By Sara Olkon
Photo by Sally Ryan

Documentary is a perfect mode for students to learn how life is lived, engage with the world, and at the same time, understand how knowledge is produced."”
—Judy Hoffman, Senior Lecturer
Cinema & Media Studies

Marissa Flaxbart, AB’05, saw the cool in show choir long before the television executives at Fox did.

Now, just as the series “Glee” is helping pique interest in teenage singing ensembles, Flaxbart is shopping around her documentary film, aptly titled show/choir, which follows two high school troupes in her native Chesterton, Ind.

“I didn’t come to the College knowing I wanted to make a documentary,” Flaxbart concedes. “I didn’t even know I wanted to study film!”

But at UChicago, Flaxbart “fell in love with the power of the camera and cinéma vérité.” So armed with the camcorder that her family gave her for graduation, Flaxbart began a project that drew upon her own four years with the Chesterton singing groups the Sandpipers and the Drifters.

“It was the thing that most dominated your time and your life,” she says of show choir. “The excitement of being on stage is very real, very exhilarating.”

To make the film, Flaxbart followed the pre-production outline she’d prepared as a fourth-year Cinema & Media Studies major, in a class taught by Senior Lecturer Judy Hoffman. The course focused on production; she had to create a budget, an equipment list, sample storyboards, and outline a production schedule.

Hoffman says the study of documentary film is “inherently interdisciplinary” and a wonderful fit for the University.

“There are ways of learning that aren’t written, yet convey exquisite information; the sounds, images, and textures that go unnoticed in the process of living,” Hoffman says. “Documentary is a perfect mode for students to learn how life is lived, engage with the world, and at the same time, understand how knowledge is produced.”

‘A Natural Fit For a Movie’

Flaxbart’s film has been a marriage of two college loves: documentary film and live performance.

At UChicago, she and one of her housemates put on a production of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” she acted in a production of Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” volunteered at Doc Films, and was a member of the all-female a cappella group “Men in Drag,” which arranged its own songs and performed across campus.

Choosing UChicago was easy, Flaxbart says. Her father did his doctoral studies at the Divinity School, so she and her family lived in Hyde Park until she was eight. Years later, her mother worked as a secretary for Nobel laureate Gary Becker.

“As a smart kid in a big, public high school, the pure pursuit of knowledge in the world of academia seemed like the most romantic thing possible,” Flaxbart says. “I felt that I could sing and act anywhere, but only U. of C. promised a deep, multi-faceted education where I could really revel in my studies, surrounded by lots of just-as-nerdy peers.”

Yet she admits, “in college, I found it was nearly impossible to describe show choir to anyone who didn’t already know what it was. Since show choir is challenging and rewarding, but also hammy and kind of silly (the costumes! the makeup! those cheesy songs!), it seemed like a natural fit for a movie.”

Like High School All Over Again

Flaxbart was inspired to shoot a film about show choir, in part, to help boost school music programs all over the country. She said the experience gave her a tremendous boost of confidence at a pivotal moment in her life.

In a note to her supporters in the months before she’d finished the film, Flaxbart talked about what she found at Chesterton—a small town about an hour’s drive from Hyde Park—upon her return as a College graduate.

“Little had changed: same teacher/director, same stressful rehearsal schedule, same indefatigable passion for performance from these talented teenagers,” Flaxbart says. “During the year, frustrations, dreams, and hopes came bubbling forth. Surprising triumphs and unexpected defeats abounded. And through it all, their immense talent and zest for life shone through.”

Flaxbart estimates that she spent some 300 hours observing show choirs during the 2005–06 academic year in Chesterton. To pay the bills, Flaxbart worked at the Apple store in downtown Chicago.

She wrote and directed the film, while a friend and fellow Chesterton graduate manned the camera. Flaxbart managed to cull 30 hours of footage into about one hour and 50 minutes, and in the process felt “it was a little like being back in show choir myself.”

Film Plays Starring Role

As with many new artists, funding was a concern. Flaxbart credits Jennifer Kennedy, the associate director of the Office of the Reynolds Club and Student Activities at UChicago, who suggested the online funding platform, Kickstarter.

“I’d been sitting on the footage for some time and really wanted to be able to finish the movie,” says Flaxbart, who went on to raise more than $6,000. The funds helped pay for editing software and let her work full-time on the movie until it was finished.

Flaxbart is now shopping the film around to documentary film festivals across the country. Looking ahead, she hopes to work as a writer in TV or film productions.

She says the documentary has brought her College experience full-circle from her visit as a prospective student.

“I vividly remember watching Pulp Fiction in the lounge with a large group of students,” says Flaxbart, who went on to live in Burton-Judson’s Vincent House for three years. “Maybe it was some kind of omen, foreshadowing what a big role movies would play in my college life and beyond.”

Originally published on March 28, 2011.