Alumni Spotlight: Jennifer Potts C’92, Filmmaker, Screenwriter, Director, Designer, Producer, and Educator

Jennifer Potts is an independent filmmaker, theatre director, screenwriter, educator, and playwright, and is living proof that life does not need to slow down when you get to the middle. She graduated from Drew University in 1992 with a BA in Theatre Arts. She co-founded and ran Cornerstone Performing Arts Center in Fitchburg, MA, where she oversaw a small non-equity theatre company and directed multiple productions every year. In 2012, she returned to school to study film/video production at Fitchburg State University, where she wrote and directed two short films and was awarded 2014 Film Student of the Year. While at Fitchburg State, she wrote and directed a short film titled Home, which screened at multiple film festivals.. In July 2016, she graduated from New Hampshire Institute of Art (NHIA) with an MFA in Writing for the Stage and Screen. While at NHIA she wrote three feature-length screenplays and one full-length play. Her short 2017 film Charlie & Poppy screened at nearly 20 film festivals around the world and took home three “best of” awards. In 2018, her short film based on her feature script, The Extraordinary World of Cecily Blinkstop was selected to screen at Rhode Island International Film Festival and took home first place in the Kids Eye Competition. In 2019, The Extraordinary World of Cecily Blinkstop screened in the New England Film Festival where it won the Overall Audience Award and runner up for Best Drama. Jennifer is now writing her first TV pilot and teaching half time on the Humanities faculty at Regis College in Weston, MA. She lives in Worcester, MA, with her husband, Warren (‘90), of 30 years. They have five grown children and a dog named Stewart.

Read Women in Film and Video New England’s Spotlight on Jennifer Potts.

“Do, or do not. There is no “try” ~ Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

JENNIFER AT DREW

Jennifer was born in Maryland but grew up in California, Virginia, North Carolina and London and attended ten different schools. The summer before her senior year in high school, her mom and stepdad moved back to the U.S. from London.  “I had a plan to go to drama school in London but my father talked me out of that plan so I looked at Drew and a couple of other schools.” Both of Jennifer’s parents graduated from Drew. ‘I am so relieved I chose Drew for theatre.  The other schools were conservatory programs that trained you only as an actor. At Drew, I was required to learn every aspect of theatre production which gave me the language and knowledge to be the kind of  director who can communicate ideas with every person working on my productions.” One of her favorite mentors was Prof. Joe Patenaude. “He was the person who kept everything real for me.  That was important.  I teach now and that’s my style too.  He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself which was the creator side in me.” While at Drew, Jennifer  directed an original play during her junior year. “That experience helped me understand the important relationship between director and playwright.” Jennifer also did a lot of dance and choreography while at Drew which she used for many years in the theatre.  “I didn’t like to direct musical theatre per se. It wasn’t my genre, but I always included multi-media in my shows, including dance.  So that choreography experience helped me create stories from scratch.” Jennifer was also one of the first interns at the Shakespeare Theatre of NJ under the direction of Bonnie Monte and Mike Stotts. That experience gave her the skills she would later use to run her own theatre.  “People don’t understand what goes into a theatre production. If someone gets a degree in theatre, you know that they are a motivated human.  Theatre is the ultimate collaborative experience and the deadlines are hard.  Theatre students often work all night to get everything finished before an opening night. It is stressful. When I see a theatre degree or theatre production experience on a resume, I know that is someone I want to hire. I know they will follow through on things.”  Jennifer credits Drew for ensuring that their theatre grads have a well-rounded education with marketable skills. In addition to being the child of Drew Alumni, Jennifer married her husband, Warren (‘90), at Drew and is still close with her college roommates.

JENNIFER AS FILMMAKER AND EDUCATOR

You went to Fitchburg State University for Film/Video Production.  When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in film production?

I have five children and when they were young there was no theatre in the city where I lived so I co-founded a theatre with a small non-equity theatre company, a professional dance company, and training for youth. We received grants to ensure that all students had access to training in dance, theatre, and music, regardless of income. One day when I was directing True West, my intern, a film student from Fitchburg State, suggested that I read In the Blink of an Eye, which is about editing. I became completely obsessed with storytelling through film. I remember sitting in the theatre one day thinking that I just want to edit this show.  I knew that it was time for me to do something different.  So, at 41 years old, I went back to school with undergrads to study film production. I took classes in editing, screenwriting, cinematography, producing, and lighting. And I directed shorts.  That’s also how I learned at Drew.  I knew how to climb a ladder, run or program a light board, etc.  I wanted to be that film director that can do everything and not just stand behind a camera and say “cut!” Speaking the same language as your crew makes you a better director.

What inspired you to pursue an MFA with an interest in writing for stage and screen?

I studied playwriting with Buzz McLaughlin at Drew and it never clicked for me back then.  Screenwriting is also different.  It’s never a finished product.  Even when I’m directing my own screenplays, I change things as I go along.  I never end up with the exact script I started with – I end up with something better and I love that process.  In grad school, I once again studied with Buzz, and I was required to write one stage play. This time, I had a blast writing the play, which was later workshopped by a small theatre in Tampa. I got bitten by the writing bug.

What was the first script you ever wrote?

I write feature length scripts, but I direct shorts because I can’t afford to direct feature length scripts. My first script was called “Five Year Plan” which was about a husband and wife who had kids really young and they decide when their last kid goes to college that they will write their own 5-year plan, so they sell their house, cash in their retirement money, and they live their dreams.  She goes to a cabin to write and he opens a brewery, but then their kids come home and the 5-year plan falls apart. This was my first attempt at writing a screenplay.  Since then I have written 4 feature length screenplays in different genres.

What is the most difficult part about writing a screenplay?

Finding the time to write a screenplay is the most difficult part. I work on prewriting for 6 months before starting the script. Then, I literally write the first draft in two weeks. Once I sit down to write, I get sucked into the story.  I get kooky when writing a screenplay.  I don’t shower or eat and characters talk in my head.

What was the first screenplay you had produced?  Can you talk about that process? 

I only direct and produce shorts because I raise the funds to produce them.  For “The Extraordinary World of Cecily Blinkstop, I raised $35,000. I’m a firm believer that once you get out of school and you direct or produce something, you have to pay your crew.  A lot of indie filmmakers don’t pay anyone. Unless you are giving something in return like an apprentice situation, if you hire someone who goes to school to be a filmmaker, then you should pay them. The first short I wrote/produced/directed was called “Home”, based on a man I knew who was an attorney and a Vietnam vet who went to work one morning and disappeared. After being featured on TV a year later,  a homeless shelter contacted the wife to say he was living there but he didn’t know who he was. I produced Home as part of an independent study while at Fitchburg State so I had access to many student resources. As an independent filmmaker, it’s exhausting to produce a film.  I bring in a team initially to help with marketing, build a website, establish a FB presence, and ensure have a certain number of supporters so we can raise money. It’s a whole system and it’s a full time job.

Are you interested writing for television?

Right now because of everything that is happening in the world, I am hoping to write a TV pilot.  I had some great ideas then the Coronavirus happened and now nothing I was considering seems important or relevant. Because of the recent events that led to riots and social unrest, I feel that it is a critical time to address racial injustice. I remain intentionally aware of my white privilege and how white supremacy affects the system that I live in and benefit from.  I decided that I am on a new trajectory now;  I am in the process of copywriting ideas for television shows that are based on reality and returned to writing a TV pilot for a sitcom, where now my character now has to travel through Coronavirus and the current fight for racial justice.

After the #MeToo movement, everything changed and television opened up to women (female directors/female centered stories/female cinematographers).  We are now in a different place with race and equity issues.  Netflix just hired one of my favorite speakers as their VP, Inclusion Strategy, Verna Meyers. We are seeing changes, but what usually happens is things change on the surface, and everyone feels fine and the system still keeps people down and propagates white dominance.  I want to be part of the solution.  I don’t want to go down a path that doesn’t contribute to real and lasting change.

You worked as the Artistic Director of the Cornerstone Arts Center, where you basically ran the Center. As Director of Development at Music Worcester it looks like you were focused on fundraising and writing grants, and as Communications Director at United Way you did Communications and Marketing.  Can you talk a little bit about what you learned in these roles that you’ve been able to apply to both film-making and teaching? 

They are all intertwined.  Most artists can’t just be an artist.  Most artists need to be able to manage their business, understand marketing and communications, and learn how to write grants.  When I worked at United Way I also shot public service announcements and videos for them, covering the personal stories of clients who benefited from services.  Of course, I prefer to work on my own projects, but I also need to pay the bills.

You are Assistant Professor of Humanities at Regis College for almost 3 years.  What do you enjoy most about teaching?

Regis hired me because I could run a theatre so I ran their Fine Arts Center and taught two courses for two years, but stepped down from my responsibility at the Fine Arts Center at the end of last year so I could work on my own projects. I now teach two courses a semester. I love teaching.  We have an amazing student body that are mostly first-generation students.  I love being part of their journey and watching them grow.  I got pulled into teaching Freshman English, which I did not feel qualified to teach, but I now realize that I have an approach that makes writing more accessible.  My students love my grammar lessons and my grammar tricks, as well as my ultimate belief that grammar should be a creative choice. I love being part of the freshman year process.  I meet the students when they first come in and then watch them discover their adult freedom.  I also teach screenwriting, digital storytelling, and theatre classes. My favorite class is “Exploring Humanities” which I teach through a storytelling lens. So last semester when we did our final project on a global crisis (Covid-19), they recorded interviews with people from around the world on Zoom, edited the interviews, and virtually presented a final project to 50 people – students, faculty, and participants – demonstrating how as a world we are going through similar experiences.  They were also able to see and address the disparities, like the difference for those without health insurance as opposed to someone in Norway who knows they will be taken care of. I love watching my students discover the people outside of their little New England town, outside of this country.  Next semester, my class will collaborate virtually with a class  in Madrid, looking at how immigration affects people in both countries.

I saw “The Extraordinary World of Cecily Blinkstop.” You wrote, directed, produced, and designed the production and costumes.   The synopsis reads, “Set in 1974 rural New England, this live-action family drama is about Cecily, a 7-year old girl who, following the death of her baby sister, lives in a world with no music, no color, no laughter, no love. That is, until a magical imaginary friend shows up and joins Cecily on the quest to save her family from the grief that is destroying them.”  It’s a wonderful, poignant film.  I see it was in memory of an Olivia Quinn Moore.  Can you talk a little bit about the inspiration for this film?

It was based on so many people who lose children.  I have miscarried babies. While I was in pre-production, my sister lost her baby three hours after she was born. Olivia is my niece. I stopped everything for a while because I couldn’t keep the ball going when the story was so close to home.

Why did you set it in 1974 and in a rural location?

My story needed to take place in an isolated world. In the 70’s, people were isolated in a different way than they are now.  By placing my story in a rural setting in 1974, I created the perfect world for my characters to face and overcome their overwhelming obstacles. I also had an imaginary friend when I was little that just disappeared one day. I realized that my imaginary friend got me through a time of loneliness. The world is also my childhood in the 70’s – the textures, the colors, the simplicity.

Do you have someone helping you to raise money or do you do this on your own?

For Cecily, I recruited most of my cast and crew before raising funds so I had a large group that were invested.  I also lined up a marketing team that did a lot of work prior to asking anyone for money. I crowdfunded with Seed and Spark, a platform that raises money for films. It is a long and extensive process – not my favorite part of filmmaking, but necessary if I am going to direct my own work.

You have many talents, what do you enjoy more – screenwriting or directing?  If you had to choose one to do full-time, which one would it be and why?

Directing is a lot of work when you also produce your own work.  It’s exhilarating while you’re on set, and I love watching the collaboration on set. I wouldn’t want to exclusively direct. Writing is a different kind of exhilarating, but you can only write in isolation for so long. The two balance me out, but if I could pick one role in filmmaking that I would prefer above all else, I would do production design.  You only have to focus on one aspect during production…and I love creating worlds.

Who are some of your favorite screenwriters and directors? 

Jordan Peele is innovative and deals with some serious subjects in a powerful way in films like “Us” and “Get Out”.  I admire his ability to combine humor with horror.  My students will tell you that I love the film, “Thelma and Louise” – I make every class watch it.  I also like quirky films like “Lars and the Real Girl”, Wes Anderson films, particularly “Moonrise Kingdom”, “Seven Psychopaths”, and “Little Miss Sunshine.”

What advice would you give a student who is interested in being a screenwriter?  Director?  Or film production?

Screenwriting is a tough industry.  I am not going to say you can’t break into the industry, but I believe that it helps for screenwriters to also work as producers and directors.  Or to find a filmmaker that you want to work with and start making some films.  Start making some shorts.  Get your screenplays out there.  There are competitions you can enter. You just don’t know what studios are looking for.  Write a book because so many films start as books. The key is to write constantly and create a body of work.

If you want to direct, learn how to use a camera, how to edit, learn the importance of sound design, how to light a film, etc. Understand every part of filmmaking first – this will make you an excellent director.

If you are interested in film production, work on sets.  College students make great production assistants. Films are being shot all the time and they are always looking for volunteers. You can learn a lot from being on set.

What do you think is the most important characteristic for success?

Hard work.  It’s not just what you know or how talented you are.  There is no substitute for hard work.  Also, get training.  Be the best at what you do.  Be flexible.  Morph and change.  Learn from your mistakes.  A lot of people believe that careers are over when they turn a certain age.  That’s not true. You need to constantly reinvent yourself.  I create a business plan every year where I set goals.  This helps me accomplish things.

What career other than your own would you like to attempt?

I’d love to work with companies to establish systems that create equity and diversity.  I want to dismantle unjust systems and put them back together again. For now, I guess I will just create a character who does this…

If you could travel anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would it be?

We were supposed to travel to Armenia and Georgia (the country) in July, so I would go there. I would also love to travel to Japan and to many countries on the African continent.

Fun facts about you/hobbies/activities?

My dog is named Stewart after my father (Stewart Crank ‘65), who passed away in 2019, and we’re inseparable. He’s a shaggy wirehaired Vizsla that looks like a muppet. I also love to paint, upholster, and design spaces in my home. I want to live in spaces that inspire me.

https://www.jenniferpotts.com/

 

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