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Signature Project: Structure of Influence

Melissia Mason
As a part of the Emma Willard School Signature program, students have an experiential learning opportunity to deeply explore ideas and interests beyond the classroom. For her project, Lia R. ’21 is in the second year of a two-year effort to create a documentary film focused on the art of storytelling.
When she began planning her Signature project, Lia R. ’21 thought it would be amazing to talk to storytellers whom she admires. Because she also liked editing in iMovie, Lia decided to pursue a crazy idea: create a documentary film about storytelling. As a part of her two-year Signature project called Structure of Influence, Lia has interviewed artists, actors, authors, choreographers, and dancers who perform storytelling roles. She has also talked with individuals in non-traditional storytelling roles like teachers and consultants who use stories in their lives and work. Her goal is to shed light on the power of storytelling. Lia wants to discover how storytellers shape their stories to successfully influence their audience, as well as tell her own story. 

In the first year of her Signature project, Lia focused on learning how to get started. She had already taken a film and video class at Emma during her ninth grade year, as well as a summer broadcast journalism class at UC Berkeley to learn interviewing and video-editing skills. When starting her project, Lia used her own structure of influence—family, friends, and their connections—to seek out and interview filmmaking experts. She discovered tips and resources for creating documentaries and received direction on how best to begin. Then, Lia dove into interviewing storytellers. One of Lia’s favorite stories in her film features Boris McGiver, an actor on television’s House of Cards. McGiver shares the lengthy process of preparing for one of his scenes—reading the script deeply and getting into the moment in great detail. Lia shares, “When I went back to watch the scene in the show, it was only 10 seconds long! It was so interesting to see just how much thought and effort goes into those tiny little moments.” The culmination of Lia’s first year of work was a trailer for her film, presented at Emma’s Spring Signature Showcase in May of 2020. 

This second year, Lia has focused less on learning and obtaining content, and more on exploring the story she wants to tell. After creating a storyboard and editing footage, Lia has turned to creating ways around one of the obstacles she faced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic: getting B-roll (background) footage to complete the storyboard. “I was going to film at a dance studio,” she shares. “I wanted to go see a show and get playbills and behind-the-scenes footage, and that wasn’t possible.” She understands the need to put health and safety first, so Lia has developed a plan for making up for the lack of footage. While part of the B-roll will come from public domain sources, Lia has decided to add a layer of student involvement to provide content to break up the interviews. She plans to create a series of storytelling activities in which her fellow students can contribute their own stories to the film.

Although Lia considers herself lucky to have minimal impact from COVID (many of her interviews had already taken place at a distance using Zoom), she recognizes that it’s important to be okay when things don’t go smoothly. “No matter who you are or what your project is, something is going to go wrong,” she shares with a smile. “In my case, it was a global pandemic.” She’s learned that, while it’s easy to want to fix it on your own when you feel you’ve failed at something, there are resources available to move you forward. “We have amazing faculty that help you and there are so many resources, even that aren’t in the Emma community, that you can reach out to. Just be willing to get help.” Talking with people about what’s happening with your project and getting help is a normal part of the learning process.

For students who are considering a Signature project but not sure where to focus, Lia encourages them to think about what they're interested in doing, even if it sounds impossible. It doesn’t have to be your life’s passion, just something that you’re curious about. Lia explains, “The Signature team will help you to define what your goals are. You can even come in with a small idea and build it throughout the program.”

While Lia does not want to pursue filmmaking as a career, she is excited to apply her newly-learned skills to her future pursuits in college and beyond. “Filmmaking wasn’t what I had originally imagined, but it was still so much fun and such an enriching experience,” she reflects. Lia plans to release her film just after the 2021 Spring Signature Showcase. We are excited to see how Lia’s passion for storytelling will propel her as she goes out to serve and shape our world.
    • Lia R. '21

    • Lia's film is called "Structure of Influence"

    • Actor Boris McGiver is one of the storytellers interviewed for the documentary

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