Nearly fifteen years ago, Orlando was slated to be the Hollywood of the South. The major studios boasted fancy plans of film production in town, which brought many ambitious actors here hoping to secure their fifteen minutes of celluloid immortality. Time passed and the fancy plans fizzled out. Local entertainers and crew were left to duke it out over the rare commercial or movie project that would make its way to Central Florida. There have been a brave few who didn't take off for LA and NY as soon as the industry faltered and landed positions with local performance groups or the theme parks. Maybe they're waiting for business to pick up, maybe they've lost faith in their abilities, or maybe the City Beautiful grew on them.
In 1999, two Disney employees joined forces to create a glimmer of hope for Orlando in the form of the production company called Stars North. The company was formed to give those remaining actors and crew along with local hopefuls a chance to pursue their craft. It also gave its co-founders, Balinda DeSantis and Todd Thompson, an outlet for their own creativity.
The Walt Disney Company, the entertainment giant responsible for pairing Mickey with Minnie, Lilo with Stitch, and Tim Rice with Elton John, lured DeSantis and Thompson with marketing positions and tossed them in a room together. After working together for a while, Todd revealed his love for acting and telling stories and Balinda shared her love of movies. The pair bonded and embarked on their first collaboration.
"The first thing we did was write a feature length script and that was a really good experience that taught us how to put a story together. It took almost a year to complete it," says DeSantis. She continues on with the history of Stars North, "We also volunteered at the Florida Film Festival and they offered a lot of free film seminars. We attended one that taught us that if you want to make movies, you should start by making short films. Shorts help to build a person's storytelling skills and also give you the chance to gain production experience. So we thought, 'Okay, let's make a short.' It just seemed like the thing to do."
From there, Thompson and DeSantis started work on their first short film, The Paper Route, for which they recruited talent and production support from Orlando and the surrounding areas. They enjoyed the process so much that now, three years later, they just wrapped production on their fourth short film, Time & Again, which stars Margaret Blye and Academy Award-nominated Seymour Cassel. The Stars North team met Cassel at the Florida Film Festival several years ago and became instant friends. Cassel is also slated to appear in their feature length film Shooting Blanks, currently in development stages.
Time & Again, which shot for four days around Orlando, was written by Thompson and is a tribute to his family. The main character is based loosely on his grandfather and both characters were named after his aunt and uncle. "My Uncle Steve used to own the old movie theater in Medina, Ohio. I saw all my movies there while growing up." The film is a touching story of a watchmaker named Steve who repairs a clock that he soon discovers allows him to control time. Steve uses the clock to win the lottery in order to pay for his ailing wife’s medical treatment. But as the story unfolds, destiny has plans of its own.
Todd Thompson and Balinda DeSantis are not entrepreneurs looking to make a quick buck in the movie industry. For them, it‘s all about good storytelling. Their goal is to convey a story to an audience- to move them, to give them a break from reality and maybe give them a new perspective on things as they leave the theater. Eventually, the duo would like work their way up to the ranks of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, two filmmakers who "make those kind of films that people like to watch over and over and over again."
The two appear to have a good partnership, with no competition and no obvious battles for control. While DeSantis prefers the creative process and casting, Thompson is fascinated by all aspects of filmmaking. His interest in film began as a child where, as DeSantis tells it, "Todd was the kind that would write a story, borrow his grandpa's home movie camera and cast all the people in the neighborhood to play the parts." Thompson's enthusiasm is apparent as he bounces from setting up the next shot for Time & Again and filming bumpers for a local public-access program called "Showcase Shorts" to talking with us—all without showing any signs of slowing down. Thompson's views on the experience: "I like coming up with an idea, writing it down and sharing it with those around me. I love mixing actors with crew as we all work together to film the movie. And then I love post-production where a lot of editing, sound design and music bring us one step closer toward a final cut. I guess I love the whole process, really. It's collaboration at its best!"
The town cynics who cast doubts on a resurgence of the local film and television industry want to know... why Orlando? "We both live here and like living here so why go anywhere else? Orlando's got all the resources and facilities we need, not to mention the large pool of talented actors and crew who share the same strong passion for filmmaking that we have," explains DeSantis.
Because Stars North is still a small company, everyone involved is a volunteer. Thompson admits, "Just about everything is donated, to be totally honest. We've been fortunate to be able to reach out to people we work with who share that dream of making movies. Everyone has a different talent to bring to the table and everyone rallies together to make it happen." A Stars North production is a chance for everyone in the community to get involved. "Every time we do a film, we fill our key positions with seasoned professionals then reach out to the local film schools to recruit the rest of our crew. It gives the students a chance to work with the pros," he continues. And as for keeping the company afloat? "We couldn’t do it without people like Gary Turchin and Kenny Taht of Convergence, our co-producer, Kathryn Ruscio Kelly, Director of Photography, Stephen Campbell or production manager, Smithy Sipes. They’re all great assets to the Florida film community who share our enthusiasm for independent filmmaking"
Time will tell whether Stars North becomes an overwhelming commercial success or rejuvenates the dehydrated film industry in Orlando. For now, their movies will circulate around the film festivals and the boutique production company hopes to see Time & Again debut at the Florida Film Festival in March. DeSantis and Thompson remain with the company that brought them together with the hopes of one day working on films under the Stars North banner full-time." Our next goal is to produce our first feature length film. And long term, we'd like to have something in development, something in production, and something in the theaters at all times," says Thompson. "There's nothing better than spending 12 hours on a set and coming home feeling like you've created something. There's no better feeling in the world."
originally published in the December-January 2002/2003 issue of Industry magazine.
Every medium has the potential to impact an audience, but none has fulfilled that potential more than the film industry. Generations have been mesmerized by motion pictures since the opening of the first cinema. Within a single frame, a film can test our emotions, help us conquer fears of murderous dolls, alter our perceptions on important issues, or bring us infinite laughter.
Films have proven to be such effective communication tools that many people are making their own. Whether they're shooting home movies or penning the great American screenplay, it seems everyone is itching to get into the movie business. But film festivals separate the true artists from the hacks. Once a year, Orlando's Florida Film Festival provides a home for those artists.
The Florida Film Festival (FFF) was founded in 1992 by Enzian Theater owners Philip and Sigrid Tiedtke (pronounced “tiki”). Located in Maitland, The Enzian is the local art house cinema dedicated to showcasing independent and alternative films. FFF is an extension of the venue's mission, but it has grown into much more. In its eleven years, FFF has evolved into one of Central Florida's more popular events and was ranked as the #8 film festival in the world by the Ultimate Film Fest Survival Guide, which is considered the Bible of film festivals by most in the industry. Unlike some of the bigger fests, FFF maintains a cozy, low-key atmosphere that many find refreshing.
What makes the festival so cozy? Attribute it to the people behind the scenes who devote themselves to all facets of the festival. The Enzian staff works hard year-round in order to provide two weeks of film fun. Several of them travel around to other festivals, checking out the new trends and scouting possible spotlight films; others stick to home-based duties such as writing grants, taking ticket reservations, and getting corporate sponsors. In addition to the regular staff, FFF manages to pull in about 160 volunteers each year. "Our volunteers are the heart and soul of the festival," says festival director Sigrid Tiedtke. "Some of them live in other parts of the country but schedule their vacation time around the festival so they can help out."
When you think of film festival volunteers, you may envision hordes of ticket-takers and ushers, but FFF volunteers do so much more. Rich Grula has run the gamut in festival volunteering, serving in positions from critic for the Orlando Weekly to Marketing Director to member on film selection committees. When asked if he still enjoys working with FFF after seven years, Grula says, "Almost every single minute, although it's more fun being a selections committee member than Marketing Director."
Being a selection committee member may sound like fun, but the process is fairly rigorous. FFF aims to present only high quality films and with a thousand or so entries to choose from, one volunteer could easily donate twenty hours. "[We look for] films that interest us and feel unique, heartfelt, or challenging. There's a minimum expectation of production quality, but it's far more likely that a great but technically incompetent film gets chosen as opposed to a lame but professionally done effort," says Grula. "We tend not to be as purposefully dark or difficult as some festivals, although there's always some weird stuff programmed."
What types of films can you expect at FFF? Grula estimates, "We usually show over 100 films a year, but of the entries for competition, we show about thirty to forty shorts, ten documentary features, ten narrative features, maybe eight to ten documentary shorts, eight to ten international shorts, and a half dozen international features….The mix changes every year." The “mix” also includes animation, celebrity films, and spotlight films—spotlight films have already obtained distribution and aren’t permitted in competition.
As a festival committed to quality productions, FFF already stands out from other film festivals, but Tiedtke and staff take one step further. FFF goes the extra distance and offers additional goodies such as free seminars, celebrity events, galas, and theme nights. The 12th annual festival promises to offer even more-earlier. FFF has generally been held in early to mid-June, but this year it’s making a big jump to early March. “Our weather in early March is gorgeous. That time of year is also less crowded on the festival circuit,” states Tiedtke.
FFF also encourages communication between aspiring and established filmmakers. There are plenty of networking opportunities between screenings, Q&A sessions, and other events. “People meet people at the Florida Film Festival and end up collaborating on projects. We provide filmmakers with that chance for interaction.…It’s part of what we do, and we do it well,” says Tiedtke. Even if you’re not in the film industry, you can still hobnob with professionals or just check out films you might not otherwise get a chance to see.
Don’t expect the FFF to disappear anytime soon. With a dedicated staff, prime location, and rising popularity, the festival will be a prime event on Orlando’s social calendar for years to come. Sigrid Tiedtke has no intentions of giving up, stating, “We have more fun than most people get to have, whatever their job[s] may be. It’s really exciting!”
originally published in the February-March 2003 issue of Industry magazine.
Whoever penned the adage “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” certainly didn’t have Eric Zivot in mind. Zivot has enjoyed a fruitful career as an actor, teacher, and director. You may recognize him from his turn as Mercutio in OSF's recent production of Twelfth Night. He also works as an Assistant Professor at Rollins College. In February, he will direct All My Sons for the Annie Russell Theatre.
With his parents' encouragement, Zivot attended the Manitoba Theatre School, at age six. After receiving an MFA from American Conservatory Theater, Zivot served as a member of Stratford Festival of Canada and Head of Voice and Speech at University of Washington, Seattle and American Conservatory Theater. His screen credits include JAG, Babylon 5, and Sunset Beach.
He also developed his own actor training methodology, the Triune Brain Method. "The Triune Brain Method teaches actors to construct different layers of human behavior specific to each developmental stage of the brain," explains Zivot. "Once actors learn to do this, they are able to develop very specific characters quickly."
After running his own school in Los Angeles, Gymnasia Theatrica, for 10 years, he brings his innovative technique to Rollins. In addition, Zivot includes his students in many of his off-campus projects. "Everything about a production can be a quality learning experience and seeing their teacher actually doing the things he yells about in class makes the lessons very real for students," he explains
As a director, Zivot favors text over method, "Words are amazing to me and so are the writers that pick the words. At the first rehearsal for any show I have directed, I tell my cast, 'There was a creative person in this process before any of us show up.'"
His upcoming production of All My Sons may not be a sugar-coated examination of the American Dream. "As an immigrant and newly-minted U.S. citizen, I have a different perspective on the 'American Dream.'" He continues, "Audiences should not expect a gentle production in memory of Arthur Miller. I'll follow his text wherever it leads. Great writing deserves no less."
originally published in the January-February 2006 issue of Orlando Arts magazine.
Determination—becoming somebody through our creative, brilliant minds is the motto of Tajiri School of Performing Arts and Academics. After speaking with new executive director Peggy Nixon, anyone would be filled with inspiration and determination.
Nixon, born and raised in Knoxville, TN by her father and seven older siblings, knows that artistic experience is beneficial to the education of a child. As a child, Nixon took up dancing and immediately knew the arts would always be a part of her life. After receiving her Masters in Education from Nova University, Nixon went on to pursue a teaching career of almost 30 years, 21 of those years spent in Florida. But she never strayed far from her artistic background.
Now, two years after retiring from the Seminole County school system, Peggy Nixon travels 17 miles each day from Casselberry to Sanford on what she calls a "mission of love." Shortly after her first project with Tajiri (meaning "rich" in Swahili) School founder Patricia Whatley, Nixon began working with the school as artistic director. In her seven years at the school, she has also choreographed and directed many performances for Tajiri Arts.
In her life, Nixon has faced troubled times but prevailed with the encouragement from family and loved ones. She aims to bring that same sort of encouragement and support to Tajiri School.
Tajiri, a not-for-profit after school program, was designed to provide students age 3–17 confidence and motivation through the use of art. The school's motto and the school itself are meant to empower students. Nixon wants to show these students that they are beautiful and give them opportunities and hope.
"Inner beauty is important, I've always felt that way," says Nixon. "Maybe having these opportunities will inspire children." She goes on to praise her students, "They seldom think about what they don't know and focus on what they do know."
Along with being an after school program, Tajiri also offers outreach programs to schools around Seminole County. "There is tuition for the school," Nixon explains, "but we certainly don't want to close doors."
originally published in the May-June 2002 issue of Orlando Arts magazine.
Puccini’s Tosca, a classic tale of love and loss, is one soprano Carol Vaness knows all too well. In fact, to many opera fans worldwide, Vaness is Tosca.
Since her first production at California State University, Northridge, Vaness has logged over 150 performances of the role for which she is internationally renowned. It also marks the beginning of her friendship with Orlando Opera’s Robert Swedberg. “We did several performances together, most notable was Don Giovanni,” reminisces Swedberg. “But my favorite role of hers at that time was Tosca.” Vaness adds, “ I remember Robert coming back after the show to tell me how great it was.”
Vaness’s Floria Tosca has been reprised around the world—from San Francisco Opera to Duetsche Opera Berlin. In 2004, she played her signature role opposite Luciano Pavarotti at the Met in his final operatic performance.
“Tosca is the perfect opera! The love Tosca has for her music is a characteristic we share. The music brings me back to her every time,” says Vaness. She explains, “It’s one of the first chances we get as opera singers to actually play an opera singer. Her entire life is dedicated, just as mine is, to what she does—to her art, to singing, to love.”
However, there is more to Vaness than Tosca. She began her professional career as Vitellia in La Clemenza di Tito at San Francisco Opera, following her apprenticeship with their Merola Opera program. Throughout her career, she has taken on a variety of roles in many operatic capitols, including Paris Opera, Covent Garden, and Salzburg Festival. She also takes time out of her performance schedule to coach master classes. “I love young singers…I want them to take over the opera world in the best way possible and sign beautifully and passionately,” says Vaness.
In April, two old friends, Vaness and Swedberg, reunite with Orlando Opera’s production of Tosca. “It will be my great pleasure to direct the production,” says Swedberg. “It is especially wonderful now that she is at the apex of her career that we have this great opportunity to work together.”
originally published in the March-April 2006 issue of Orlando Arts magazine.
Since his professional debut with the New York City Opera in 1973, Samuel Ramey has steadily won the admiration of fans and fellow performers. The most recorded bass in opera history has appeared on the stages of the Metropolitan Opera, Teatro alla Scala, Vienna Staatsoper, Lyric Opera of Chicago, among others.
Graced with the extraordinary ability to combine deep tones with agile leaps between notes rarely heard in his voice range, Ramey has won acclaim in repertoires including Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Rossini’s Semiramide and The Barber of Seville, Gounod’s Faust, and his three devils in Boito’s Mefistofele.
Ramey spends upwards of eight or nine months on the road, either on concert tours or performing with various opera companies. “I think the key to my longevity is the fact that I didn’t start my career until I was around thirty years old,” explains Ramey. "I also had very good people advising me in the beginning about what roles to do and when to do them."
Although he is best known for his turns in villainous roles, this Colby, Kansas native likes to explore other repertoires. “I am still always looking for a new repertoire and attempting to reinvent myself.” Still, he adds, "Composers seem to like to write the parts of villains for the bass voice and I'm very glad about that. They are, and probably always will be, my favorites."
Ramey makes his debut performance with Orlando Opera on October 10. Accompanied by the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, a 300-voice chorus of Orlando Opera choristers and the Stetson University Chorale, the concert features the world-renowned bass performing his specialties—evil characters and arias with great choruses.
“We couldn’t be more excited to be bringing Mr. Ramey to our audience,” says Robert S., the Director of the Orlando Opera. “The repertoire is still being worked out, but it will all be from works that are great favorites, and some that have not been produced here before.”
Ramey says of his upcoming performance, “I am looking forward very much to this debut… it will be a program that will run the gamut of my favorite operatic repertoire.”
originally published in the September-October 2004 issue of Orlando Arts magazine.
Most potential rock stars get into the music industry for the fleeting fame, the piles of money, and the endless stream of screaming groupies. Dana Kamide is not your average potential rock star.
Dana isn’t in the music business for the groupies or even the money—he does it for the universal need of self-expression. "I feel blessed to be able to express myself through music. I'm constantly trying to evolve and become a better person. You give more when you give of yourself than of your possessions." Through music, Kamide gives of himself completely.
Dana was born the youngest of six in Carthage, NY. He was introduced to music and performing at the age of seven, when his eldest brother, Sie taught him the boogie woogie on the piano. He mastered the tune with two fingers and made his debut on a classroom piano at Augustinian Academy in upstate New York. When he finished playing, his classmates erupted into applause. It was at that moment, Dana found his calling.
He began his professional career playing in clubs at age 13. With five years of performing experience and a desire to learn more about the business side of the industry, the 18 year-old moved to Boston to study at Berklee College of Music. He then went on to pursue the life of a rock star by going out on tour with several successful bands. Now, after years of traveling and opportunities to sell out, the 26 year-old Kamide is content to be among friends and family in Orlando who cheer him on and to “make it” on his own terms. "It's easier to be a big fish in a small pond. I think there is an amazing amount of talent in every town, but everyone has their eyes on Orlando right now. It's a great place to start and I have so much support here."
Kamide, with his undeniable talent, has developed quite a fan base in Orlando. And like any attractive male performer, he has his fair share of groupies. Almost too many, in fact. "I don't like adoration. I'm a little uncomfortable with it... it's hard to pass them up... one of my goals is to be perfectly honest and faithful in all areas." He does enjoy the recognition, just on a smaller scale. "I want to be able to hang out with my friends in public without feeling awkward if a fan recognizes and approaches me."
Categorizing Kamide's music might prove a daunting task for record store employees and industry bigwigs. "I grew up digging a lot of different musical styles. I'm into everything which is dangerous in this line of work because you have to be focused, especially when you're just starting out." His music ranges from R&B to modern and progressive rock, acoustic-soul to alternative-pop; he adds own personal flair to each style that creates an inviting sound to ears of all preferences.
As Kamide works on an album concentrated in one music genre, he uses his diversity and songwriting talents to write for other performers. You probably won't find his work on a cookie-cutter teen pop album as Dana's lyrics tend to delve a little deeper than puppy love and bad hair days. He writes with the hope of connecting with the listener. "I try to write meaningful lyrics and touch on the spiritual stuff like life and death and change. We all share the same struggles and I try to capture that. As long as the audience gets something positive out of it, I feel like I've done my job."
Although he calls himself a songwriter, Kamide says he enjoys performing more than the creating aspect of music. "Creating today has become tedious with all the toys... technology gets in the way of inspiration and can break the mood of a song." He adds, "If I could sit down with just a guitar and a cheap tape recorder, I'd write a lot more than I do."
He is often approached for tips on how to break into the music business. His advice for performers, "Number one, you've got to have a song. Write as many songs as you can. Try to get a publishing deal as a songwriter." But most importantly, "Realize your limitations and explore all aspects of the industry. The road to rock is long and arduous. If you can‘t be a rock star, maybe you‘ll find success writing jingles or as a booking agent."
Dana counts himself among the fortunate few who can exist primarily for music, but when he isn't working, he enjoys riding his bike and playing tennis. He is starting yoga practices to get in shape for his upcoming shows.
originally published in the October-November 2002 issue of Industry magazine.
An Artful Dedication
Mary Ann Dean, Executive Director OSF
Mary Ann Dean has been providing a strong business approach to Orlando’s theatre community for 30 years. After 12 years as Executive Director of Orlando Shakespeare Festival, Dean will be entering into a well-deserved retirement in June.
In 1973, Dean joined the Civic Theatre Guild as an effort to get involved in the community. By 1980 she was elected General Manager of the Civic Theatre. “I had no theatre background, except as an audience member and found my niche in concentrating on the business side,” says Dean.
Under Dean’s direction, from 1980 to 1994, the Civic grew into one of the largest community theatres in the country with a 3-theatre space (now home to Orlando Repertory), an active children’s series, and a larger staff. “I’m a prime example of on-the-job training!” Dean says.
Due to her tremendous success, Dean was brought in as Executive Director to the Shakespeare Festival in 1994. She, along with Artistic Director Jim Helsinger, pulled the company out of debt in 1996 and brought theatre back to Loch Haven Park in 2001 in a 50,000 sq. ft. indoor complex with three theatres and a nine-show season. “That’s phenomenal growth. It’s a sign of Mary Ann’s integrity and the belief in that integrity from the board, our patrons, and our donors,” boasts Helsinger. “She always brings a cheerful attitude and level head to everything she does.”
Thanks to Dean’s efforts, many Orlando theatre groups are thriving. “There’s not a theatre group in town that hasn’t been affected by Mary Ann’s positive, either by providing performance space or giving advice on how to grow their business,” says Helsinger.
“Mary Ann is well-known and respected throughout Orlando and the state of Florida. She is dedicated, loyal, and endlessly hardworking,” says Rita Lowndes, long-time friend. “While losing her presents a challenge, the new director will have the benefit of working from the solid foundation built by Mary Ann.”
“It has been gratifying to watch how the arts community matured over 30 years,” says Dean. Despite her retirement, Dean plans to remain involved in Orlando theatre as a consultant and patron.
originally published in the May-June 2006 issue of Orlando Arts magazine.
Anne McLean, PhD
Pianist, Music Advisory Committee Co-Chair for Festival of Orchestra
Dr. Anne McLean shows great dedication to her work. Even as she heads to her native Canada for a six-week vacation, she has scheduled performance dates. Amazingly, she finds some time to discuss music, her career, and her work with the Festival of Orchestras. “It’s not difficult to talk about a subject you love,” says McLean.
Since her arrival to Orlando in 1995, Dr. McLean felt drawn to the Festival of Orchestras. “I think we took out subscriptions for the Festival, the Opera, and the Orlando Philharmonic all at once.” In August 2001, Whit Cotten, the Festival’s vice president invited her to join Dave Glerum on WMFE-FM. Shortly after, Festival CEO Joe Rizzo asked McLean to serve on the music advisory committee as co-chair.
Mr. Rizzo seems pleased with his decision. “Anne has been extremely helpful in [the] hour-long programs previewing each of our concerts... Her music expertise is outstanding.”
This is no surprise considering McLean’s background. Born to two pianists, McLean began her training on the piano with her mother. She moved on to study in Edmonton, and later in Austria and Switzerland. She completed her formal training with a Doctorate of Musical Arts from the University of British Columbia School of Music.
Dr. McLean maintains a dual career as a pianist, performing to critical acclaim around the world, and as a professor of piano at Stetson University‘s School of Music. She recorded “Contemporary Connections,” a CD compilation of 20th century piano music, a project she says is her greatest musical accomplishment.
McLean sums up her duty as Co-chair of the Festival of Orchestras, “Essentially, I advise the committee on musical matters such as helping with choices of programming and orchestras.” She goes on to say, “I am delighted to volunteer for the Festival of Orchestras because I have an opportunity to use my skills for a worthy cause.”
The Festival staff is buzzing with excitement over the first-ever performance in Central Florida by the New York Philharmonic in February 2003. McLean has also volunteered to organize Orlando’s first International Rachmaninoff Society conference on Rollins College campus October 25-27.
originally published in the September-October 2002 issue of Orlando Arts magazine.
Content on this site was originally written by Katharine Miller between 2000-2015. Many feature articles and interviews were published in print and on websites that no longer exist. Katharine is reproducing her written material here for portfolio and archival purposes only. Links and credits to clients and original publication will be included where possible.