The documentary film ‘Shakespeare High’ premieres at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. The movie follows a diverse group of SoCal teens as they prepare for and compete in the 90th Drama Teachers Association of Southern California Shakespeare Festival.
Director Alex Rotaru’s portrait of promising and dedicated students and their teachers features interviews with DTASC alumni including Richard Dreyfuss, Val Kilmer, Mare Winningham, and executive producer Kevin Spacey. A galvanizing film that reminds us of the positive impact of performance education on impressionable youth, Shakespeare High offers a powerful message in support of the arts at a time when budget cuts facing many schools put the future of these curricula in peril.
Interview with director Alex Rotaru:
VIMOOZ: What led you to make a documentary on this subject?
AR: Growing up in Communist Romania, I’ve been fascinated with Shakespeare ever since my mother–an actress–and my father–a playwright–exposed me to it at an early age. Being immersed in the arts helped me find hope and confidence inside, even at a time when outside me the world was pretty dreary and hopeless. This basic principle holds anywhere/time, and in today’s US, too. Starting with my work on the PBS POV special “THE HOBART SHAKESPEAREANS”, followed by “KIDS WITH CAMERAS” and now “SHAKESPEARE HIGH”, I continued to explore the subject of the value and long-term effects of arts education.
VIMOOZ: When did you first come in contact with the main subjects of the film? What was the process like meeting the kids and getting permission from the schools to film them?
AR: At the suggestion of my producing partner, communication and arts teacher Brad Koepenick, I went down to the DTASC (Dramatic Teacher’s Association of Southern California) Shakespeare Festival as a judge one year, and was absolutely blown away by the quality of the experience, leaving the place with a deep desire to make a film about it. Some of the teens who would become the main subjects of the film one year later were already there that first day, and I remember being very impressed by some of them and doing some on-the-spot casting in my mind… Getting permission for the film was a long and involved process; it took months and a lot of effort from our entire producing team. DTASC is a greatly democratic organization, so we had to get approval from all member schools, then from the board, then again from the individual schools featured. Everyone had to sign releases, and in most cases we needed the parents’ signatures, since the students were underage. Once these formalities were out of the way, meeting the Shakespeare teen teams and their amazing teachers was always a sheer pleasure: we shared a passion for theatre and had fun learning, growing and playing together. Our cameras just added a layer to their work.
VIMOOZ: How long did the film take to make?
AR: We started shooting in January 2009, but preliminary leg-work took at least 6 months before that. About 3 years all together.
VIMOOZ: What draws you to make documentaries focused on kids, as your last film Kids With Cameras was as well?
AR: I have a very strong inner child who refuses to grow up — which makes sense, since I’m a recovering child actor. Thank God for show business where I can be this way forever!
VIMOOZ: Have the subjects of the film seen it? What did they think?
AR: Most of the teens have not seen it. I can’t wait to see/hear their reactions!
VIMOOZ: Have you worked in theatre as well as film?
AR: Yes I have worked in theatre – but nowhere as much as I’d like to, mostly in Film School at USC and in subsequent professional classes and workshops. I dream of staging something dramatic, and also a musical on Broadway someday. These delusions of adequacy might have to do with the fact that my dad writes musical theatre in Romania, and I grew up in and around the theatre, hanging on my mom’s skirt when she was doing stand-up comedy in variety shows and had no one with whom to leave me home. Think a Communist version of “All That Jazz” sans the tragic ending and you’ll get an accurate snapshot of my childhood.
VIMOOZ: How do you feel about being at Tribeca? Is this your first time?
AR: Yes it’s my first time at Tribeca and I’m beyond nervous and excited. New York is the perfect place to premiere this film– it’s the inner sanctum temple of theatre this side of the Atlantic.
VIMOOZ: What other festivals has the film been to/ which will it be going to?
AR: We’re fielding invitations from a number of festivals, but I think our festival strategy will become clearer after Tribeca.
VIMOOZ: Would you ever want to make a film in your native Romania?
AR: As you might know, in the last decade Romania has experienced a major resurgence of its national cinema, with great results at major film festivals like Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, and now, hopefully, Tribeca– I believe it’s the first time Romanian filmmakers have films here! I’m happy for my Romanian colleagues– many of whom I’ve known since high school– and I myself have done some work in Romania, where I return at least once a year. I wouldn’t be opposed to working on a feature film there someday. However, I’m highly steeped in American and French cultures and mentalities (I studied, travel often and have family in France, and have lived in the States since college) and the project that would draw me to Romania probably would have to reflect that as well. There are both drawbacks and advantages to living in several cultures and languages at once: finding the right tone and angle of attack/point of view are both among them.
VIMOOZ: Any new projects?
AR: My next project, slated to shoot late this summer, is partly financed by the Romanian National Cinema Centre, after my script won its financing competition. THE END OF RAIN is a low-budget, high-concept, transcendent, immigration culture tragicomedy set in the desert on the US-Mexico border in Arizona. The movie pits against each other an illegal Romanian immigrant, an American hate speech radio host, a Mexican-American young woman mistaken for a migrant by the Border Patrol, the Minutemen, and undocumented Mexican migrants– in an absurdist, edgy and raw situation, sure to offend and satisfy everyone… A 360 degrees look at modern American society’s biases in the vein of Oscar-winner “Crash”, THE END OF RAIN is co-written and co-produced with Josefina Lopez (“Real Women Have Curves”) and we hope it reserves a few pleasant surprises for its audiences.