Sept. 3, 2021
In ‘Welcome to the Show,’ VCU students and graduates (and Richmond) take center stage
The film by School of the Arts alum and adjunct professor Dorie Barton headlines opening night at this year’s Richmond International Film Festival and features an ensemble cast of Rams.
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Richmond takes the spotlight Sept. 7 on opening night of the city’s annual international film festival when Virginia Commonwealth University graduate and adjunct professor Dorie Barton’s thriller/comedy “Welcome to the Show” is screened at 9:15 p.m.
Barton earned her M.F.A. in theatre with a concentration in performance and pedagogy at VCU’s School of the Arts in 2020, and teaches acting for the camera, showcase, and content creation in the Department of Theatre. She lived and worked in Los Angeles for 30 years, working as an actor on stage, television and film, and as a filmmaker and script consultant.
“Welcome to the Show” is her second feature film, starring a cast of all VCU students. The narrative of the film is driven by the concept of an inverted escape room that takes the ensemble around Richmond, filmed by a crew of students and professionals during the 2019 Thanksgiving break.
“It’s the kind of film that people will enjoy watching more than once because there’s a lot to see, figure out and make guesses about,” Barton said. “While the film is about a piece of interactive theater, and requires an active level of engagement, it trusts that the audience will enjoy not having everything laid out for them or tied up in a nice, neat little bow.”
Barton spoke with VCU News about directing, Richmond’s cinematic potential, and producing a film during the pandemic.
What’s unique about working with students in general and specifically student actors in film?
The students I teach are primarily in their fourth and final year at VCU. They’ve been taking movement, voice, speech, Shakespeare and scene study. They get this tremendous array of wonderful acting classes, but most of it is oriented toward performing on stage.
When I work with students on acting for the camera, what I get to do is honor all the other work that they’ve done and the work of all the other professors leading them through the program. Then I get to teach them how to apply that, how to use those skills and do the work of being an actor on a film set, which is a different environment than a stage.
I feel like it’s my job to help them learn what the environment of [a] set is so that they can be as comfortable and confident as possible, and know how to do the work of being an actor and be successful in that new environment.
What inspired you to make “Welcome to the Show”?
The first thing that inspired me to make the film was Richmond itself. When I first moved here, I was so excited to see the city. The look and feel of the city is so unique, unusual and specific to itself. I absolutely fell in love with all the juxtapositions — the natural beauty of the river right next to the industrial neighborhood of Manchester, the beauty of the houses in The Fan, the quality of how everything flows together in the city.
I wanted to make a film that honored the beauty of the city. My original idea when I began writing was to write a film about a piece of immersive theater that gets you out into the world and puts you on a path of solving a mystery. I’d been working on that for some time and developing ideas around that and writing different versions of that script.
Then in the fall of 2019, which was my second year of working on my master’s degree, a few things happened. I knew that I had a thesis project to make, so because I am a filmmaker I knew that it was going to be a film. And I felt confident in my ability to shoot and make a feature-length film. It didn’t seem that stressful and it wasn’t. My second year started and I knew that I wanted to begin production on my thesis. The ideas of the script that I had been working on connected upon meeting these four young actors that I ended up writing the script for: Richard Follin, Dillon Douglasson, Keegan Garant and Christopher Martin.
I was inspired by their friendship, their camaraderie, their way of communicating with and supporting each other, and their sense of humor. These actors were also deeply interested in working on film and were already knowledgeable about how films were made. So I changed the script that I had been writing, not necessarily what it’s about, but whom it was about. I wrote the script that ended up becoming “Welcome to the Show” rather quickly.
We had a nine-and-a-half-day production schedule that we shot over the Thanksgiving holiday of 2019. Then the pandemic shut things down during spring break of the following semester. I feel extremely lucky that we all moved so quickly into production and got it shot during Thanksgiving, because I don’t know if it would have ever gotten shot had we waited until spring break.
Is this a pandemic movie?
It’s not intentionally a pandemic-inspired film in any way, but we did the editing, all the post-production, and the score was created during the lockdown of the pandemic.
Making a film is quite different from theater, which is made and performed, and closing night the set is torn down. Everything becomes a memory. In film, the production of it, the shooting of it, is just the beginning because the post-production process is much longer. In our case, nearly a year.
They say that a film is written three times. Once it’s written as a script, once it’s written when it’s shot, and then it’s written again for the last time when it’s edited. “Welcome to the Show” was written and shot before the pandemic. The pandemic I would say absolutely influenced how we wrote it during editing because the film is in essence an inverted escape room where these young men are outside trying to get back in.
They meet people along the way, but there’s a strong sense of isolation. There’s a strong sense of disorientation, a feeling deprived of logic, deprived of a sense of direction. The longer we kept working on it and the longer the pandemic kept going on, it really became very meaningful to me in that it reflected a lot of the feelings that we were experiencing.
The film could be quite different depending on your own state of mind while you’re watching it. Every time I watch it, it’s completely different. It has different meanings to me and different things stand out. I notice little things inside of it that are little grace notes that it almost could have been inspired by the pandemic.
What challenges did you experience?
One of our primary challenges was time. It’s an extremely low-budget film. But money is always a challenge when you’re making a film. It’s rare for a feature film to be shot that quickly.
Another major challenge was that most of the film takes place outside. Anytime you go outside in a film you're encountering everything that’s going on, from the weather, to people who are just going about living their lives, to cars going by.
“The film is in essence an inverted escape room where these young men are outside trying to get back in. … [T]here’s a strong sense of isolation. There’s a strong sense of disorientation, a feeling deprived of logic, deprived of a sense of direction. The longer we kept working on it and the longer the pandemic kept going on, it really became very meaningful to me in that it reflected a lot of the feelings that we were experiencing.”Dorie Barton
Can you talk about Richmond’s role?
Richmond is absolutely a character in the movie. The story requires the four leads to explore Richmond as a city. We shot in over 30 locations. We spent time in the industrial part of Richmond, on the river, downtown, walking through the streets. It’s a very exploratory story by nature. That was there from the beginning, that Richmond would be a primary character. The story was developed, in some ways, as a way to see how we could explore the city.
Visually speaking, Richmond is a gorgeous and interesting place to explore. So the visual grammar of this film uses the character of Richmond as a place of wonderment and mystery. The city provides challenges, questions and answers. It’s part of what the story is about in this particular journey, as a metaphor for life in general, whatever you bring to it. If you bring to it an exploratory nature, then it’s going to keep providing beautiful things for you to see. I’m hoping when people see the movie, they want to go out and explore the city.
Were all student actors in the film your students? And if so, how did you relate to them?
It was a professional relationship, and the transition from teacher-student to director-actor was seamless. We hired a professional cinematographer, Alex Kent, and professional sound team, Flagship Studios, and I brought in another producer, S.C.V. Taylor.
But all the rest of the crew were students. Those students came from the theater, photo/film, cinema, and music departments. So we had crew from all over VCU, most people working in positions that they had never worked in before. Tyler Scheerschmidt, who co-edited the film with me, is a graduate of the cinema program. Jacob Todd and Maya Forrester (theatre and photo/film) who we initially hired as producers’ assistants, ended up being co-producers on the film.
Our production designer, Alyssa Sutherland, had never production designed a film before, so working with her was amazing because she’s such a talented artist. The brilliant original soundtrack for the film was done by Pickled Bones: Andrew Bonieskie and Dillon Douglasson. Dillon is one of the primary actors in the film and from the theatre program. Andrew, who has a small background part, is from the VCU music program, and together they created the entire soundtrack.
Almost everybody on the team was doing something that they had never done before. Seeing those students rise to the challenge was wonderful because they all did such a great job. If we needed to take time to stop and help somebody learn their position, we absolutely took time to stop and do that. So there was an educational element to the making of the film.
How did your experience of being a student at VCU play into your development of the film?
It gave me access to a unique environment of a city within a city, which is what VCU is. The city and community of VCU is as unique as Manchester is from The Fan district. VCU reminded me what it's like to be in your last year of college and about to enter the world, and the apprehension and questions that come up during that time.
We all remember what that feels like to be on that cusp of going from being a student in that safe environment to going out into the world as an adult. The metaphor and the structure of the story is also about that. By being part of VCU as a graduate student/adjunct faculty, and because I work with students who are in their last year, it tapped me back into remembering what that felt like. The experience of teaching students how to work in film really informed how I directed them in rehearsals and on set and how I wrote the script for them.
I tried to create a piece of material that I felt all of the students would have the highest chance of succeeding at in playing their roles. All of the actors are absolutely wonderful in the film. As their teacher, I got to see their work and their work ethic and how they approached their process of developing and playing characters. It really helped me understand what their process was, so that when we were working professionally together, I already had such a good understanding of how they worked. Teaching them taught me how I could best support them.
Has there been more of an emphasis on screen acting because of the pandemic?
We’ve all been on Zoom, we’ve all been on camera. It’s a different approach to acting on camera because on Zoom, we’re not technically on a set. Most of the students are in their own home spaces. I do think that it’s been an interesting experiment on how to teach acting for the camera because the actors are already in a comfortable environment. In that situation, bringing in the camera is not necessarily a major disruption, it’s just an addition to the space.
Now that we’re going back to working in person, I am looking forward to finding out what working with the camera has done for the actors’ comfort level with working in that mode. All of us have been learning how to be on camera, and to be natural and real and ourselves. And all of us experienced how the presence of the camera actually makes us feel different in that space, whether we’re just having a conversation or we’re in class.
It’s almost like the scientific principle that the act of observing something by nature changes it and the presence of a camera even in a real-life moment, even when you’re not in a performative space, it changes the energy and it changes how we connect with each other. I’m interested in seeing how that affects the work moving forward.
“Welcome to the Show” will be screened Sept. 7 at 9:15 p.m. at the Byrd Theatre. The film’s soundtrack musicians will perform Sept. 10 at 6 p.m. at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery as a part of the RIFF Music Spotlight. Meanwhile, here are more VCU connections at this year’s Richmond International Film Festival:
Adjunct professor Anne Chapman (casting director for all of the VCU cinema short films) is co-presenting in a FLOW equity roundtable event. Barton will share her insight on pitch session panels. Adjunct professor Jai Jamison also will appear as a panelist. All panel events occur on Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 11 and 12, at Gather starting at noon.
Several short films involve filmmakers who are VCU grads or students: “Barney” (director Colin Earner); “Chlorine” (director Cameron Kit); “Late Night Swim” (Collin Chute); “The Summer Shift” (director Lindsey Nicole Paulette and team are current students); and Adam Lapallo is one of the Grand Jury Top Screenwriters competing for the top award for his script, “Twitch.”