CONNEAUT LAKE — In the powder-blue lobby of the Hotel Conneaut, Abby Phillips, a 17-year-old Meadville Area Senior High School student and aspiring actress, plucks out an eerie tune on an old piano. Next to her sits 11-year-old Nicholas Brady, also an aspiring actor, and off-screen but integral to the shot are other students hoping to learn the technical side of movie making. This is the third take of the 19th scene, and filming is, as expected, running behind schedule.

“Cut!” yells Joe Coyle, the director and teacher, “the boom’s in the shot!”

Phillips, who plays a girl in

the movie who plays a witch in the movie within the movie, relaxes, her green-painted face reflecting rapt attention as the director and the sound technician situate the boom microphone. With the snap of the scene marker, the actors are again in full character, and this take is successful.

“Cut!” Coyle stands up, high-fiving the students as they head to their break. “That was great, I loved it!”

The scene at Hotel Conneaut comes in the middle of the second day of filming for Joe Coyle’s on-screen acting class, a short horror film written and directed by Coyle with these students and this location in mind. The film encompasses a movie within a movie — the students all play student actors in a film taking place at Hotel Conneaut. When the maniacal director — the one in the film, not Coyle himself — loses control and murders the night manager of the hotel, the actors in the film-within-the-film lure him into the clutches of Elizabeth, the ghost who haunts the hotel. Although Coyle wrote and directs the film, much of his cast and crew — down to the production and technical assistants — are local high school and elementary school students.

Along with Phillips and Brady, 10 other students comprise the cast and crew, most of whom have previous acting experience and all of whom know each other.

“Everyone in here, I love,” said Phillips, who baby-sat Brady even before acting with him. “I’ve worked with them all and they’re really great.”

Working with Coyle, who also teaches acting classes at Carnegie Mellon University, was another advantage students, including 16-year-old Michael Miller, took from the film.

“It’s a really neat experience to work with (him),” Miller said. “He’s a really cultured man.”

The students attend schools across Crawford County, but were brought together by their love of acting and experience with the French Creek Community Theater, a regional theater group that offers opportunities for teens.

Those who attend Close-Up, Joe Coyle’s On Camera Acting Class journey to Pittsburgh once a week to work with Coyle, a veteran of Hollywood film-making who now is raising his family in western Pennsylvania.

Most aspire to make a career in acting, and for them, the opportunity has offered new insight into a venue that is completely different from the theater acting to which they are accustomed.

“Stage acting is bigger, and you play towards the audience,” explains Garrett Bouslough, a 17-year-old aspiring writer who plays Zeke, the lead of the student film within the film. “It’s very close with the camera — almost a more realistic approach.”

“How you look on film is different from theater,” said 16-year-old Hannah Foxman. “Where you have to look, how much space you have to move, that’s important too.”

Character development

Students in Coyle’s class were given the task of developing a character for film, an activity with which many of them had never had experience. Some, like 16-year-old Cochranton High School student Ben Weagraff, had particularly challenging characters to portray.

“I play Ricky, the cool, laid-back character who’s given the part of the mentally challenged character in the movie,” Weagraff said. His character acts mentally challenged throughout the movie, and Weagraff initially had trouble developing a realistic portrayal.

“At first I didn’t exactly know what Joe wanted me to do, so we started renting movies like ‘Rainman’ and ‘I Am Sam,’ ” he said.

Most of the students developed an unexpected aspect to their character. Miller plays Nick, a tough guy who also likes to write plays in his free time; Foxman plays Shelly, the mean girl with a dark side; and Brady plays Jack, a mischievous character who impresses everyone with his dance moves.

Coyle emphasized the impressive level of dedication the students have shown to their craft.

“These kids put their heart and soul into it,” he said. “They come prepared, they’re all ready to go, and they’ve taken acting classes before, they just don’t know how to do it on camera.”

‘Reel’ importance

Along with the learning, students get a must-have for pursing an acting career.

“They’ll get something on a reel, and in order to move forward in this business, you have to have something on a reel,” Coyle said.

Not all students involved obtained acting experience. Ian Phillips and Justin Hoover, both 17, worked on the technical aspects of the film.

“I’m probably going to college for engineering,” Phillips said, which was part of the reason he did “whatever they tell me to do for lights, cameras, sets, stuff like that.”

Hoover, who said he’s more interested in cinematography than the acting, worked as the production assistant, helping to fix anything that went wrong.

“I’ve been learning a lot about sound that I didn’t know before, and lights,” he said. But the experience has created some stress for him, as well.

“It can get a little stressful if something goes wrong, having to quickly problem-solve,” he explained.

Along with stress created by technical issues comes stress created just by acting in a movie. Multiple students cited not smiling as one of the toughest parts of film acting, but some of the causes for laughter were unexpected.

“I had to do a love scene with a friend of mine who’s a senior,” said 13-year-old Jonah Foxman, who recounted a scene between his character, Brady, and Abby Phillips’ character, Amy. “It’s like four or five years age difference,” he said. “I’m friends with her boyfriend, too!”

The class gives students an opportunity to become someone new — whether through makeup, as with the peeling and burnt skin plastered to Torri Bouslough’s face made to transform her into the ghost of Elizabeth, or simply through character development, as with some of the more toned-down costumes.

The students will get to see their characters come to life on the big screen when the film is shown at a private screening at the Movies at Meadville in January.

Jaffe, a junior from Chicago, attends Allegheny College, where she is news editor of The Campus student newspaper.

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