I’ve written in Growing Bolder about the importance of volunteering for community and school projects. While I spend most of my volunteer time helping to teach elementary school students, I never turn down a worthwhile request at the middle school, high school or college level. This week, I received a request to be interviewed by Jasmine Couture, a film student at one of my alma maters, Full Sail University. Here is that interview:
Jasmine: You have a history of teaching others how to overcome adversity especially through the art of storytelling. I too have a goal of helping others within my visual stories. What advice could you share with me about the pros and cons of sharing these visions with others?
Smitty: When a person is truly out to help others, there are no cons for doing so. Therefore, we’ll focus on the pros: There aren’t many rewards received that are greater than those received for helping others. Here is an example: I volunteer at our local elementary school every year to teach my girlfriend’s students college graduate level writing and public speaking in the hopes that they may learn how to overcome adversity in the process. One of my annual projects is to help students write and prepare talks for an annual 5th grade oration competition. While many teachers in the school take the easy way out by allowing students with a fear of public speaking to opt out, my girlfriend would never dream of robbing even one student of the opportunity to overcome a fear and to grow. She had one student in particular whose “permanent record” stated that her “anxiety” was so “severe” that not only was she “incapable” of speaking before the student body and the faculty, that she was “incapable” of speaking before her own class. Lastly, her “permanent record” stated that her “anxiety” was so “severe” that she could not even speak to members of her own family without “severe discomfort.”
In our personal and professional opinions, my girlfriend and I feel that these are horrific limitations for anyone to place on any child and that these superficial limitations may be overcome with encouragement and a strategy for successful speaking presentations. With those two items in place, this student not only spoke before her class, she became a finalist in the competition and gained the opportunity to speak before the entire school.
This experience was a life changing event for this student. A year later, we heard from her and were very happy to learn that she now takes drama classes in middle school and regularly appears onstage. This is a child whom were told could never stand up and speak publicly.
My advice to you and to anyone else with a vision to help others is that there are only pros for doing so. I truly believe that anyone who is able to serve others and help improve their lives has an obligation to do so. Imagine where this student would be today had my girlfriend acted like most of her peers and simply denied this student the opportunity to overcome her fears.
Jasmine: Out of all the screenplays, television scripts, animation scripts, radio plays and even graphic novels you worked on. Can you share with me what medium you feel out of them was the best ones to get your overall message on overcoming adversity and your encouraging stories across to your audience?
Smitty: Any medium a writer can use to get his or her message out to the most people is effective. Based on pure numbers, my television appearances on The CW Network’s, The Daily Buzz (filmed on the Full Sail campus) reached 1,500,000+ people. http://www.robertjsmith.com/undersize-me/
I’ve also thrown out ceremonial first pitches at Detroit Tigers spring training games. The first time, before a record-breaking crowd. Having been able to show 20,000 people locally and a much greater number nationally how to overcome traumatic spine injuries and lose a great deal of weight in a very short period of time has been very rewarding. There are millions of people in similar situations who don’t believe they can improve their situation. When they see someone improve theirs, they know that it can be done. It’s up to them to take it from there.
Aside from sheer numbers, I’ve seen first-hand what an effective medium that comic books are. Another volunteer opportunity that I am always happy to accept is Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) Annual Teach-In. At that event, I teach what I learned from Full Sail and UCLA about writing for the medium. As Robert Ripley would say, “Believe it or not,” I’ve been able to teach post-graduate level writing to 2nd, 4th and 5th grade students. These students are like sponges, soaking up knowledge at an astonishing rate. They’ve grasped concepts that Master’s degree candidates have failed to grasp. I’ve found that comic books are the most effective medium to capture the attention of these students. Their enthusiasm for and acceptance of the medium are remarkable.
The Adventures of Insuranceman http://www.robertjsmith.com/the-adventures-of-insuranceman/ was created for financial services as the most-effective leave-behind marketing piece in the industry. I’ve found that it is also an irreplaceable tool for teaching advanced concepts to youngsters. In as little as an hour, I’m able to use this medium to teach three-act story structure to students. We’ve found that students who were previously incapable of writing coherent compositions are now capable of writing well-above their grade level. The biggest benefit we’ve seen is with those students who previously despised writing. Now, they love it! I’ve seen one troubled student who skirted many writing assignments not only completes them all now, he has even taken to writing on his own for the pure enjoyment of it!
Not only do I gain the satisfaction of helping children and their families, I have the rare pleasure of being treated like a superhero on campus myself. I’ve had many students run up to me with hugs and stories of their accomplishments. It’s also fun to hear, “Insuranceman is here! Insuranceman is here!” I also receive confirmations that the medium is effective for its original purpose as my students ask, “Will you come to my house and sell insurance to my parents?” and then others follow with “My parents want you to come over, too!” Funny thing is that I’m not soliciting insurance sales for myself and I don’t even provide copies for students to take home to their parents. The medium allows them to comprehend and internalize the story’s message with such enthusiasm that they are able to convey it to their parents on their own.
Jasmine: What project of yours are you truly passionate and proud of?
Smitty: I’m always most passionate about the projects that I am working on at every given moment. Even short films allow for great satisfaction. We just completed Hit the Road, J.A.C.K.! http://www.imdb.com/title/tt6946270/?ref_=nm_flmg_wr_10 This project attracted volunteers who have appeared on network television and in national magazines. We even had a cover girl drive 4,200 miles all of the way from Medicine Hat, Alberta Canada just to make an appearance in our film. We provided crews the opportunity to film at corporate locations that originated in or are unique to the State of Florida; Hooters, Weeki Wachee Springs, the St. Petersburg Museum of History and the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Airport. We were able to feature professional mermaids who had just appeared in Vogue. We were also able to bring stunt performers in from Universal Studios and Walt Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
All in all, we had two-dozen cast and another two-dozen crew members who all had the opportunity to work with one another and learn from one another. We were able to bring in millions of dollars in props and many people were provided with the opportunity to work with fighter jets for the first time.
Our current projects are Have a Nice Day http://www.imdb.com/title/tt6219002/?ref_=nm_flmg_wr_1
which will serve as a public service announcement for armed forces veterans and for disabled people from all walks of life and Little Shop of Whores http://www.imdb.com/title/tt6752946/?ref_=nm_flmg_wr_2
which is an homage to Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054033/?ref_=nv_sr_2 I’m also working on bringing Mr. Corman in for a cameo in our film.
What I’m mostly passionate about is bringing opportunities to aspiring filmmakers. Opportunities for cast and crew members to do things they’ve never done before and to accomplish things they’ve never before thought possible. I also provide every single cast and crew member with the opportunity to earn more money than they ever have. I’m very proud of that.
Jasmine: Lastly, advice or words or encouragement that you can share with me would be gratefully appreciated.
Smitty: There is nothing that you cannot accomplish in this business if you put your mind to it. Every single time you work, you improve your skills. Never miss an opportunity to work with quality people. Even if an opportunity is a volunteer opportunity, take it as long as it is with quality people. Whenever you are presented with an opportunity, ask yourself, “Will I get better at what I do by doing more of what I have trained myself for? By actually doing what I have gone to school for? Can I learn anything on this project? Is it possible that I may meet someone on this project who could help advance my career?” And, most importantly, ask yourself, “What will I be doing if I turn this opportunity down?” If the answer is anything other than working on a better opportunity (not simply waiting for one to come along) then I recommend doing the work regardless of the pay.
Finally, it is up to you to create your own opportunities. When I earned my Creative Writing Master of Fine Arts degree as Valedictorian at Full Sail in 2012, I asked every one of my peers to join me in L.A. for a screenwriter’s “pitchfest” that was scheduled three weeks after graduation. I was shocked when there wasn’t a single person willing to take me up on my offer. It left me to wonder why anyone would spend forty-grand on a post-graduate education, learn a skill and then fail to even attempt to market that newly acquired skill. Of course, I did my wondering on a plane as I headed out to L.A. to create my own opportunities.