Lori Miller avoids competitive situations whenever possible. But she does like producing documentary films about artists who do compete.
Her latest co-production is Shakespeare High, a documentary about high school students from all over Southern California, both privileged and poor, who take part in the Drama Teachers Association of Southern California’s annual Shakespeare competition, an event that helped spawn the careers of actors like Kevin Spacey, Mare Winningham, and Val Kilmer. The film premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
There are plenty of privileged over achievers who compete. But the film tends to focus on students from humbler, or sometimes troubled, backgrounds; for example, star-football-player brothers, who grew up in a small California town and watched their father shoot and kill their mother and grandmother.
Whatever their background, all these students are motivated and driven by the joy of acting and a love of Shakespeare. And, that power of theatre to change lives for the better is exactly what Miller wanted to remind policy makers and educators of when she produced the film. The need for more funding in arts education had become a personal issue for her as she watched her own daughter enter second grade in the Los Angeles public school system. “I’ve always been concerned about education in our society, even before I became a mom,” Miller says. “What’s missed by policy makers is that theatre education is a way of increasing literacy, communication skills, and complex thought.”
Miller didn’t start out making documentary films, having spent years producing commercial feature films, including Panic with William H. Macy in 2000 and Perfect Opposites with Martin Henderson and Piper Perabo in 2004. She even produced one horror film, 1997’s Campfire Tales. A few years ago, she decided to tackle more personal projects that might not make as much money, but would tell compelling stories of personal triumph.
Her first endeavor was They Came to Play, which was released in 2009, and is currently in distribution. Like Shakespeare High, it’s about a competition. The film chronicles the pianists who take part in the Fifth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, hosted by the Van Cliburn Foundation. These musicians have faced heartache and loss, from divorce to drug addiction. have simply put their musical aspirations on hold to raise a family or have a stable career that doesn’t require constant travel. Whatever their stories, they too have found solace and the power to persevere through the arts and music. “The theme is the joy that music brings to their lives and the healing power that it has for them,” Miller says.
Music brought the same joy to Miller’s own life. She grew up in a house where classical music was played all the time, and she herself played the flute and the piano in various chamber-music groups and orchestras. “I wanted to show this world in a more fun light,” Miller said. “The classical musical world has this reputation of being stogy and boring. The people in the film are so funny.”
In many ways, the project was inspired by her grandmother, Elsa Klahr, a German immigrant to the United States who survived the Holocaust and lived to be 103. Her grandmother took piano lessons until the family had to flee Germany in 1939, leaving their piano behind. When they arrived in Delaware, there was no time or money for piano lessons, Miller says. Her grandmother had to help out with the family business instead. It wasn’t until she turned 70 years old that she took up playing the piano once again. “This was the greatest thing … that happened to her. She found music again,” Miller adds.
Klahr even performed a piano concert at her retirement community on her 102nd birthday. And, she got to see They Came to Play at a screening for her retirement community before she died last year. “I think it’s a wonderful story,” Miller said. “I really felt like I was honoring my grandmother with that film.”