SAMOHI — Award-winning executive director and Santa Monica resident Varda Hardy has taken on her next major film subject: the Santa Monica High School Choir.
For the next year, Hardy and a mostly volunteer production team will follow the choir with cameras and sound equipment, documenting the year of instruction, performance and growth.
Through the film, entitled “Big Voice: Dare to Dream,” Hardy hopes to shine a spotlight on the beauty and strength of the choir program at Santa Monica High School, as well as its fragility in the face of ever-threatening budget cuts.
At first, it seemed a strange project for Hardy, a self-described fan of pop art who’d never been much interested in choral music. Attending her two daughters’ performances, however, instilled in her a passion for the haunting songs.
“I was swept away by the performances,” she said. “I became really awed by the accomplishments of the students, and the choir director. The idea of them, in this 2011 culture, singing ancient music and so clearly committed to it was incredible.”
Even as she fell under the spell of the music, danger loomed.
The 2010-11 school year saw the danger of massive cuts from the state level, much of which seemed poised to knock out “non-essential” programs like arts and music.
The community rallied around the 60-day Save Our Schools campaign, and successfully raised $1.5 million to save 20 positions, including music teachers.
Hardy participated in SOS, an experience that opened her eyes to the harsh realities facing school programs.
“That woke me up to the tenuous nature of these programs, how they’re funded through the community and the Education Foundation,” Hardy said.
The SOS campaign inspired Hardy to do more.
Like many in the Santa Monica community, Hardy felt that she could wield her personal and professional talents to help preserve the programs she and her family valued.
She decided to make a movie depicting a year in the life of the Santa Monica High School Choir and its director, Jeffe Huls, funded in a grassroots way with some of the proceeds going to benefit the Education Foundation.
The premise: To capture the passion, determination and ethic of Huls and his students as they pursued ever greater achievements in their craft, and to demonstrate the importance of classes like choir in public schools.
The idea caught Huls by surprise.
“A year ago, she approached me and asked if I’d be interested in talking about it,” Huls recalled. “I said sure, we can talk some more. Now, a year later, we’re filming.”
The native Nebraskan and self-proclaimed tyrant of the podium has long been an advocate for the exposure of choral music education, particularly in a time when so many programs across the country are feeling the sharp cut of the fiscal knife.
After the initial shock wore off, Huls welcomed Hardy and her team into the classroom to begin shooting practices and interview himself and the students.
The team, including professional producer Marina Viscun and former Samohi parent and choir enthusiast Deb Love, plans to document every performance the choir holds this year, and show the musical and personal growth of the students involved.
The task of getting an entire year in the choir on film is nothing short of monumental, and asks a lot of the largely volunteer team.
In early September, Hardy, Viscun, Love and co-producer and sponsor Dennis Leight of the glasses shop Oliver Peoples hopped in their cars and traveled to Big Bear for the choral retreat, where the filmmakers hoped to capture the forging of a disparate group of teens into a unit with the backdrop of bonfires and picturesque nature.
“Big Bear is gorgeous,” Viscun said. “We’d like to capture the beauty of nature and interlace that in the editing with the beauty of singing.”
But to do it, Hardy and her team need cash.
It costs to get the right equipment, quality sound editors and camera people, even when they’re willing to toss in a discount for the cause, she said.
The $100,000 she and Viscun won at the ON LOCATION: The Los Angeles Video Project this year will get the effort off the ground, but producing something of the quality she and her team envision will take much more. The award is for post-production services.
To gain support, the Big Voice team began a fund on Kickstarter.com, a website where people can solicit donations for projects like the documentary.
They’ve set their online goal at $40,000, a necessary amount to get past the initial hurdles and put down enough cash to let people in the professional world know that they’re serious.
“We’re making do with what we can right now, but to achieve the film, for it to have the power it can have, we need to raise these funds,” Hardy said.
Kickstarter.com comes with a catch, said Deb Love, producer and de facto fundraising head for the project.
“It’s all or none with Kickstarter,” she said. “If we don’t make our goal, we don’t get any of that money.”
Kickstarter.com will refund money donated if the group does not raise the desired amount. The group chose Kickstarter.com because it’s cheaper to use. They just have to meet their goal.
As of Wednesday, Sept. 28, “Big Voice” had 157 backers who’d pledged $16,205. With 12 days left in the funding cycle, the team is hoping for a groundswell of community support to push the amount over the edge.
Whether she gets the backing she needs or not, the Santa Monica Choir’s “Big Voice” will be heard, Hardy said.
“No matter what, this film is going to get made, even if it’s me holding the camera doing it,” Hardy said. “Or, it could be done on an extraordinary scale.”
To donate to “Big Voice: Dare to Dream,” go to: