Five Questions With: Phillip Church

Professor Philip Church is a man with a passion for Theater. His 30 year involvement in the medium has given him unparalleled experience. With dedication and hard work, he has been the pillar on which FIU’s Theater Department has grown and allowed for expansion to other communities. In this dynamic interview, discover the depth of his long-lasting impact.

  1. When and why did you start teaching Intro to Directing/Acting in Film/Television?

“The course has been offered 8 years now. It kick-started for majors and then opened up for non-majors. It’s a course that is offered every semester because its so popular. You know, I went for years thinking we offer this four year program for theatre (BFA and BA) and they never once get in front of a camera. Everybody watches film and television more than they attend the theatre. The film industry is huge and yet none of the students were getting screen experience. It was agreed that Acting 7 would be an Intro to Acting and Film course.

2.  Phillip, I am aware you teach one of the courses available for the Film Studies Program, Intro to Acting/Directing for Film and Television. Can you tell me some of the objectives students take away from the class?

Storyboarding, simple editing, acting, directing, and script writing. Getting used to seeing themselves and learning to not be intimidated by the camera. Having all 30 students up and working hands-on in exercises, constantly having them–watching them, watching a group working, having 8 cameras set up, and they’re all shooting. I believe the camera, in TV and Film, regardless of the student’s future profession, connects with who they are and they can’t pretend about who they really are. That reflection is not a mirror, it’s not like being in the bathroom and looking at the mirror, so when they start to act, it screams. The mirror is public and young people have a hard time with self-consciousness, but how one discovers the strong elements and how dismantling the camerawork constructs them to be, it is an immense building block to who you are. It’s not about the subject, it’s about how the subject leads you to who you are and when you graduate, you go out into the world knowing far more about yourself then you did when you arrived. It’s there to build you to stand on your two feet, to survive, and to be skilled in a certain area.

3. The Panther Film Festival is coming up next week. Can you tell me what can people expect and how you’re involved in it?

Well, some of the students who are running the festival took the Intro Acting/Directing course, which is fantastic because we’ve been talking about this for a long time. The eight submissions that came in, bless their hearts, they put in their time, energy, and effort and I think it’s fantastic that we have kick-started something off. Hopefully the Panther Film Festival can expand and grow and also the quality of entries will increase as more interest and more mentors come in to help students. I was asked to judge the entries and I already have and am really happy to see a night of film by FIU students.I think it’s going to take off, you just have to get past the first and then the interest grows. I think Jose and Mario have done a great job just pulling everything together. Its difficult to talk about it, since it hasn’t happened yet.

4. When it comes to your role in both theater and film, what is the driving force behind your involvement?

For me, personally, the subject is a byproduct to who we are. I see theatre and film as a tool for social change and that is huge in my life. I am not interested in teaching for the sake of entertainment or just having students leave this place to make people laugh or go on Broadway. Yes, we need that, but we also need students to realize that they are a force in society and they can make a difference and when and wherever they get an opportunity to talk about the play they’re in or the character they’re playing that they have a sense of values and integrity that is focused on the greater good and the whole of the community as opposed to their career and the next level to become a star or celebrity. I think that folks like Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, and Charlize Theron are examples of inspirational actors that go beyond acting.They love acting. That’s what they do. But if you look at their lives and see what they do beyond, you know why they act: they act to reach humanity and for social change. They have an agenda that is about making a difference and that’s why they are inspirational people.

5. What advice would you give to a student who is interested in joining the film/theater world?

I raised two boys, so you are constantly looking at the power of media, but film/television/theater can bring about such negative forces in what we choose to produce, write, or act in. There are so many wannabe scenarios on this becoming in this dysfunctional world we wonder if life is imitating art. I personally think life is being led by the cultural messages that are being sent out  and there is a lot of destructive stuff that has a lot of positive and negative messages. It feeds off violence and people’s delight. Art is supposed to be the mirror, were just reflecting, the power of the internet, we are just seeing what we see in the real world. We can damage, brutalize, bully, and cheat on the internet and no one will know who we are. The old notion that art imitates life, I just think we need to question that.  The fury, anger, and hatred expressed in films, being reenacted in life– you’re telling me that life is not imitating art. We have a duty as artists: do we want to petruate that negativity and divisiveness? Or are we trying to push the envelope and push it forward to where we change things up. We have a responsibility in the arts to do that somehow.

Shirley Rojas and Luisa Suarez are students of the FIU Film Studies Program