Finding their creative muse

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Theater students at the Baltimore School for the Arts spend most of their days polishing their skills - reading and writing plays, practicing dramatic techniques and shooting short films.

Once a year, they get a chance to sit down with a celebrity actor or director and talk about how to make the leap from amateur to professional.

The sessions are part of the Colgate Salsbury Visiting Artist Series, started five years ago by local television personality Rhea Feikin and named for her husband, who died in 1999.

To persuade the stars to attend, Feikin and the school's faculty count on personal connections and a little luck. They nabbed Martin Short and Lynn Redgrave when performance tours brought them to the area. Donald Hicken, the school's theater department head, got his friend Hal Holbrook to come one year.

In honor of the school's 25th anniversary this year, Feikin invited director John Waters, a Baltimore native and friend. Waters has helped in the past by getting an invitation from Feikin past Kathleen Turner's handlers, which the actress accepted.

"I think we've just been incredibly lucky to have these five amazing artists," said Feikin, who hosts a show on Maryland Public Television and played a geometry teacher in the movie Hairspray, one of Waters' biggest hits.

Last week, the director known as the "Pope of Trash" sat for a question-and-answer session in the school's rehearsal hall, regaling students with a combination of witticisms and serious advice.

"What inspires you every day?" a boy asked him. Waters, dressed in black with a red scarf around his neck, replied: "I don't have to get a real job. I can go to work in my underpants."

Answering more seriously, Waters told the students that Baltimore, where he shoots his films, has been a rich source of inspiration.

He described finding ideas by striking up conversations with strangers in bars; walking down the street and being mesmerized by an overweight woman proudly displaying a navel piercing.

"Baltimore is better than reality TV," he said. "Just open your eyes. ... Just eavesdrop on people. You hear the most amazing things."

JaLisa Sample, a junior, said after the session that she was struck by the fact that Waters had no formal schooling in filmmaking and made his first picture, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, in his late teens.

"I didn't realize how easy it is to make a movie," said Sample, 16. "I've got friends, and I've got a camera."

Senior Aaron Smith is a little further along. He has shot two films and is halfway through a third. But after listening to Waters urge students to find audiences for their work by entering film festivals or renting out movie halls, Smith said he realized he could not just sit back and wait to be discovered.

Some students said they were impressed by Waters' affection for his quirky city.

"His pride in Baltimore was definitely kind of encouraging," said Lex Davis, a senior.

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