Theatre students step off stage to star in feature-length film

Three years ago, Bret Jones, Wichita State program director of theatre, saw that web series were becoming popular and decided that getting theatre students off the stage and in front of the camera could help them diversify their acting portfolios.

“When major companies started putting money into them, my ears started to perk up,” Jones said. “It started to really push and educate the students into performing in a different direction, and I thought that was pretty important.”

Jones would experiment with that format in a 16-episode web series, but he was not done there. He set his sights on writing and directing a feature-length film.

The result of that ambition is “After Midnight,” a film about a group of college students searching their campus for a print of “London After Midnight,” a real silent film starring legendary actor Lon Chaney.

As a reward for the efforts of Jones and his cast and crew, “After Midnight” placed second in the Barebones International Film and Music Festival last month in Muskogee, Oklahoma. The film can be seen on YouTube on the Wichita State University Theatre channel.

The last known copy of “London After Midnight” was destroyed in a fire in 1967, and it has become a highly sought-after item among film historians. In Jones’s film, the protagonists uncover a grand campus conspiracy in their search for the lost Chaney film.

Jones found the most surprising part of directing a film as opposed to a stage production is the stop-and-start nature of the process.

“In theatre, you’re building a two-hour show,” Jones said. “It’s like running a marathon. When you’re shooting a film, it’s like running sprints.”

“After Midnight” stars WSU students and graduates Trevor Comstock, Robert Thomas, Kyle Dilley, Hannah See, J. Bailey Burcham, Ashley Parton and Caleb Coffman, as well as Jones himself.

Dilley, whose previous on-camera experience was mostly relegated to employee training videos, said starring in “After Midnight” helped him learn to better use his voice in different contexts.

“When I started doing on-camera, I was breaking people’s eardrums,” Dilley said. “Now having varying degrees of my voice, which helped for film, I can now apply that to audio work and radio work.”

Dilley also said that if it were up to him, WSU would put more of an emphasis on film in its theatre program.

“If you’re just training people in stage, and they go out in the real world where no one survives on just stage work, they’re gonna have an enormous amount of culture shock,” Dilley said. “A lot of it now is just trying to instill the idea in our actors that you have to evolve with the times.”

Jones said receiving accolades at a film festival was rewarding for his first effort at a feature-length film.

“We were in a movie theater and saw our film on a movie screen, which was really kind of neat,” Jones said. “It just gave encouragement to continue to do this.”

Jones hopes to shoot another film in the fall and continue to educate theatre students in a different medium in the future.

“We’re not a big film school or anything like that, but guess what, we can do this,” Jones said. “We can do it, and the students can do it, and we can make this happen.”