SAFTA Hosts Table Reading of Widows of Whitechaple by Amy Sayre Baptista


The Sundress Academy for the Arts will host a table reading of Widows of Whitechaple, an original play by Amy Sayre Baptista, which tells the infamous story of the Jack the Ripper murders from the perspective of his victims.

The reading will be casual, and attendees are invited to stay after for a mixer and meet and greet with the readers. Light refreshments will be provided, but guests are encouraged to bring snacks and drinks to share.

The play features six characters: one is Jack the Ripper himself and the rest the ghosts of five of his victims. Please contact Adam Crandall at if you are interested in reading for one of the characters.

Character List

PERCIVAL PENNYROYAL: 53, male, “JACK THE RIPPER” aficionado and tour guide, middle class English accent.
POLLY NICHOLS: 43,first ghost, cockney accent.
ANNIE CHAPMAN: 47, second ghost, suffered from consumption in life, cockney accent.
ELIZABETH STRIDE: 45, third ghost, Swedish inflected English.
CATHERINE EDDOWES:46, fourth ghost, cockney accent.
MARY JANE KELLY: 25, fifth ghost, Irish accent.

The event will take place at the Sundress Academy for the Arts’ home at Firefly Farms, located at 195 Tobby Hollow Ln, Knoxville TN 37830. The reading will be held on Saturday, November 15th from 7PM to 10PM.

SAFTA’S #PaintBucketChallenge Has Six Days Left!


Before the Sundress Academy for the Arts can welcome new resident artists in October, we need to spruce up the farmhouse with a fresh coat of paint. In order to raise money for this project, we have initiated our own bucket challenge—a Paint Bucket Challenge!


As comical as it might be, we are not asking you to dump a bucket of (potentially very toxic) paint over your head; we just need your financial support and time to make this happen! It will cost about $1,000 to buy the paint, primer, brushes, sandpaper, and volunteer refreshments, and we still need $500 with five days left to go.

Here are some ways you can help:

Please, if you are able, consider donating to our cause. Even a small amount puts us a little bit closer to a fresh and shiny farmhouse!

After you donate, make a video to challenge your friends to do the same! All donations go directly to SAFTA, a non-profit organization, and help to promote art in East Tennessee.

If you are local and would like to donate your time, sign up to help paint on September 20th from 10 AM to 8 PM. Volunteers can sign up on our website or on our Facebook event!

Thanks for taking the challenge!

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 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…

Vania Smrkovski on SAFTA’s First Film (Part 6/6 “It’s a Wrap, or Making the Most of What You Have”)

If a film is making a baby, it’s making a baby with about fifteen thumbs, twenty five pinkies, a few abdomens, three heads, twelve livers of varying size and color, a couple of spleens and seven eyes and then passing it on to someone to say “Here, it’s a boy. Or a girl. Or… something. Make something out of it and let us know how it turns out.” You have a good idea of what you started to create. But in the end, you have very little idea what you actually have.

There is no possible way to overstate the importance of a good film editor.

Initially, when our final script ended up ringing in a hefty 12 pages, I made the decision to cut, cut, cut!!! I was pretty merciless. It was an interesting exercise, for this still-inexperienced writer, in making decisions that every writer makes. What is this scene adding to the story? How is this advancing the story arc? What is this line really adding? This is funny, but is it taking precious seconds away that we need to keep our film under 7 minutes?

The end result of this slaughter house madness of editing was an 8 ½ page story that was tight, funny, well-paced, and a minute and a half too long, if the page-per-minute rule was any guide. I made the decision at the time to cut even more, but found myself unsatisfied with the story that remained. The transitions toward the ending were clumsy and sudden. But coming in at just under 7 pages, I didn’t think I had any better script. I shared each revision with my co-writers, and then began shooting.

Well, there is a judgment call in filmmaking that every director and his team needs to make: do you make the cuts from the script in advance, as I did; or do you make the film the script as-written and leave it to the editor to use the extra material to create something useful in the allotted time?

I made my call based on a simple need to make this, my first time as team lead, first time actually directing a short film, as simple a process as possible. But after a few discussions with my team, knowing that my shortened script was not something I was happy with, we decided that maybe a happy middle ground might be the better route.

So we re-added some of the scenes I had cut, spent the next three days getting all of the scenes shot. We still ended up cutting most of the same material. But I have to say it was the right call. Rob, our editor, was able to pull together more than a few bits from the scenes we’d shot. If we’d left it the way I had it, I’m certain — while we would have found solutions to the clumsy bits I knew were still there — we wouldn’t have had as much material for editing, and the end result could easily have been lacking.

Showing The Films


Film submitted, our fair share of adult beverages consumed in relief and celebration, and a lot of meditation and sleep to catch up on the madness of a week’s hard work, the time came for….

…for a long, long wait. The festival, itself, was a month after the 7 Day Shootout submissions.

This builds more than a little anticipation.

But at last we had our chance to show off SAFTA’s inaugural film. Presented in the company of 24 teams, the largest in the history of the Secret City/Knoxville Film Festival, our film, “Man Overboard”, was the second one to be shown.

We got our laughs.

We got more than a few laughs.

For that alone, we were all proud.

And we were in good company. There were many great films shown, some technically outstanding, some strong in story, some in pacing, some in dialog. I had friends acting in or otherwise involved in most of the other submissions. Even if we didn’t get any awards, it was great to be able to attend a festival showing as an actual contributor this time.

The awards ceremony, though, was an event unto itself. Given that the film festival covers not only the 7 Day Shootout submissions, but also a wide variety of general submissions for short films, features and documentaries, the theater was filled nearly to capacity.

Awards were presented in two tranches: general submissions first, and then the 7 Day submissions. Categories for the general films were generally limited to Best-Of types, broken down into documentary, short, feature, and so forth. The 7 Day awards, though, were much more complete. Best acting (male/female), best supporting (male/female), best example of each genre, best use of element (that is, best use of an East Tennessee landmark), best story and three places for best film.


We hoped for at least Best Actor, as our lead was really outstanding. But then, there were other terrific actors, too.

In the end, we didn’t get Best Actor. But we did get Best Use of Element! (We used a very visible statue on Gay Street of a man in a boat to set off our character’s love of fishing, and to heighten his transformation into a pirate, and there was a terrific shot where our pirate removes his peg leg — yes, our pirate had a peg leg by the end of the film — and the boatman’s arm offered us a terrific reveal!)

 What We Learned

What did we learn?  SAFTA is, after all, primarily an environment that allows you to look at what you do objectively and critically, to learn how to look at what you create to find ways to grow as a creative. It only makes sense that we “eat our own dog food”, as it were, and use this project as a teaching moment.

First and foremost, our takeaway is that we are two mindsets in one organization. Prior to joining SAFTA, there were already well-established processes and expectations. The whole point of doing a light-touch film project was to flush out how these processes would work in the context of filmmaking. And it’s not so much a matter of “Do poets work differently than screenwriters?”. It’s an organizational issue. How do we, as people in that organization, work together? How well do we communicate? Are our objectives and expectations in sync?

We found ourselves with a grand total of one tense moment among the core team, an issue centered on my decision to cut material from the script rather than allow the 12 minute script to be filmed and then cut in post. The tension, we decided, was partly a matter of my efforts to inform my co-writers of my changes not being sent with enough urgency to get their attention. Everyone on the team has day jobs, and everyone put in a lot of time in the story planning and writing. Having my mail bombs of script adjustments pile up in their email inboxes, from their perspective, didn’t adequately convey the extreme measures I was taking on the script.

Once they did begin to appreciate how much the script had been altered — and more to the point, how much the story suffered due to the extreme cuts — the flip side of the tensions made themselves apparent. Out of their very real anxiety over how poorly our first SAFTA production could potentially be received, we had a discussion about reintroducing the missing story elements. However, as we discovered in later discussions, I was in director-mode, and was unprepared for how to process in changes to the story on my first effort as team leader and director. The story I had hacked out of our first draft, such as it was, was a story I owned in my mind. I had complete mastery of it. I knew how I wanted it shot, I had ideas of how I might approach the gaps I had left behind. The sudden introduction of new elements by the writing team, members of whom I held (and hold) enormous respect (and who secretly intimidated me just a bit) put me in in a state of anxiety. I no longer had mastery of what I was filming. My ADD-addled brain lost its ability to hold any thought longer than a few minutes. And every time we moved to a new scene, now that the writers were there, I was finding that every decision I was making was not the decision we had previously agreed upon, so I was, naturally, getting reminders — read that from the perspective of my increasing anxiety as “I was getting corrected” — and my stress levels started to climb.

Now, from the perspective of film and stage performance, there is an understood gospel that one never undercuts the director’s decisions. Especially in front of other people. Ask most actors, and they’ll tell you that even if the director is doing a questionable job, continuing in the production as-is is preferable to having any single actor defy the director and challenge her or his decisions in front of the cast and crew. It’s considered unprofessional, arrogant, and it creates an atmosphere of tension among the cast that affects the way they work together.


As an actor, I will go to great efforts to turn my frustrations with disorganized or misguided director decisions into deeper focus on my own performance, or strategy sessions with other cast members. If I feel the problems with the director are dire, I may consider approaching the director privately to see if I can somehow bring up my concerns and give the director a chance to consider new options.

Here, we were dealing with a group of writers, some of whom were core SAFTA leadership. I was unprepared with new story elements I had no mastery over. I was anxious. And they were — as senior team members — providing me helpful reminders when I was misremembering our plans.

Well…. put simply, we discovered that we needed to take a close look at how we communicate, and how each member of the team is prepared and supported in their role of the process. Erin and I call it our “first marital spat” (we have been friends far longer than we’ve been co-board members on SAFTA and have always enjoyed frank and intense conversations on pretty much any topic, so the tensions we both felt were of extra importance to us). In future project, we decided, we plan to spend more time exploring the process in a way that ensures we have a strong story going in, that we have a story that will be flexible enough to allow the editor options should scenes be dropped or altered, we plan to find ways to appreciate the role of the director — whoever that person may be — and support her or him in ways that minimize tension and conflict.

I learned first-hand new ways that my stresses can undercut how I work — and that’s always a good thing. It ‘s the only way you learn to find new solutions.

And SAFTA learned that we had talented team capable of winning awards!

 Final Cut

We’ve already begun work on another film project, a collaboration with Jamison and Tiffany Stalsworth on a Knoxville Horror Film Festival Grindhouse Grindout competition. With them in the lead, SAFTA provided actors, the space of the farm and a bar, costuming and props and our time. Each time we work with new people, we learn more about the local community and how we can serve it most effectively, and we learn more about the process of making movies in the 21st century.

We plan to shoot a short film every quarter — a short film is planned for late December — and are currently in planning stages for our first feature length film. Workshops on various aspects of filmmaking are also gearing up, with assistance from the many filmmakers we have in our network.

And we’d like your involvement, too. To find out more about SAFTA and our programs and services, please visit our Facebook page or our website. As we continue our work, we’ll be posting our videos online.

If you’d like to take part in a workshop on screenwriting, acting or any technical aspect of filmmaking like cinematography, editing, lighting or sound, let us know. Or if you feel you’re ready, submit a screenplay or story idea, or just come and volunteer your time! Our entire Performing Arts group has lots of room for growth, and we would love anybody with vision and dedication.

Besides, where else can you get writing, firearms, cooking, cinematography and painting assistance all in one place?

No place else but at Sundress Academy for the Arts!

Vania Smrkovski on the First Project from SAFTA Films (Part 1/6)

It’s August 24th, 2013, and I’m standing in downtown Knoxville’s Krutch Park. Behind me on a park bench are several armloads of camera equipment, a Rubbermaid tub filled with plastic swords, forty dollars in gold coins and a dog dressed up in a fetching pirate-style shirt with a bandanna tied around her neck. I meet up with a six-and-a-half foot man in a t-shirt, his face made up in clown-white makeup, eyebrows drawn in dramatic curves, and lips red as a rose.

And I am waiting on a man in full pirate regalia, as he adjusts his peg leg and picks up his bottle of rum.

Actually, the bottle is filled with iced tea.

As we stand there, the man in white face (looking like Tim Curry in Rocky Horror Picture Show, sans the corset), turns to me and conspiratorially says “You didn’t see me, and I didn’t see you.” With that he leaves, his own camera and entourage in tow.


It’s that time of year in Knoxville when a load of crazy people are out making movies. We at the Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) have decided to step up and contribute one of our own. As Director of Performing Arts, I have the honor and the privilege of leading the first effort with our entry in the Knoxville Film Festival’s 7-Day Shootout.

SAFTA has, until now, been largely focused on providing creative support in the form of workshops and other services for the written word. That is how I got involved. With a robust variety of activities, each workshop tackles some aspect of writing — poetry, revisions, page layout and performance pieces have been among the topics covered so far — but SAFTA’s mission is not just about writing. It’s about all of the creative arts.

In June, I was invited to join the board to head up the focus on performing arts, to bring my world of stage and film into the SAFTA fold and help the organization expand.

And my first task: enter a film competition.


Knoxville and the surrounding community have an unusual number of film festivals for a city its size. According to 2011 reports, the population of Knoxville is just over 180,000. Include the surrounding suburbs and the neighboring cities of Maryville and Oak Ridge, and you get closer to 200,000. Locals like to refer to this scruffy little city as a “big small town.” It has a thriving downtown life with a mix of older and newer buildings, great restaurants, bars and an energetic music scene — but nothing about the city cries out film.

Sure, we have the headquarters for the massive theater chain Regal Cinemas. And yes, Scripps Networks is based here, too. However, neither of these organizations actually do much film production here. Except for a few Investigation Discovery crime reenactment shows and the occasional Heartland Series episode, Knoxville’s presence on the world or national stage of film simply doesn’t exist.

And yet in the past ten years, there have been film festivals in Gatlinburg (the Gateway to the Smokies), Maryville, Oak Ridge and several in Knoxville.

Currently, active film competitions include the 54 Hour Film Festival, the Knoxville Horror Festival (currently hosting the annual Grindhouse festival), and Knoxville Films, which has hosted the 24 Hour Film Festival since 2006 and, until recently, was well known as the Secret City Film Festival, active for over ten years.

To be continued…