Courtney Vastine on SAFTA First Fridays

The first Friday of each month in market square, Gay Street, and Old City, employ a lovely leisurely stroll, especially when the weather is cooperative, inside different shops that house works of paint, ceramics, jewelry, and chalk. As members of SAFTA (Sundress Academy of the Arts) we’ve all walked up and down the streets enjoying the exhibition by talented artists, but as fellow creatives, we all couldn’t help wondering how we could get involved and showcase SAFTA.


So with scrambling, planning and fire fighting on the frosty First Friday in January our little event happened. Thanks to the owners of The Pilot Light in Old City we were able to feature poetry, Lit on Lit (poetry set to live dreamscape type music) film, food and artwork.

I emceed the event and was so pleased to find that each time I looked up from my script more people had ventured in from the cold. We ran out of chairs and people still seemed content to stand and watch our little stage. Even after I encouraged free movement throughout the room, people remained riveted and respectfully quiet to our artists. By the end of the evening we had a packed house. and knew we had stumbled on to something good. Time to plan for February.


We decided to be the anti-Valentine’s brigade for our February theme and were welcomed into the brand-spanking-new Scruffy City venue next to Preservation Pub in Market Square. Despite still being a little wet behind the ears, we managed to bring in over 180 happy viewers and beverage drinkers to hear our poetry series, view another filmmaker’s best shorts, and added a musician from Nashville, beautiful jewelry, and photography to our collective exhibits.


This Friday we embark on our third First Friday where we’re ready to celebrate lovely lady entrepreneurial artists and explore a new venue at the Sky Box: Sports Bar and Grill on Gay Street. We feel so encouraged as Knoxville restauranteurs open their doors to our event and the artist-lovers of Knoxville make our venue part of their First Friday experience. We’re finding exciting artistry in Knoxville and so happy to be able to present it to a community ready to grow culturally.

If you’re interested in being one of SAFTA’s next performing or visual artists, contact us at

The Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) is a artists’ colony located at Firefly Farms, a 29- acre farm in Knoxville, TN.

The Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) is an artists’ colony in Eastern Tennessee that hosts workshops and retreats centered on creative writing, theater, film-making, visual art, and more. All workshops are led by experienced and professional instructors of various creative genres and often include an element of incorporated learning.

Courtney Vastine first became involved with SAFTA as a writer with the group’s 2013 Seven Day Shoot Out team for the Knoxville Film Festival. Vastine has degrees in both English with Creative Writing emphasis and Dance from Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. She’s been working as a choreographer and dance teacher for over a decade and recently began acting and has appeared in several television shows, independent films and community theatre. Before dancing full time, Vastine gained skills in marketing and creative services at a successful firm in Cincinnati, Ohio. She’s looking forward to putting together all her talents and skills as an intern for SAFTA’s film department.

“Surviving Editing: A Tale of Woe & Inspiration to Aspiring Screenwriters” (Part 2/2 from Courtney Vastine)

I had met this band of writers one week prior at an impromptu party. I fell in love with all of them immediately. While in college, my performance activities and on and off-campus jobs kept me from really getting to know many of my fellow creative writing majors outside of class.

So a chance to hang with literary brainiacs excited me. When the evening finished with a viewing of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog, I knew I’d be their stage five clinger. They were smart; they were funny. They were off-beat and the conversations were varied had weight and thoughtfulness. Finding you are home among a brand-new group of people is quite liberating.

So at Greens, I peered through the smoke (almost all these people smoke, and this should tell you how much I love them that I gladly risk my lungs and extra-dry hair from needing to wash that smell out just to be around them as often as possible) and I sat down beside Erin Elizabeth Smith, my new hero who is the creator of SAFTA and basically one of the most talented, proactive, helpful, learned women I’ve ever met. And I need to mention her infectious laughter and positive excitement about new ventures mean that you can’t help but find her endearing.

The group had already been discussing story for about a half an hour and the original idea that Vania Smrkovski had come up with was slowly being eradicated. I recognized that look of “Okay, I’m going to be a team player, but I really liked my idea and I’m trying hard not to show my disappointment,” etched on his face and felt pity.

We’ve all been there (this is what you call foreshadowing, don’t miss it) with our perfect ideas that someone shoots down because they don’t share our vision. It’s always worse to have someone you really like reject your idea. You lose your place in the universe for awhile and question the meaning of life. Yes, it’s really that bad. Depending on how socially aware you are determines if you will throw a tantrum, find a hole to hide in or pretend not to be devastated promising yourself a good hard cry and a bottle of wine later.

So, we round robin. I skip my first turn because I want to see the train of thought. These writers are new to film and they have their own agendas. “Let’s not be cliche,’” “No stereotypes,” “How can we entertain, dazzle and simultaneously create something that enhances humanity?”


We writers have such high aspirations, and again, I see Vania’s face and I realize while these are noble things and what makes me love these people for wanting to create something fantastic, our film has to be done in one week and can only be seven minutes long. We have a lot to do, and affecting humanity and movie short history might not be able to be achieved in only a week by film making novices.

So, on the final round many sound disagreements are had. Great ideas are dismissed. There is a lot riding on this film. It’s the first showing for SAFTA, and for the same reason I held off being on a team because I wanted to make sure I would be great, this film also must be great. So I do it. I bravely tell this new group of friends the idea I came up with in February while visiting a friend.

My ego does backflips as they all begin laughing. They love it. I’m a hit! I’ve proven I’m capable of having a good idea. My ego is almost too large to fit through the door as we agree to bring our thoughts and story lines to the meeting the following night. I’ve had an idea for a short film that people whom I admire think is worthy. It’s a good night. (Lightening and thunder clap).

The next morning I get up and to my own amazement, I type out a screenplay in three hours. The girl who hasn’t written creatively for herself since Senior Seminar just wrote a seven minute film. I set up each scene. Create locations. Suggest film angles. The language was believable and I’m beyond pleased with myself because I’ve not only produced something I’m excited about, I’ve put down a concept that’s been circling my brain for months.

I truly believe I’ve just saved the team hours of story writing and we can just fine tune my script (see, I can admit I’m not perfect) and decide on locations, gather props, contact the actors, set up the shots and we’ll be editing by Monday ahead of schedule! I throw on my dance clothes, pick up my son from school, deliver him to his father’s house, teach my classes and head to North Knoxville.

This, is a successful woman, ladies and gentleman. Today I have it all going on. Two snaps in a circle. If he was available, Moses would part the Tennessee River and allow me to drive through. I’m awesomeness with curves. Life is good. Hindsight: If this were Dr. Horrible, I’m Captain Hammer. (Heavy downpour).

Several people arrived with script ideas. Wasn’t that cute? I generously sit quietly as we listen to the reads. Others just have some story ideas. And while this is all great, this is MY idea. How could these people possibly see inside my brain? It’s all very charming.

I sit like the preverbal cat that swallowed the canary and nod like a queen, generously. My script generates laughter. There is no stopping me now. The group takes a smoke break out on the porch. One other non-smoker and I stay inside and chat while the clan is outside.

They come back and announce that they’ve decided to use Rhonda Lott’s script. What? Suddenly I’m Rachel Green on Friends who just got cut out of a trip to Milan and input on the fall line because she didn’t go outside to smoke. As Chandler might say, “Could I BE anymore insulted?”

I can tell you about this next part now because I have to explain that I didn’t know Rhonda then, and, quite frankly, when you have your heart ripped out you could be standing next to Mother Theresa and you’d still want to scream and kick her.

Rhonda’s script? I can only imagine what my non-humble face looked like. This must have been the reason Vania (remember, the one who had his heart ripped out the day before?) quickly said, we’ll take the best of all these ideas and put them together.

He threw me a bone saying, Courtney’s montage idea is great. We definitely want to include that.” I can’t look at Rhonda (who by the way, I need to explain is, much like Erin, another awesome lady to whom I’m thrilled to cling). I recently got to hear her read her poetry and she knocked me on my rump with her ability to paint pictures in my head and have me laughing and crying almost simultaneously.

She also happens to paint (not bedrooms like me, but actual pictures) and just made a mural of Sylvia Plath for the SAFTA house–yeah, a whole freaking mural. Two words: she rocks.  She’s hypertalented, but at this moment I’m not able to see Rhonda’s talent; only my own field of red that once Vania’s living room and a bunch of people who I thought adored me and my fabulous idea. They’ve murdered my screenplay baby. The Tennessee River just unparted, my emotions are a bloodbath; my rational brain is drowning in obscenities.

I shoot a look at Chauncy Gardner, Vania’s Yorkie and innocent bystander, and he runs into the other room for cover. Fortunately, this slaps me into save face mode. I have it together enough to remember, I’m part of a team.

Already, rational Courtney is doing damage control. “They are writers, too! And good ones! They liked your story, and Rhonda had a lot of good stuff in hers. This is your first attempt at team writing. These are good people, sure it’s a little disappointing, but it will be okay.”


I was moving quickly through the stages of loss and grief. Stage One: Denial: Surely I didn’t hear that correctly. Rhonda’s script? Stage Two: Anger: Did I mention the blood and obscenities? Stage Three: Bargaining–ah, here we go.

Because I’ve been asked to be a production assistant on this film, I pull out my computer and crouch behind the screen, bitter and crumpled. We need to start piecing the story together. I watch as poor Rhonda’s script gets decimated by the group, including me. Some of my original stuff gets put back in which eases some of my pain.

And then, the scene I loved best in Rhonda’s story (because I actually through veiled jealousy can see talent) gets cut and I can finally look at her and feel some solidarity. Her best scene just got chopped by the group.

Who am I kidding? This process is hell on all of us. We’re all strong willed but not disagreeable. We all have learned how to play nice in a group (I have a feeling we were all those kids in college when assigned to a group ended up doing 90% of the work on our own while the others were busy partying).

And quite frankly, this is one of the best groups of participators I’ve ever seen. Everyone is putting fourth effort and is excited about the project. Once the script is hashed out, we all go home and prepare for the three days of filming ahead of us.

At home in my bed I hit the depression stage of grieving. Only a mere eight hours before I had been happily typing out a script and now I’ve seen my original idea transform into something I barely recognize.

Once you’ve watched your own baby grow into a walking toddler, you’re really not that interested in someone else’s baby, especially when they’ve Frankensteined your baby. I pull out my phone and type three messages to three friends who are also writers and working with different film teams and whine about my predicament, fully acknowledging that I’m being a diva.

They all three respond kindly, two in particular give me the “been there done that” virtual hug of friendship and reassure me that I’ll have plenty more screenplay babies in the future and also not to be afraid to defend my idea.

I feel better, shed a few tears and go to sleep. (Yes, it’s a seven minute film. I shed tears. This is the artistic process. We’re passionate. That’s how this stuff gets created. We care about the smallest detail and can easily lose sight of the bigger picture when the red pen of change heartlessly crosses out our self-perceived brilliance).

The next three days cement my love of SAFTA. I’ve never been around a better group of doers. People offer their houses and work places for locations, costumes are gathered, delicious home cooked food is provided.

By Sunday, we’re rapping filming early and enjoying lunch together at Aubrey’s when there are other teams who are just starting and will be up all night. Our camera man and editor has stayed up late and gives us a sneak peak of some of the scenes and we all laugh and are pleased. This film has truly been a group effort from a group of newbies (with the exception of our editor, thank God because we all know that editing room is where the real film is made.)

I look around during our relaxed lunch and realize that I’ve been a part of something special and couldn’t have asked for a better way to learn a hard lesson. Don’t go into a room full of writers and not expect to be rewritten. It’s their job, it’s what they do.


And ironically, as a choreographer, I already knew this. Why it took this experience to get me to understand this lesson for writing is one I’ll need to ask a shrink someday. And never take criticism personally. It’s perspective from everyone’s own point of view that makes us who we are with our own flair and specialness. It’s that individual take that allows interesting things to happen.

In the film editing process quite a few scenes must be sacrificed. Actors who shared their skills for free will not be a part of the final film because there is simply not enough time to get in all these brilliant moments. Everyone has experienced cuts, to the story to their scene, to their ideas, to their jokes.

We’ve all felt the rush of needing to hurry to get everything filmed in time for the deadline. Welcome to Stage Five, Acceptance. What we see is that we have by no means a perfect film, but even better, a really good one created collaboratively, filled with planned moments, improvisation, and serendipitous events: mixed drinks that came with little swords that Erin realized could be a sword fight, Kara’s adorable golden retriever that Vania suggested become our pirate’s first mate, a talented cast of actors featuring our fearless leading man who completely immersed himself in the character and sacrificed blood flow to his leg to create a peg leg site gag, Bob and Erin who had great ideas about our landmark and how to make the most of the scene and further our story that ended up winning us an award, “Effective Use of Landmark,” a Market Square passerby that happened to be taking a walk with her cockatiel and allowed us to use him for filming and a host of other magic film making moments that went so smoothly we could barely believe it. And countless more ideas that I’m forgetting.

We discover talents some of our writers have that we definitely want to plan more films for because they have lovely ideas that won’t work for this project but would make a kick ass movie at a later date. We happily left the awards feeling very proud of our little pirate movie.

In retrospect, I can’t tell you that I don’t have a secret desire to still paste my original script at the end of this blog and beg you to confirm that it was great, but that’s what makes me a writer and someone who will definitely try again to do many more screenplays. Because I learned that I can.

I can create a concept and bring it through to the page. I didn’t know if I had it in me prior to this project. It was a gut wrenching experience that gave me courage, strength and perseverance and I’m thankful I had it with the best group of new friends I could ask for, smoke and all. Next up: Grindhouse Trailer.


Courtney Vastine first became involved with SAFTA as a writer with the group’s 2013 Seven Day Shoot Out team for the Knoxville Film Festival. Vastine has degrees in both English with Creative Writing emphasis and Dance from Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. She’s been working as a choreographer and dance teacher for over a decade and recently began acting and has appeared in several television shows, independent films and community theatre. Before dancing full time, Vastine gained skills in marketing and creative services at a successful firm in Cincinnati, Ohio.

“Surviving Editing: A Tale of Woe and Inspiration to Every Aspiring Screenwriter” (Part 1/2 from Courtney Vastine)

This past September I participated in a film competition with my new favorite group of people, Sundress Academy of the Arts, or SAFTA for short. This new association is my first exploration into this world of artists addicted to capturing story on film the way I’m addicted to setting movement to music as a choreographer and sculpting sentences to evoke feeling and thought through creative writing. It’s a subject I don’t know a whole lot about, but have been eager to study since I became aware of the fierce independent filmmaker community in Knoxville back in 2011.

I was invited to participate in an opener for the 7-day Shootout film competition for the Knoxville Film Festival. I had recently choreographed the play Annie Get Your Gun, and the talented actor who played Buffalo Bill invited the cast and crew to be extras. I pieced together a cowgirl outfit and spent a very fun day on set and marveled at the level of talent we have in our small area.

When I attended the shootout, I discovered that Buffalo Bill, aka Keith McDaniel, was kind of a big deal in that he was the creator and producer of this large and successful film festival that brought in talent from across the U.S. 

I was hooked and after receiving a call from an agent who saw my fifteen seconds on screen, my dabbling into acting became official. I’ve participated in quite a few reenactment shows shot locally and learned a lot (mainly by messing up) about being a film actor. Sometimes by receiving help from the director and other times seeing myself on TV and thinking, “Oh my God!  Why didn’t anyone tell me I was doing that!??”


Mortification is a great learning tool. I liken how much I know about this genre to someone in my dance world taking beginner tap. But I continue to take acting classes and am gaining confidence to swim a little deeper into the pool with each project. I’d say I’m up to about three feet and I’ve taken off the floaty wings.

I had attended the festival as a patron for two years before I finally had the nerve to try to get myself on a team. I’m a perfectionist and I wanted to do a job worthy of being asked to participate again (Biggest fear: Oh no, not that dancing girl and some horrible comment about not being able to act her way out of a paper bag).

During a writing workshop, a mutual friend introduced me to a friend of hers, Vania Smrkovski, also a stage actor who was exploring film. We ran into each other at random plays, acting events and on set and became jolly acquaintances.

When I found out he was putting a team together for the shootout and all the regular stuff wasn’t working like pathetically posting on the Film Festival page, “If anyone needs an actor or a little song and dance, I’d love to help! I also have a writing degree and have been known to spin a yarn or two.

Bless Buffalo Bill’s heart.  He at least responded about loving song and dance and liked my status, I pushed the boundaries of that cursory friendship with Vania by brazenly typing in a Facebook message along the lines of, “Hey, if you need someone to hold a light, I’m available!”

So we bantered back and forth about story lines and he offered to bring me on as a writer. It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. I needed stuff for my acting reel, dammit, but, yeah, okay, great. I do enjoy writing and had been wanting to get back to it, but screenwriting was something I knew very little about.

I wax poetic through prose–and hadn’t waxed anything other than floors since 1999 when I turned in my senior writing project and decided I needed a dance break–literally. But I did offer to, “hold a light or whatever,” so after my last dance class was over, I headed over to Green’s Tavern on a Wednesday night to help brainstorm our storyline. We now had our genre and task assignments: comedy and the use of an East Tennessee landmark.

To Be Continued…