense of support, collaboration, and inclusivity that made the writing, shooting, and editing process a team effort. I think Mr. Wilkie spoke for all of us when he said this: “It put a smile on my face that has been needed for over a year now.”

 

Which led me to my final question: “Would you do this again?” Here’s what the cast and crew had to say: 

 

“I will certainly do something like this again. As an actor, I’m always looking for challenges that I can face… and that I can gain new experiences from.” – Austin George, “Victor”

 

“I can not express enough how much I loved doing this show. It was so much fun creating the plot, characters, and quirky little details that made this so special. I would 100%, without a doubt, do this all again.” – Emma Vagnoni, “Watson”

 

“I would absolutely do this kind of show again, it was so fun making our own characters and thinking up the ways they would interact with the others. Also, I love that we have a way to remember our show and watch it years down the line, and I think it is a great way for family members who live farther away to see our performances, even if they are portrayed in a little unorthodox ways.” – Faith Vagnoni, “Ivy” 

 

“That’s a tough decision. I will say, a lot of the roadblocks that made this show tough to produce would be solved in a non-COVID year. I can say that for myself, I had a lot of trouble enunciating through a mask, and it probably took away some of my “Montgomery flair”. Ultimately, even with the ending, it was a lot less of a time constraint than the musicals are, and I think it could even be a good way to introduce prospective students to the world of acting, especially if you spread out the time into a bunch of smaller sessions.”  – Patrick Champion, “Montgomery” 

 

 “It was definitely fun and helped me get to know more people! I will very likely reconsider doing something like this. Although it’s rather unlikely that you’ll ever see me as an actor on stage.” – Annie Schlemmer, Crew Member

“Yes, because I met a lot of new people, a lot of new friends, and I got to be part of a big production and see how everything came out in the end, and it was just a really great experience.” – Kate Toellner, Sound Crew Leader

“I think it would be fun to do this kind of show again! Everyone got to contribute, and it was interesting to see everyone’s creativity in the scenes.” – Rachel Brasier, “Beth” 

“I would definitely do this type of show again! I do wonder if we could be able to create it to the same level and make it as good as this one was, just  because…. this seemed like an anomaly compared to some other stuff we’ve done…. I think it would be fun to do this sort of thing again, but maybe switch it up a little bit, because I think that it would be difficult to replicate this with an entirely different plot, and who knows? Maybe we could, but I definitely think it would be fun to do it again.” – Mills Howell, “Alyssa”

 

“Overall, we all couldn’t believe the end product. It exceeded our expectations considering so much was improvised on set the day of shooting and it was my first time directing and editing a movie, EVER! I am so proud of the student leaders, the veterans, and all the new faces who contributed on-screen and behind. Our very novice crew was always so helpful and eager to help, they were amazing. This was such a highlight for me for 2nd semester, I haven’t laughed as much on a project as I did on this one. The fun we had has us all convinced that this isn’t the last Web Series. So be on the lookout for something new in 2022!” – Mr. Halvorson 

 

 If you missed seeing this wonderful production the first time around, you can access the videos here: 

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

 

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