Upper School Theater Goes from Stage to Screen

This past year, the Upper School theater program faced a new challenge — to put on three productions, remotely. Having already navigated the challenges of distance learning, Calhoun’s talented theater team was well prepared to reimagine what the theater experience could be. Taking a new approach, they set their sights on the silver screen. The result was the film The Calhoun Job, an original heist movie written just for Calhouners, filmed entirely at home. 

The ambitious project evolved from the 2020 Winter Workshop, which Lee developed upon joining Calhoun. Drawing from his many years of theater experience, Lee wanted to curate a unique experience for students. He brought in a playwright to create original material specifically written with the young actors in mind. “I thought it would be such an incredible opportunity for our students to work on something that hasn't been written yet — something that's being written for them — and to participate in the developmental process,” reflects Lee. With the knowledge that Calhoun’s theater productions would be completely virtual for the 2020-21 school year, Lee saw an opportunity and tweaked the Winter Workshop model to fit the current circumstances. “I thought a developmental reading of a movie might be interesting in this Zoom format,” reflects Lee. “The idea was to commission another playwright to write a screenplay and spend a month developing it.”

The Calhoun Job movie poster

Lee brought multi-hyphenate Nivedita Kulkarni to write the screenplay. In collaborating with Lee, Nivedita, or Neve as she is affectionately known, knew that the film was to be an ensemble piece, which would allow each student-actor to shine throughout the film. Lee and Neve wanted the script to feel authentic to Calhoun and spent time discussing the ethos and values of the school. To do this,  Neve met with each of the student-actors to uncover the social issues they cared about. She used this information to form the basis of the script, which follows a group of independent school students as they aim to save their school and take down an evil corporation in the process. Neve drew further inspiration from the student-actors, creating a cast of characters that deeply reflected the actors who played them. Because of this, the Upper Schoolers were able to provide specific feedback on how their character may act or react to something in the story, and used personal details from their own lives to add layers to their portrayal. “They were able to really expand and grow their characters,” says Lee. “For example, [cast member] Zeynep comes from a Turkish family and wanted to incorporate the language and culture into her character. That was embraced and written into the script. It made the character much fuller.” 

As the process went on, Lee saw the opportunity to take the screenplay from the page to the screen. “I thought that if we could get the kids a couple more tools to work with, we might be able to actually film a movie,’" recalls Lee. “Embracing that we were in a different setting felt like an opportunity to push ourselves and broaden the scope of what the project could be.”

To pull off the ambitious project, the crew carefully planned logistics. Actors would record their scenes individually and later, scenes would be edited to make the actors appear on screen together during ensemble moments. With everyone in different locations, technology played a crucial role in ensuring that scenes could be filmed and edited properly. In order to create a unified look, the actors used a few key pieces of equipment: laptops for recording, ring lights for appropriate lighting, and green screens to ensure that appropriate sets could be added during the post-production. During filming, Lee worked with each student individually, joining them over Zoom as their director while they recorded their scenes via webcam. This way, Lee was able to give notes on performances and manage the overall framing of the shot.

After the tireless work of preparing props and costumes and filming the scenes, it was up to the editors to bring it all together. Adding in sets and piecing together ensemble scenes, the talented duo Attilio Rigotti and Orsolya Szánthó carefully crafted the story, bringing their expertise to the challenging project and making creative decisions along the way to shape the look and pace of the movie. With their help, the dream of creating a film shot entirely at home became a reality. The Calhoun Job is not only a testament to the hard work of its creators, but representative of the innovative and optimistic attitude Calhouners have displayed during their entire hybrid learning experience. 

While the year began with a bit of uncertainty, Lee and the student-actors of The Calhoun Job rose to the challenge to not only continue theater at Calhoun, but to create something that has never been done before at the school. “I came into the year not knowing what the theater program would look like, and it turned into this fully fledged project,” says Lee. “I feel proud of  [The Calhoun Job] because of the way the kids stepped up, embraced the challenge and said, ‘We're going to do this.’"