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Alum Jody Kielbasa and the Virginia Film Festival

Jody Kielbasa (‘85) has had a long and varied career as an actor, producer, teacher, and arts administrator. After graduating from the Conservatory, Jody spent 10 years in Los Angeles working as professional actor. While in LA, he also founded the the award-winning Tamarind theatre in Hollywood, where he produced over 100 plays. Returning to Sarasota in 1995, Jody worked for a time as the Director of Development at the FSU/Asolo Conservatory and then moved on to become the Managing Director and then Producing Artistic Director of American Stage in St. Petersburg, FL. In 1999, Jody became the Founding Director of the Sarasota Film Festival. During his 10 years with the festival, he saw it became one of the largest and most highly acclaimed festivals in the Southeast. He expanded it to include the Sarasota Film Festival Outreach and Education Program, which offered symposiums and special programs for children and families.

In May of 2009, Jody was appointed to serve as Director of the Virginia Film Festival. In his first year, he guided the festival to record breaking attendance and has continued to do so. The festival welcomes an array of high-profile special guests from either side of the camera, including actors, writers/directors and other Hollywood legends. In addition, Jody significantly expanded the festival’s Outreach and Educational programs to include a community-wide family day event, student filmmaking initiatives including a digital media installation and more.

Last fall, Jody welcomed fellow alum Tony Stopperan (‘12) to the festival with his film Paradise, FL. We asked Jody to tell us about his time as Director of the Virginia Film Festival as well as what it was like bringing a fellow alum to the festival:

How would you describe you time as the Director of the Virginia Film Festival? 

This has been just an incredible experience for me and for my family. As the Founding Executive Director of the Sarasota Film Festival, I had to build an organization from the ground up. The Virginia Film Festival had been operating for over 20 years when I took over the helm. It is presented by the University of Virginia and distinguishes itself from other film festivals by this partnership. Most of our films are introduced by academics who are expert in their fields and can provide context for the film. They often moderate panels and discussions with the filmmakers and guest artists. The creative and intellectual firepower that I can bring to the festival from the University of Virginia is extraordinary. Two years ago, we had film and stage icons, Hal Holbrook and Frank Langella on hand. Holbrook performed his one man show Mark Twain Tonight and participated in a discussion following the screening of Twain/Holbrook: An American Odyssey. Langella was in for a new film 5 To 7. We also had Pulitzer Prize winners Rita Dove and Doug Blackmon, both UVA professors, Internationally renowned journalist Katie Couric, Ashley Judd, Patrick Wilson, Jasmine Guy, and Jenna Elfman. It just makes for a truly fascinating mix of people. During my seven years as director of the VFF, we have more than doubled the number of screenings and audience attendance. Last year, our attendance was over 32,000 which is remarkable for a four day festival in a small city like Charlottesville.

What has been the most challenging part of your job? And the most rewarding? 

Initially, learning to navigate a state institution like the University of Virginia took some time and presented a few challenges. Ultimately, being a faculty member of the University has been my reward. I feel privileged to be part of this great University and have since been appointed Vice Provost for the Arts. I now represent all of the arts at UVA while still serving as director of the VFF. We also love Charlottesville. It is beautiful here. We live within ten miles of the Blue Ridge parkway, surrounded by the Shenandoah Mountains and Monticello looks over UVA. It is a special place and has been a wonderful place for my wife Helen and I to raise our three children Camille, Luke, and Juliet.

What was it like bringing Tony Stopperan and other FSU/Asolo alumni involved in Paradise, FL to the festival? 

I was very pleased to bring Tony in with his film. I had followed the success of his film at the Sarasota Film Festival and thought it would be great to bring in a fellow alum from the FSU/Asolo Conservatory. It played very well here at the VFF and I wish him continued success with his film and future projects.

Have you had a chance to work with other alumni, either in your capacity as the Director of the Virginia Film Festival or as Executive Director of the Sarasota Film Festival? 

I continue a lifelong friendship with Michael Piontek. He travelled into the VFF several years ago with his wife Paige O’Hara, who played the voice of Belle in the Disney Classic Beauty and the Beast. I hope that this article which reach other FSU/Asolo alumni who will submit their films to the VFF in the future.

Is there anything else you want to share about the Virginia Film Festival or the work you have done since graduating? 

I feel so fortunate to have trained and studied at the Conservatory. I use that training nearly every day and it has informed so much of my career. I have had such a fun and varied career as an actor, producer, teacher and arts administrator. While in Sarasota, I co-produced the William H. Macy- Meg Ryan film The Deal which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007. As the Vice Provost for the Arts at UVA, I started the President’s Speaker Series for the Arts. Our first speaker was Tina Fey, and last year I moderated a conversation with Kevin Spacey in front of over 8,000 at the John Paul Jones Arena at UVA. It was a great opportunity for me to reach back to my training as an actor. I also had an opportunity to create a symposium celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall to commemorate four original panels of the Berlin Wall that were installed at UVA. I feel fortunate that I transitioned from acting to producing and arts administration. It has allowed me to remain in the arts, yet given me so much more.

Alum Tony Stopperan Talks About Paradise, FL

Five years ago, alum Tony Stopperan (‘12) wrote a monologue while he was studying at the FSU London Study Centre as part of his second year of graduate school. That monologue went on to become the film Paradise, FL . Written and produced by Tony, the film was shot in Sarasota over 28 days in the summer of 2014. It premiered at the Sarasota Film Festival in the Historic Opera House to nearly 900 people. Since then, Paradise, FL has appeared at the Gasparilla, Skyway, Iphias, and Virginia Film Festivals and has received high praise at each. Tony has overseen every aspect of the film’s development, financing, production, and distribution. He was able to bring in several other FSU/Asolo graduates for the film, as well as a large number of Ringing College alumni. We asked Tony to tell us a little bit about the process:

What were the origins of the film? How did it develop and what was the process producing it? 

The story began as monologue written during the 2011 London Program under Mark Wheatley. It was developed into a feature script over the next two years. As producer, I oversaw every aspect of the film’s development, financing, production, and distribution. It went on to play at five film festivals, where I learned a lot about how it needed to evolve further before hitting the online market. 

The life-cycle of a film, for a producer, is at least three years. It is now in the third year of that cycle, its entrance to the market. Independent film lives at the center of Venn diagram of Art and Commerce, and has been an incredible opportunity for me to grow in the understanding of the merits and importance of both.

How many FSU/Asolo alumni were involved in the project? 

FSU/Asolo involvement included me, Jon-Michael Miller, Brian Nemiroff, Gretchen Porro, Josh James, Tom Harney, and Jordan Sobel.

Was bringing on fellow students and graduates of the FSU/Asolo Conservatory a conscious part of your plan? Or did it develop naturally out of the relationships you built during your training?

It was part of the plan. At the heart of the effort was a dual purpose: produce a commercially viable film with artistic integrity, and provide opportunities to Asolo actors. When I could provide the opportunity, I chose to. I cast actors with whom I had a relationship who also were right for the roles. Jon-Michael was an early attachment and was also an Executive Producer on the film. But he not only had roles in the film, he had a role in my life as a friend.

Were you able to connect with Jody Kielbasa when you went to the Virginia Film Festival? What was it like to encounter another FSU/Asolo graduate during the process? 

I was able to connect with Jody in advance of the Virginia Film Festival, but I was in and out so briefly that we weren't able to really connect until the Sundance Film Festival.

Is there anything else you want to share about Paradise, FL?

I firmly believe that this film represents the type of project that needs to be pursued and supported. A quality, large scale film with a high potential for exposure will find an audience, and those who worked as cast and crew will be able to leverage it to advance their respective careers.

Alum Jory Murphy Returns to Join the Twelfth Night Tour in Miami

Every fall, the third year class gets the opportunity to be involved in the Asolo Rep New Stages Tour. This tour brings exciting 45-minute adaptations of classic literature to schools and community venues throughout the state of Florida. One of the highlights of the tour, is a week spent at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center in Culver Bay, FL.

While there, the students team up with specially trained American Sign Language (ASL) Interpreters who perform as “shadows” during a live stage production alongside voiced actors. In this way, all audience members can enjoy the full richness of the theater experience rather than having to watch a single interpreter located off stage, and thereby missing much of the action taking place on stage. It is a special part of the tour and is often a highlight for the third years who get to be a part of it.

Last October, the Class of 2016 got a surprise when they arrived in Miami. When the group walked into the rehearsal hall, Jory Murphy, a graduate of the Class of 2015, was there waiting for them. We had a chance to ask Jory about the experience:

Did the third year class know you were returning to work with them? What were their reactions? 

The third years did not know I would be returning. I love surprises, so I figured, why not keep it a secret? The reaction was very positive - I was greeted with an overwhelmingly loving group hug. And a lot of them either didn't know that I have a sign language background or didn't connect the dots, so it was yet another surprise that I was actually there to work with them, not just to say hi.

What was it like returning to the tour as an interpreter? Did your previous experience of the tour help in any way? 

The week in Miami was my absolute favorite part of the New Stages tour my third year and really one of my favorite experiences of grad school, so I had been looking forward to this for awhile. Though I'd had some experience signing for the stage before, working as a shadow interpreter is a totally different beast. It's somewhere between acting and interpreting; you're still embodying a role and working from a script that you've memorized (in a written form of ASL called "gloss"), but you're not really making any of your own choices--your job is to inhabit the character that another actor has created.

Having worked as an actor with the shadow interpreters during my third year definitely helped. Obviously, that experience familiarized me with the process of shadow interpreting, but the experience of previously being an actor on "the other side" made me a better shadow this year. In a lot of ways, shadow interpreting can be very intimidating, because it requires you to be very aggressive in an unfamiliar environment. We join up with actors who have rehearsed the show for weeks and weeks and performed it for even longer, and then stand in front of them while they talk so we can deliver our language. So there's a great temptation to be shy or not step on the actors' toes, figuratively and literally. You don't want to get in the way of what they've worked so hard to create and have such ownership of. But my experience as an actor was of always wanting the shadows to be seen and to incorporate them into our play even more. I had no ego about a shadow interpreter being in front of me, because I thought the whole thing was so cool. So that experience gave me a lot freedom to be confident and take ownership of my performance as an interpreter in Twelfth Night.

What was the biggest highlight of the experience? 

It's hard to pick just one highlight. Working with the class of 2016--whose work I have always admired from afar, only previously working with them in the occasional mime or stage combat workshop--was a blast. I respect that group of actors so much and love that they welcomed me so warmly into their production. And working with the other shadows was equally thrilling. I am always eager to improve my sign language skills, and I learned a ton while in Miami. My relationship with my fellow shadows was also extremely collaborative, which I loved: they could help me with my sign language, while I could help them break down the Shakespeare text. It was a real group effort. The whole thing is such a special experience for everyone involved, and I really hope it's one that continues in the Asolo third-year curriculum.