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School of Arts and Sciences

A Different Lens

Friday, September 26, 2014

Professor Jennifer Burton Advocates for Women in Film

Jennifer Burton directing cast member

By Wan Jing Lee, A15

Award-winning screenplay writer Jennifer Burton directs "Half the History" inside Crane Hall with the help of Tufts students, Kaveh Veyssi A14, left, and Lai-San Ho, A13, right. (Erin Baldassari for Tufts University)

Jennifer Burton, right, directs Tufts Drama and Dance Department Chair Heather Nathans, playing the part of "Susanna Rowson" in "Half the History." (Erin Baldassari for Tufts University)

Jennifer Burton directs Jan Turnquist, Executive Director of Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, portraying Alcott in "Half the History" inside Crane Hall at Tufts University. (Erin Baldassari for Tufts University)

Jennifer Burton gets into character as Rachel Carlson as she directs "Half the History" inside the Crane Room at Tufts University. (Erin Baldassari for Tufts University)

The cast of "Half the History" (Erin Baldassari for Tufts University)

A screenplay co-authored by Tufts film professor Jennifer Burton and her sisters has been named to the prestigious Athena List, an annual recognition of outstanding screenplays with strong female protagonists yet to be made into films. The Athena List is a project of the Athena Film Festival, a weekend of feature films, documentaries and shorts that highlight women's leadership in real life and the fictional world. This year's festival was held in New York City in February.

The Burtons' screenplay, The Sky's the Limit: The Story of the Mercury 13, tells the story of the women who tested to become NASA astronauts in 1961 until President Johnson discontinued the program, fearing that women might not be suited to the dangers of space travel. The script ends with Eileen Collins, the first female commander of a space shuttle, paying tribute to her predecessors, including the Mercury 13, for paving the way for her career.

"It's not a failure if you don't get to the moon in your lifetime, because you are laying the groundwork for someone to do so," explains Burton. "Even though the Mercury 13 were not fully able to achieve their own dreams, they made the dreams of others possible."

When a film featuring a strong female protagonist is successful, such as Mamma Mia, the public believes it's an anomaly, says Burton. But she's encouraged by the recent success of female-led movies, such as Hunger Games, Gravity and Frozen. In addition, says Burton, the Bechdel test, which assesses female characterization in a film by three simple elements (at least two female characters in a film have names and talk to each other about something other than a man), has raised public awareness about the lack of developed female characters in popular media.

She's also heartened that the Athena List is highlighting outstanding scripts with leading females. "The issue isn't that there are no scripts, actors or audience," she adds. "There are plenty of great stories, great actors, and large audiences who are interested in women's stories. The issue is that we're only being given part of the range possible — only half the history, you could say."

Burton is the head of Five Sisters Productions, an independent film company she founded with her four sisters. "Five Sisters is interested in telling stories that contain an element of hope, whether in comedy or documentary work," says Burton, who brings this perspective to her work at Tufts. Next fall, she'll teach "Films that Change Minds," a film studies class that will look at the way different cinematic and narrative strategies influence the thoughts and feelings of viewers. Will and Grace, An Inconvenient Truth and Brave are among the films students will analyze.

With her independent film production class, Burton is producing "Half The History," a series of short films about women in American history, a project she calls "a new framework for telling women's stories." As part of this effort, Five Sisters Productions is collaborating with the National Collaborative for Women's History Sites and a number of national parks and historic sites, including Minute Man National Historical Park in Concord, Massachusetts and Royall House in Medford, Massachusetts, where several scenes for "Half the History" will be filmed.

"'Half the History' will "profile women of all ethnicities, sexualities, ages and eras," explains Burton. "We want to tell the stories of women, some of whom are well known and some who are unknown, in order to enrich public understanding of what women have been doing throughout American history." The films will be launched with an Internet campaign later this year.

In March, Burton's class produced the teaser for the series featuring over sixty costumed re-enactors from many eras -- colonial, Victorian and even modern day -- including women such as Mabel Loomis Todd and Zora Neale Hurston. In April and May, the class will be shooting its first film -- a portrait of Jane Franklin, Benjamin Franklin's youngest sister -- inspired by Jill Lepore's Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin.

"We're filming one of our short scenes in the Arena Theater, using theater aesthetics to highlight how constrained, and almost scripted, certain elements of Jane Franklin's life were," says Burton. "Film can incorporate multiple creative elements in storytelling. In my advanced production class, we work to push boundaries so students think about different ways to tell a story, as well as how to juggle the details of hands-on producing work and professional problem-solving."

Tufts alumna Kelsey Ettman, A'09, a professional costumer, is designing costumes for "Half the History." As a member of the Drama and Dance department, Burton encourages collaboration with other film and theater professionals at Tufts, including filmmaker Howard Woolf, design professor Ted Simpson, costume designer Linda Ross Girard, and acting professor Sheriden Thomas. "There is this creative cross fertilization between theatre, film and dance that is made possible by being a part of Tufts Department of Drama & Dance."

Burton involves her students whenever possible with professional film productions, and creates a learning experience for her audiences. Last spring, her students helped to produce a web series, "Old Guy", which takes a comedic look at how aging is portrayed in popular media. Burton's father, Roger Burton, parodies the experience of an older actor who is given stereotypical, age-related roles, and Peri Gilpin, who played Roz on Frazier, plays his agent. Like "Half the History", "Old Guy", will premiere on the Internet in 2014.

Burton looks forward to teaching Advanced Film Production and Post Production next fall, in which students will examine why certain historical stories survive, while others are lost. The class will be filming the stories of Belinda, who was enslaved in Medford's Royall House, and Harriet Lothrop, whose efforts helped preserve the Louisa May Alcott's homes in Concord. With the choice of historical or social topics as the focus of her production classes, Burton pushes the areas of learning beyond the technical and organizational skills necessary for successful film production. "Exploring a subject through a creative project not only teaches students about the particular topic, from ageism to women's history, " says Burton, "but also about the power of the arts to change hearts and minds."