Students from the College of the Arts and Shanghai Theater Academy Collaborate on Film

Students from Montclair State University's College of the Arts and from the Shanghai Theatre Academy collaborated recently on shooting the film "Forever Shakespeare." Pictured, the cast and crew are filming on location, at Watchung Booksellers in Montclair.

A contingent of film students and faculty from the Shanghai Theater Academy in China visited Montclair State recently to collaborate with students from the School of Communication and Media (SCM) on shooting a short film entitled, Forever Shakespeare.

For three weeks between July and August, the Chinese visitors -- four students and two faculty members -- teamed up with Film and TV production students from the SCM to tell the cross-cultural story of two people as they set off to find the fictional Forever Shakespeare theater. Assoc. Filmmaking Prof. Anthony Pemberton explained that the film specifically is about a Chinese exchange student ("Lin") who, while seeking her boyfriend who's at a movie theater that seems not to exist, befriends a young American boy ("Neil") who offers to help her. During the three-day shoot, students filmed on campus and at nearby locations in Montclair.

Asst. Filmmaking Prof. Susan Skoog said long before shooting started, the Chinese students first submitted about four story ideas for consideration. Then, the Chinese and Montclair State's students collaborated on choosing the story and writing the script via Skype.

Alexander Winchell, a senior in the filmmaking program who was one of the film's screenwriters as well as the assistant director, cited that this part of the process presented some difficulties.

"The most-challenging part of the project was the early, pre-production conversations over Skype," Winchell said. "There was a 12-hour time difference and we were also communicating via translators, so that was just, logistically, very challenging."

He also cited that the Chinese students and their counterparts here at Montclair State had different approaches to filmmaking.

"Shanghai Theatre Academy is a very prestigious, somewhat cerebral school, so their approach was more analytical, whereas, the American students are more hands on," Winchell explained. "With all the different approaches and personalities on both sides, it was a diverse way of working."

However, he quickly added that despite, even because of, the differences, the process was educational, as well as enjoyable.

"The approach we decided to take on this project was to take the Chinese students' vision and turn it into something different from anything we did before," Winchell said. "It was a lot of work and intense, but it was incredibly fun to be able to help realize someone else's idea. I enjoyed it," he said.

Pemberton echoed Winchell's sentiments.

"Montclair State's Filmmaking and Television students and the Shanghai Theatre Academy students all really learned many technical skills, hands on and in real time, under the gun so to speak, with professors Ben Wolf, and Skoog, and I helping to advise along the way," Pemberton said. "The Chinese students were very used to shooting in sequence, whereas our students are very economical -- and strategic -- in their plans, so that they can shoot everything, but in time. The pressure to shoot in sequence was one that was fun to take on. It helped us all be collaboratively involved in watching the film evolve right in front of our eyes." 

During the course of the film, the characters "Lin" and "Neil" develop an understanding of each other’s culture and attitudes, and those involved say the collaborative experience mirrored the film's plot. 

Skoog noted that the whole exercise enriched Montclair State's students.

"I think what was really interesting was that our students were not the sole creators of something (i.e. writing, editing and filming) as they are with other projects here," she said. "They had to collaborate with someone else. But, this particular project was especially enriching. Because of the language, cultural and other differences between China and America, they had to find other ways to communicate.

"I was very proud of our students. They really rose to the occasion and it was a good, professional experience for them," Skoog added.

Pemberton said the students weren't the only ones who learned something.

"This project allowed [our] students to ask a million questions about China, and how someone from China would understand America. This was a large part of the exchange and we all walked away learning something from the experience, the teachers included," Pemberton added. 

Thus, added Marie Sparks, Director of the College of the Arts' Office of Education and Community Outreach, the film was not the only outcome of the project.

"Yes, there was a film that the Chinese students were able to make and take out of this collaboration but, what was really rich about the whole experience was the process of working together," Sparks said.  

So much so, in fact, that there are already plans for another joint venture with STA.

"We are planning another collaborative project with students from the Shanghai Theater Academy next summer," Sparks said.

There are also collaborations and faculty- and student-exchange initiatives being planned with institutions in the East in other arts disciplines, including with the Shanghai Institute of Visual Arts (SIVA), where Assoc. Prof. Clay James, coordinator of Montclair’s Musical Theatre program, participated in a 10-week residency last October-December to help to establish the institution’s first-ever Musical Theater program; and with the East China Normal School (ECNU), which sent a contingent of 19 students and five instructors last December to participate in master classes, recitals and join the MSU Symphony Orchestra at the University's Beatrice Crawford Memorial Concert.

Moreover, a dozen students in the Department of Art and Design undertook a 10-day study tour of Japan last June as part of the Kakehashi Project Student Creators Program, a youth-exchange program organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Japan and the Japan Foundation, to heighten potential interest in Japan. In return, a delegation of 23 graduate students from the Tokyo University of the Arts visiting Montclair this fall, presented "Japanese Aesthetics: The Impact of Traditional Concepts on Young Artists and Musicians," in which they offered their  perspectives on the impact of traditional Japanese aesthetics on fine and applied arts, and traditional music, on November 7. The dozen students who participated in the Kakehashi Project also presented works that represented the impact of their Japan trip.

These are in addition to the College's existing academic and cultural exchange programs, including the 1+2+1 Dual BFA Degree program, in which graphic- and industrial-design majors from Montclair State and the Seoul National University of Science and Technology (SeoulTech) in Seoul, South Korea, may receive a dual-BFA degree from both institutions, spending their first and last years at their mother institutions, respectively.  In addition, the School of Communication and Media (SCM) recently launched a student-exchange, study-abroad program with Bournemouth University in England. Several of the SCM’s programs are involved in this collaboration including Communication and Media Arts, Public Relations, Television Production, and Digital Media.

The Forever Shakespeare film project was initially spearheaded by College of the Arts' Dean Daniel Gurskis, who had facilitated similar collaborative projects during his previous tenure at Brooklyn College. 

Click here to see the documentary "The Making of 'Forever Shakespeare.' " Read an article here in "The Montclair Times" about the project.