With ’19,’ Fresno City College turns a lens on remarkable students coping with the pandemic
Like many college professors across the country this semester, Janine Christl didn’t meet in person with her students — even when collaborating with them for a theater/film project.
But she ended up learning a lot more about some of them than if she had been meeting them face-to-face.
Christl, who teaches acting at Fresno City College, joins her fellow theater educators in making a contribution to what you might call the “pandemic genre” with a digital offering that premieres Friday, Nov. 13. It’s titled “19,” and it is a documentary about students artists following the transition to online education and artistic work due to the pandemic.
The docuseries chronicles the stories of Meg Clark, Anthony Gamboa, Rachel Henderson, Gisella Luna, Fred McCarty, Gabe Micu, Antonio Olivera, Shelby Plaugher, Miela Williams, and Paige Willis.
The format and delivery mechanisms of the various pandemic theater offerings differ. For this FCC title, there will be a formal premiere of each of the five episodes on the Fresno City College Fine, Performing, and Communication Arts YouTube page. (The other episodes premiere 7 p.m. Nov. 14, 20, 27 and Dec. 4.) Tickets are free (with donations encouraged), and you’re asked to register online here. After the premiere, you’ll be able to watch the episodes on demand.
There’s a great community angle to this story: One of the Fresno area’s most innovative theater organizations, The Fools Collaborative, joined Fresno City College and Christl as a producing partner, creating an online fundraiser to help raise funds to cover production costs and elective class fees for students. In all, a total of over $1,700 was raised by local community members, enough to cover the class fees of all students involved.
I connected with Christl over email to ask more about her innovative approach.
Q: You’re calling “19” a time-capsule documentary, and also a “distanced” documentary. What do you mean by those terms?
A: By “time capsule documentary” I mean that we are capturing Fall 2020 in a documentary film fashion. However, the big difference is that we are having the students shoot their stories from a distance with their own phones and cameras.
Q: Can you talk about the filming process? Did students film themselves? Were there any other camera operators involved?
A: For the most part the students shot themselves with phones and cameras. We also have footage from zoom meetings and in a few cases one student in the cast did some shooting safely. Also, our videographer/editor Justin Willis did some shooting. But the majority of the footage came in from the students themselves.
Q: Does each episode feature particular students? Can you tell us a little about Episode 1?
A: Yes, there are five episodes that each feature at least two of the student stories. The pairings were made after we started our work because the stories shifted as life circumstances changed. When we got to November, the paring of stories was evident. In episode 1 we feature Shelby Paugher and Gabriel Micu who decided to work together on an interpretive piece using a recording of a conversation Shelby had with her Mom. They worked together to develop underlying music and Shelby created a dance piece to complete the expressive work. But that’s just one part of the story. We really get to know both of them in the episode.
Q: What about the remaining episodes? Any teasers you can share?
A: There are different energies captured in the episodes. Episode 2 is totally different than Episode 1 and it premieres the next night (7. The focus in Episode 2 involves community outreach and the importance of giving and positivity. Following 10 lives during this time period really provided a vast array of themes and discoveries.
Q: We all know the challenges of online education in the time of COVID. Many of your students are missing out on experiencing their first year of college in person. What has it been like for you as a professor during this time?
A: I think everyone is making the best of it and focusing on new ways to learn. Most of my students are still engaged and happy to have a class to meet with to provide the stimulation of engagement. We have had some great opportunities as well. I’ve had to revamp and refocus classes and I have been able to have some incredible guest artists involved because we are Zooming and many working professionals in the acting world are home. I have also noticed that the increased focus on intellectual and topical aspects of acting work has allowed for more thoughtful responses from my students.
Q: Through this project, what have you learned about your students?
A: I have learned that everyone’s lives are much more complex that what you see day to day in the classroom. We have had the chance to get to know much more about each other as we zoom into homes and meet pets and families. I think that opened us up into a more personally revealing space which makes for a great place to create art.
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Q: One notable aspect of the series has to do with student Gabe Micu, who composed original music for the project. What sort of direction did you give him regarding the music? What do you think he accomplished with his score?
A: Gabe mostly worked specifically with two dancers to help them with music to suit their pieces. Gabe is extremely talented at taking a verbal description or mood and translating it into sound. We also asked him to come up with some different underscores for various moods that could potentially come up in the pieces. At the time, we didn’t have footage to rely on so it was a guessing game. But we knew there would be thoughtful moments, tense moments, revealing moments, and so we tried to support a range of options. Gabe accomplished the very difficult task of elevating the stories with sound.
Q: What are the logistics in terms of viewers watching the series? (Is viewing synchronous or can it be streamed at any time?)
A: We are hoping that many will join us at our designated premiere showing times, but we will continue to keep the episodes available through the end of the year.