Arts & Leisure

Vt. films ‘flash forward’ to predict the future

RONNI LOPEZ ACTS in writer Julia Alvarez’s “July 4, 1960, Ciudad Trujillo, Nueva York” for the “Flash Forward Voices of our Future” project presented by the Middlebury Actors

No doubt many of us are looking forward to a future where the restrictions of pandemic-life are gone. But who knows what the future holds… Middlebury Acting Company together with Town Hall Theater are presenting an evening of eight short films that hypothesize about our future 10, 20 or 30 years from now. The premiere of “Flash Forward Voices From The Future,” a one-time streaming event on YouTube, is free and open to the public on Saturday, Feb. 6, at 7 p.m.
“We asked eight Vermont authors, including such acclaimed writers as Julia Alvarez, Chris Bohjalian and Jay Parini, to write us a 5-8 minute monologue, set in the future they imagine,” MACo wrote in a recent press release. “The resulting pieces were made into short films by Middlebury College filmmaker Fayza Shammin. Each one features a professional Vermont actor, and the eight short films will be woven into one presentation with music and sound design by Middlebury College Music Professor Peter Hamlin.”
“It’s been a pretty comprehensive project,” Shammin said on a Zoom call last week from her home in Ohio. “I think it was bigger than anyone thought it would be.”
Shammin is double majoring in film and psychology, and plans to graduate from Middlebury College this month. She took on the project because she wanted to take advantage of all the amazing access to state-of-the-art equipment in the film department. That, and being a student off-campus loosened up some “free-time” for her to explore opportunities like this.
“We started shooting on site in late October/early November,” she said. “We’d shot back to back days on the weekends — so from 7 or 8 a.m. to noon would be the first shoot, then from 1-5 or 6 p.m. would be the second shoot. We did that for the whole month of November.”
Shammin went back to get extra shots that she needed in December and completed all eight films by the end of January.
“It was really fast,” she said. “Even by industry-standards, doing eight films in three months is kinda crazy.”
“Fayza is amazing,” said Melissa Lourie, artistic director of MACo and the one who pieced this whole project together. “At first we looked into hiring a professional filmmaker, but that was beyond our budget. So we went to the college and found this wonderful student. She is very professional in her skills and by some miracle she had time.”
Lourie solicited submissions from Vermont writers and then decided who would be good actors for the various protagonists. Then they got to work cutting and shaping the monologue submissions into actable scripts.
“I tried to make it COVID-friendly,” she said. “Meaning I tried to pair actors and directors who were couples or friends who could make a safe pod.”
Another challenge was making these written pieces visual.
“Each director had the challenge of taking a piece, which in many cases was more literary than dramatic, and making it work in a visual medium,” Lourie said. “The films are fun and very different from one another; they’re all innovative in the way that they look at people adapting to the possibilities of difficult futures.”
The lineup includes: “Billy Day’s BBQ & A” by Dana Yeaton & Ro Boddie, “Comedy Techniques for Sad Times” by Haley Rice, “July 4, 1960, Ciudad Trujillo, Nueva York” by Julia Alvarez, “The Trials of Jared K.” by Robert Cohen, “One Day Pin” by Chris Bohjalian, “Covenent Day 2050” by Mary Adams-Smith, “Audition” by Marianne DiMascio, and “Professor Wilbur’s Farewell Speech” by Jay Parini.
Rice, who acted in her own piece, reflected on the process: “You just have no idea of your pitfalls as a writer until you act your own stuff,” she said in an interview last week. “My piece imagines a world where everything is still online and this lady, Penny, is teaching a comedy class, except Penny is not funny at all. It’s a life kind of like what we’re experiencing right now with tons of interruptions. There’s a toddler because daycare is closed, a husband floating around in the background, a cat appears… it’s a snapshot of my life and also kind of how my mind works — interruption after interruption after interruption.”
Once Rice was done with the writing, memorizing and acting, she stepped back.
“There’s so much power in the editing booth,” she said. “Really it’s Fayza’s game. I’m going to watch the film for the first time at the premiere. It’s kind of like unwrapping a present; I can’t wait to see it!”
Cohen, who wrote “The Trials of Jared K.,” also handed over the reigns once he submitted his piece.
“I wrote the piece back in April when Jared Kushner was first put in charge of the pandemic response,” Cohen said.
Cohen, a Middlebury College professor and writer, said that at the time he’d recently watched “Slumlord Millionaire,” a film that outline’s former President Trump’s son-in-law’s rise from real estate heir to White House adviser. Mix in the fact that Cohen has also read and taught a lot of Franz Kafka, and the connection to a trial story becomes clear.
One of Kafka’s best-known pieces is “The Trial;” the protagonist is “Joseph K.” Professor Cohen noticed the similarity in names — Jared K. is awfully close to Joseph K. So he wrote a piece that puts Jared Kushner on trial before a Kafkaesque court.
“I turned it from third person to first to make it a monologue,” Cohen said. “But the truth is, once I have written and published a piece, I surrender to the process.”
While Cohen wasn’t working with the “Flash Forward” prompt when writing this piece, he shuddered when considering the prospects of contending with Kushner in our future.
“It fills me with udder horror and disgust,” Cohen said, hinting at a connection to another one of Kafka’s most famous works “The Metamorphosis.” “Jared will be one of those roaches that survive.”
Beginning with the words from the writers, the directors and actors took over and formed each piece into it’s own performance. Shammin worked closely with the directors to put their vision on film.
“I would do an edit of the film as the script had it,” Shammin said. “Then we’d talk about what worked and what didn’t work; there was a lot of problem solving.”
And a lot of time. And a lot of authority.
“This was the first time I was in charge of so many things on the set,” Shammin said. “Despite my age and position in life I was given so much authority and autonomy… I had to make decisions and give them to people with so much more authority in their filed. It was a wake up call — wow, this is the real world.
“This whole experience has taught me to not have too may expectations,” Shammin said of starting her professional career in a pandemic. “Yeah, I’m hopeful for the future, and more resilient than I ever thought I could be… What these films envisioned wasn’t too far from what I envisioned for the future: we see that there’s a lot of hope, and as long as everyone holds onto that we’ll be fine.”
Catch the premiere of “Flash Forward” with an introduction and informal post-discussion on Saturday, Feb. 6, at 7 p.m. The YouTube premiere link will be available to all shortly before the event, via Town Hall Theater and Middlebury Acting Company’s websites.

Billy Day’s BBQ & A — by Dana Yeaton & Ro Boddie
It’s the year 2040, just days before the U.S. Census results come out. Billy hasn’t given it much thought, until halfway through his call-in cooking program, a worried caller confronts him with a question he simply can’t ignore. Featuring Ro Boddie, directed by Olga Sanchez-Saltveit, music by Matthew Evan Taylor.
Comedy Techniques for Sad Times — by Haley Rice
Ten years from now, in a world shut down many times by various forms of COVID, a woman named Penny has turned to teaching a comedy class on Zoom. She gives it her best shot with mixed results! Featuring Haley Rice, directed by Melissa Lourie.
July 4, 1960, Ciudad Trujillo, Nueva York — by Julia Alvarez
A woman reflects on her journey from a dictatorship in the Dominican Republic to the USA and the promise of Lady Liberty. She wonders when true liberty and equality will come to her adopted country and looks to the future with hope and fear. Featuring Ronni Lopez, directed by Margo Whitcomb.
The Trials of Jared K. — by Robert Cohen
Jared Kushner is in his own unique hell, pleading for his life before a Kafkaesque court he cannot see, maintaining his innocence – both in general and in the matter of the pandemic – in the face of a truly staggering amount of evidence to the contrary. Featuring John Nagle, a dry and subtle comedian, as well as a really good actor; directed by Jena Necrason. Nagle and Necrason are the husband and wife who run the Vermont Shakespeare Festival.
One Day Pin — by Chris Bohjalian
A young woman addresses a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous in which she confesses her reasons for returning amidst the devastating series of pandemics that have marked her life. Featuring Grace Experience, directed by Kate Redway.
Covenent Day 2050 — by Mary Adams-Smith
A delegate addresses a convention of leaders from all over the planet, in an idyllic future where a global government has come up with a simple but effective way to rid the world of its ills. Featuring Mary Adams-Smith, directed by Gary Smith.
Audition — by Marianne DiMascio
After 11 years of theaters being closed due to the pandemic, an eager actress has her first audition for a live production in ages. In her anxiety, she explains how much theater has meant to her and how excited she is to be back on the boards! Featuring Susan Palmer, directed by Kathryn Blume.
Professor Wilbur’s Farewell Speech — by Jay Parini
At age 92, Professor Wilbur is finally retiring from teaching at his small, liberal arts college in the Northeast. He takes a long view of his life and times over 60+ years of living and teaching. Featuring Gary Smith, directed by Mary Adams-Smith.

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