Matthew D. Kallis and Christopher Lockhart had never made a feature documentary, until they saw something on YouTube in 2007. It was a broadcast of the Freddy Awards, a Tony Awards-style ceremony that honors high school musical theater in Lehigh Valley, several counties in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
They quickly learned that these awards programs happen all over the country, such as the Gene Kelly Awards in Pittsburgh, the Tommy Tune Awards in Houston, and the Betty Lynn Buckley Awards in Fort Worth. (There are more than 30 of them around the country; a Dallas version will launch this year, as Lyric Stage does its first Schmidt and Jones Awards.)
But the Freddys were something special.
So they went out to meet with its creators, producers and the schools, and emerged with a documentary called Most Valuable Players, which screens at the Dallas International Film Festival on Saturday and Sunday.
After Dallas, it shows at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Nashville Film Festival. And Oprah Winfrey has picked it as a charter selection for her upcoming Documentary Film Club, which she's hoping will do for cinema vérité what her book club did for authors. It will air on OWN, but the dates haven't been announced yet. She'll also help with the DVD and pay-per-view distribution.
The film follows several students, directors and administrators in the lead-up to the 2008 Freddy Awards, focusing on the schools that were nominated that year. Two of them did Les Misérables, which developed into an extra rivalry.
The film touches on the competition, the musicals, the ceremony and the broadcast, and gives us several memorable real-life characters, including a major player in the Freddys who was diagnosed with cancer.
We talked to Kallis, who directed and co-produced the film. (The other producer is writer Lockhart.)
TheaterJones: How did the idea for this film come about?
Matthew D. Kallis: We came across a clip of the Freddys on YouTube, and it was just amazing. It was this huge crane shot coming in and it sounded like a rock concert but they were in the [State] theater [in Easton, Pennsylvania], but it looked like a musical with high school kids. They were broadcasting live; they stream it live in addition to showing it on local TV. It goes to about five million households in the New Jersey/Pennsylvania area. We thought it was amazing, and that there could be a movie in this.
Did you look into other similar awards around the country?
When we got into doing this we discovered that there are a number of these programs around the country. Part of this is saying, "Hey, these need to be supported." Our hope was to get people to recognize programs like the Betty Buckley Awards, the Tommy Tune Awards, the Gene Kelly Awards, and to get other people doing these. It’s good for the kids, it’s good for the arts, it’s a win-win. The thing that set the Freddys apart for us is that it leads up to this live televised event.
These awards have been criticized for fostering a sense of competition at too early an age. How did you approach that subject with these kids?
Let’s face it. You have to go and audition for the high school play. Competition is part of life. Yes, there is a balancing act, because this is about inclusion and the fun and the experience, but it’s also about the real world, competition and the fact that these programs actually give out real scholarships and give kids a real chance. The thing we wanted to get from the community, the school and the kids, is how do you balance the competition with the other things that the arts are about.
Some of them can get pretty fierce with the competition.
There’s the director Mark [Stutz], from Parkland [High School, one of the Les Miserables schools], and people see him as a villain. But if he was the coach of a football team, would you have thought that his enthusiasm and protectiveness was over-the-top? I don’t think so. He just cared about his kids and wanted them to do the best they possibly could. And another thing: When the tough times come and the budget cuts come, why is it that the arts are so expendable? No one would think about killing the football team at a tough time, but the school play just seems like it can go, first thing. We wanted to show that the same skills that kids get from being involved in sports, they get from being in theater and the performing arts. And let’s face it, not everybody’s going to be captain of the football team.
The sports people always argue that athletics in school helps you develop important skills, such as teamwork. But the arts accomplish the same thing.
What employer wouldn’t want kids with those skills? If opening night isn’t the ultimate deadline, what is? That was very much what we were trying to encourage. And we understand that the resources are tough. That’s why we think it’s about creating partnerships between the community, the schools, the parents and the kids. The documentary Waiting for Superman was about how our schools have failed us. And this is about something that’s going right in certain places, let’s put our energy in those things and support them.
How have movies and shows like High School Musical and Glee, and even reality talent competition series, affected kids’ interest in pursuing the performing arts in high school, and will they have an impact on your documentary?
We were kind of nervous when we greenlit this project, they were just coming out with High School Musical 3, and we knew it would be the end of the franchise. We were terrified that we were too late to the party, and Glee wasn’t on the horizon yet. It’s fortunate for us that Glee became such a hit. These kids are lucky, because when we were in high school, it was tougher for the drama kids. There’s still a stigma and it still exists, but it’s not the same. The soccer star who was in Bye Bye Birdie in the film, he got a lot of crap from his teammates. Then he convinced his teammates and coach to show up and see it, and they got it. They saw the hard work.