Made by Studio-on-Hudson, the same production company that delivered the Academy Award-nominated Supersize Me, the film Class Act is a similar blend of biting social commentary and entertainment.
The documentary tells the story of the decline of arts education in American public schools by focusing on the story of a single retired Florida high school drama teacher, Jay Jensen. On a teacher’s salary, Jensen managed to save millions of dollars, which he then proceeded to use to fund arts scholarships in a particularly touching act of philanthropy.
Executive-produced by Supersize Me director Morgan Spurlock, Class Act also features interviews with many of Jensen’s former students who have gone on to some measure of fame: actor Andy Garcia, director Brett Ratner, producer Adam Epstein and Univision CEO José Behar, to name a few.
We spoke with director Sara Sackner, who joined with producer Heather Winters and co-writer Joe Morley to make Class Act.
Connect Savannah: Give us a rundown of Class Act’s narrative.
Sara Sackner: Heather and I both went to Miami Beach High, a big public school in Miami. And we both had Jay Jensen as a drama teacher. Now, everybody in south Florida knows Jay. He’s always in the paper, he’s always at functions, volunteering for things. And then we all found out, as did hundreds and hundreds of his students, that he was giving away millions of dollars to create scholarships for students in the arts at the University of Miami, his alma mater.
Well, nobody could believe it. It was like the most amazing thing, because Jay is -- we’ll just call him frugal (laughs). He always lived this monklike existence. He never really spent a dime, and managed to accumulate this fortune that nobody knew about.
So Heather and I both thought to ourselves, we have to make a movie about Jay. He’s not only inspiring in terms of the monetary gift, but he’s a born teacher, which we thought was important to honor. So we both decided to pool our resources and make this movie.
Connect Savannah: How did you use Jensen’s story as a springboard for the movie’s larger message?
Sara Sackner: He’s had a lot of famous students over the years – his local nickname is “teacher to the stars” -- but he says all his students are stars. That was the thing about his drama program -- everyone could participate, no matter who you are and what you look like, no matter your color or socioeconomic status.
So in talking to different students of his, we went back to Beach High and found out there’s no longer a drama program there. That was sort of the turning point in how the film became a much bigger film about arts education in schools. At that school you went from a program that really, truly was 24/7 -- with summer stock, childrens theatre, preparing for homecoming – to having no full-time program at all. It was truly, truly shocking to us.
Connect Savannah: But the decline of arts education isn’t news in and of itself. What new angle does your film explore?
Sara Sackner: People have been studying this for years and years. And of course it’s been in decline over several decades. We wanted to make it clear that there is collective blame for us as a country. It’s everybody’s fault and everybody has to fix it. It’s not a Democratic or Republican problem or solution -- it has to be everybody. Everybody has to fix it. That’s the message we want to get across. It’s a collective thing that’s happened over time at the state national and local levels.
The entire future of our country depends on people being able to think and be flexible and inventive. Like somebody told us while we were filming, America doesn’t have cheap labor and we don’t have cheap natural resources. What we do have in abundance is ingenuity and creativity, and we’re in danger of losing that. The arts support critical thinking.
I’m bullish on the arts for the arts’ sake. But the arts are also really important to keep kids in schools. It all really comes down to great teachers, I think. It was such a powerful experience, meeting with a group of 100 or 200 teachers from all different kinds of groups from all over the country. Things are still so hard out there for them, and they are still so determined and so inspired, still talking about this kid did this and this kid did that. The big takeway from this movie is how important teachers really are, and how much they need to be honored in America. Much more than they are now.
Connect Savannah: Tell us more about Morgan Spurlock’s influence on the project.
Sara Sackner: He’s close with Heather and Joe, who are Class Act’s cowriters. They were also executive producers of Supersize Me. Morgan’s an incredible proponent of education and of people fulfilling their best, and he has this humanistic approach to art. It always comes back to really making finer human beings at the end of the day. ç
Class Act screens Monday, Oct. 30 at 9:30 a.m. at the Trustees Theatre and Friday, Nov. 3 at 11:30 a.m. at the Lucas Theatre.