'Midsummer' Documentary Premiering This Weekend At Tribeca Film Fest
The film, entitled Midsummer in Newtown, will have its world premiere on Sunday, April 17, as part of the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. It tracks the development of the original musical, A Rockin' Midsummer Night's Dream, along with a number of people who were deeply affected by the tragedy of 12/14 including residents Nelba and Jimmy Greene, who lost their daughter Ana Grace, and Sandy Hook students Tain Gregory and Sammy Vertucci.
A Rockin' Midsummer Night's Dream, presented during the summer of 2014ÃÂ and directed by Michael Unger, became the inspiration of Director Lloyd Kramer and Producer Tom Yellin. Mr Unger and Mr YellinÃÂ had met a year earlier when the two struck up a conversation while watching their daughters who took ballet lessons together in New York.
"A couple of ballet dads chatting outside a Ms Lisa's dance classÃÂ led us to talking about what we were doing over the summer," Mr Unger said. "That was just before we began working on our first summer musical Seussical, The Musical. But it was too close for him to be able to do anything that year. So when I told him about Midsummer the following year, he said he'd like to do a documentary about that."
For those who missed the Newtown production, A Rockin' Midsummer Night's Dream is described as a freewheeling musical adaptation of Shakespeare's beloved comedy. Mr Kramer follows the cast, keying in on Sammy and Tain, from pre-audition jitters to the triumphant opening night.
On a parallel track, the film also explores the world of the Greenes, grieving parents determined to honor their beloved 6-year-old daughter. While Nelba focuses on helping children through a new foundation bearing Ana Grace's name, Jimmy - a Grammy-nominated jazz saxophonist - channels his grief into music he wrote for an album dedicated to her cherished memory.
Making The Short
The first step after hearing about the musical, according to Mr Kramer, was capturing some footage that could be edited into a short film to present to potential backers for the full-length documentary.
"Tom had told me about this just a couple of weeks before auditions, and he suggested I jut go up [to Newtown] with a camera," Mr Kramer said. "We had two days of auditions and some footage from the callbacks. So we were kind of exploring.
"Then the challenge was to come up with funding," he continued. "Usually it takes so long time to get funding, but we just had a few weeks between callbacks and when rehearsals were starting."
In the space of just a few days, Mr Kramer and his team put together a compelling short featuring tryouts and callbacks, that instantly resonated with potential backers.
"We actually ended up focusing that eight-minute piece on a couple of the kids from the hundred or two hundred we filmed, who ended up being featured in the final film," Mr Kramer said. "Tom ended up showing it to the folks at Participant and Vulcan, and we got a green light right away. I think everyone who came to the project saw the potential of these great kids doing Shakespeare - and how that play was resonating to some degree with what was happening in Newtown."
Mr Kramer, who has worked in both documentaries and scripted television, was able to juxtapose the story lines so effectively because he was granted intimate access to the three featured families who individually find hope in the transformative power of the arts.
He collaborated with Mr Yellin previously on America in Primetime, a four-part PBS series, and Report From Ground Zero, a two-hour ABC Special Documentary account of what happened inside the World Trade Center towers following the 9/11 attacks. But the director admitted he had no experience with so many young people who were so deeply affected by a tragedy.
"When you're around those kids it's very inspiring," Mr Kramer said. "As young as some of them were, they were kind of aware their town was kind of branded in some quarters by this event. They feel deeply about what happened, not to just themselves but to their town.
"You can feel it as an observer, but they sparked to the opportunity to make friends and do something powerful and meaningful. They saw the positives of living in Newtown," he said. "Those kids can surprise you by the depth of their understanding. They are more aware than you think."
Sammy's mom, Diane Vertucci, said her daughter was developing an interest in theater arts after she began exploring acting and scripting a few short plays of her own. But in the weeks after Sammy experienced being locked down in the school library as police secured the building on 12/14, her formerly bright spirit was understandably affected.
"She became angry and upset, and she wasn't doing well communicating," Ms Vertucci said. "So I thought getting involved would help restore some of the joy she found in performing.
"At that point she wasn't comfortable having her picture taken, and she wasn't getting involved in some of the other events and things being made available," Ms Vertucci added.
But at the audition, the documentary crew saw something in Sammy, and she agreed to being on camera.
"After that, she got bit by the Broadway bug," Ms Vertucci said. "She was in a state of self isolation, and the experience turned her back into being a vibrant member of our community. Now she is working a variety of 12/14-related events. She is learning to see beyond herself."
On that first day of rehearsals, however, Sammy found herself briefly surrounded by strangers.
"But the wonderful thing that happened that first day, was that she sat down to eat lunch by herself. And another girl, Payge Shaw and her sister, Olyvia, invited Sammy to sit with them," Ms Vertucci said. "And they are still really great friends. They appeared together this year in the middle school production of Fiddler on the Roof, Jr."
The Vertucci family dog, Percy, is also featured in the documentary.
"We got Percy after the incident because Sammy was feeling alone. So she selected him from 92 puppies at the North Shore Animal League," Ms Vertucci said.
The Power Of Art & Creativity
As he completes cast selections for his 2016 summer musicals, musical director Mr Unger said he will have 22 actors on board who were featured in A Rockin' Midsummer Night's Dream. This summer, Mr Unger and NewArts - the new name for the 12.14 Foundation, which maintains the same mission of building a landmark performing arts center in Newtown - is presenting The Wizard of Oz and a youth version of School of Rock.
Mr Unger has seen the documentary four times.
"It's so uplifting," he said. "It's a beautifully crafted film. The visuals are a love letter to Newtown. It's really a beautiful picture-perfect postcard of Newtown. And I love the way so much of the film is told through the eyes of the children," Mr Unger said. "I don't know that all the kids in that room realized we were working to help them heal from this tragedy - they just knew they are part of this great community experience."
At its heart, the film explores the power of art and creativity in the quest of one community to overcome one of the greatest tragedies in American history. The premiere is Sunday, April 17, at 5 pm, at the SVA Theater, 333 West 23rd Street, New York.
The Jimmy Greene Quartet will be performing after the premiere screening of Midsummer In Newtown, and a number of individuals connected to the film are expected to attend including Sammy Vertucci.
Additional screenings are scheduled for Tuesday, April 19, at 8:30 pm; Thursday, April 21, at 6:30 pm; and Sunday, April 24, at 3:15 pm, all at Bow Tie Cinemas Chelsea, 260 West 23rd Street, New York.
Tickets for all four screenings are $23.50 each. To order tickets or for additional information call 866-941-FEST (866-941-3378) or visit tribecafilm.com.
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