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LIVE ART: Two Filmmakers Capture Life-Changing Theater Education in a Crowd-Funded Documentary

SPARC's LIVE ART combines two brilliant and ambitious ideas: to create "a 20-week inclusive performing arts educational experience for children with and without developmental disabilities and hearing impairment," culminating "with these students performing on stage alongside some of Virginia's best professional musicians"; and to bring in a skeleton film crew to document not just the event itself, but the entire 5-month teaching, development, and rehearsal process in a documentary that is now being crowd-funded to completion.

When the Society for the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community (SPARC) launched LIVE ART last January, in Richmond, Virginia, they started with two brilliant and dauntingly ambitious ideas: to create "a 20-week inclusive performing arts educational experience for children with and without developmental disabilities and hearing impairment," culminating "with these students performing on stage alongside some of Virginia's best professional musicians"; and to bring in a skeleton film crew to document not just the event itself, but the entire 5-month teaching, development, and rehearsal process.

While LIVE ART itself is underwritten by SPARC's ongoing fundraising efforts, the documentary-in-progress is now in the hands of a one-month Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund the film to completion.

Filmmakers Martin Montgomery of Martin Montgomery Films and Bill Gaff of Humanstory say that producing the SPARC documentary has swept them into a range of new adventures. Both are seasoned producers of event, wedding, and college sports-related films. Montgomery has served as DP on two award-winning 48 Hour Film Project entries, and Gaff has edited numerous PBS documentaries.

But neither has ever produced a feature-length documentary before, with plans for festival circulation and eventual theatrical release, and LIVE ART also represents their first foray into crowdfunding. But the transforming experience that LIVE ART has proven for both of them has sprung from the nature of the project itself and its evolving focus and scope as they they've logged more interviews and footage and watched the storylines emerge.

LIVE ART

The LIVE ART documentary Kickstarter site (pictured in the video: SPARC director of education Erin Thomas-Foley)

Entering the LIVE ART World

The LIVE ART documentary film project began in October 2011 when Montgomery got a call from Erin Thomas-Foley, director of education at SPARC, a nonprofit children's theater company in Richmond whose alumni include Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Jason Mraz. Thomas-Foley told him about the project she was developing in which "kids of all abilities would be performing together at a concert with Virginia-based musicians" (a lineup which would eventually include Mraz himself). "I don't know why," she told him, "but I just know it needs to be documented."

At first, Thomas-Foley suggested that Montgomery could capture just a bit of footage here and there, shooting a bit at the beginning, middle, and end of the project. But "the more we talked," Montgomery recalls, "the more I started to sense that there was a bigger need to have more of their classrooms covered, and I instantly thought about Bill and how we needed to integrate him into this documentary and bring it about."

Martin Montgomery and Bill Gaff
Left: Martin Montgomery of Martin Montgomery Films; right: Bill Gaff of Humanstory

Even though SPARC had little budget for the documentary, with their fund-raising efforts focused on the project itself—"We're raising money to make sure that the project lifts off the ground and these kids can attend and not pay a dime," Thomas-Foley told the filmmakers—the fact that Montgomery and Gaff were willing to donate about half the time they spent on the project during production helped create an environment where they were much more integrated into the whole teaching experience than a hired film crew might ordinarily be.

"From day one, they were open to ideas from us to work in some of our costs and what we were willing donate to them because it was such a great cause," Montgomery says. From the filmmakers' perspective, "We could see that there was such a bigger picture here, and it would be beneficial for us and for the children's theater company to get the word out nationally, if not globally, about this unique project of integrating kids of all abilities and having them perform on a huge stage in alongside Jason Mraz, Susan Greenbaum, Robin Thompson, Steve Bassett in this big celebration of art and Virginia-based artists."

Filming began before the first class even took place, as Gaff and Montgomery shot footage of SPARC's regular core classes and combined that footage with interviews with the teachers who would be participating in LIVE ART to put a trailer together. Here's what they produced:

Live Art . . . SPARC from Martin Montgomery on Vimeo.

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