While Grace Rolfe spent much of her childhood growing up with either her mother in Boston or her father in West Virginia, there is one vivid memory she remembers of a play she saw as a young girl at the Maxwell Performing Arts Theater at Augusta University.
At the time, her father was stationed at Fort Eisenhower, then known as Fort Gordon, and he decided to take her to the play and walk around campus.
“I was a little kid and it was the first time I came here,” Rolfe said, adding that she remembers enjoying exploring the campus with her father. “I went back to Georgia when I was in high school, and for some reason it didn’t connect to me at first that this was where we had come and seen the play until I came on tour here. I was like, “Wow. This looks really familiar. And I realized that I had been here before as a child.
Little did Rolf know when he was a young child that he would one day fall in love with filmmaking and become the first student to graduate from Augusta University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Digital and Visual Storytelling.
“I feel really lucky,” Rolfe said, adding that not only will she be the first student to graduate with this new bachelor’s degree from Augusta University, but also the first person in her family to graduate from college. “Who can be one of the graduates of their major?” I’m the first. And because there were so few people in the program the first year or so, I got to have that personal experience with all the professors, and I really gained a lot from the small classes that are at AU in general.”
The art of storytelling
The BA in Digital and Visual Storytelling, which began in fall 2022, prepares students to be “cutting-edge visual storytellers” by developing diverse skill sets, including a strong theoretical and technical understanding of filmmaking, theatrical performance, writing, directing and producing through multiple forms of expressive media, said Scott Thorpe, chair of the Department of Art and Design.
Rolfe said she was inspired by the new BFA program led by Professors Matthew Buzzell, Dr. Melanie Kitchens O’Meara, and Doug Joyner.
“Professor Buzzell was definitely a really great mentor for me from the beginning,” Rolfe said. “Honestly, I didn’t plan on majoring in digital storytelling. When I came to college I was undecided. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I had been a bit of a political science major or something. But my first semester here, I took a film appreciation class because we had to have a humanities elective.”
To Rolf’s surprise, she is immediately drawn to filmmaking, and Buzzell notices that spark in her.
“He said, ‘Hey, why don’t you check out our film certificate?’ Because that was all we had at the time, so I started taking classes,” Rolfe said, adding that Buzzell eventually helped her find out how you can use this new bachelor’s degree to help shape your future. “I actually plan to go to screenwriting school. And eventually, I would like to work in the film industry for a while, but my long-term goal is actually to teach film at the college level. Professor Buzzell was really the person who helped me understand everything.’
Even as a child, Rolf said she always enjoyed exploring the art of storytelling.
“I’ve always been interested in telling stories. I read a lot. I have always loved to read,” she said. “Then, eventually, I got into theatre, which I enjoyed, but there’s something really personal about being able to get up close to someone’s face with a camera and photograph the performances.”
Rolf said he enjoys seeing the stories he writes come to life as he shoots.
“Ultimately, when you put it on screen, you’re really close with these people,” Rolfe said. “And with the kinds of things I like to write, I feel like this medium suits me best.”
One of Rolf’s favorite semesters at Augusta University was O’Meara’s composition class, followed immediately by Bussel’s screenwriting class.
“Our program is kind of interdisciplinary in a really fun way because you can take performance classes and film classes, no matter which one you focus on,” Rolfe said. “So Dr. O’Meara really made me think so differently about writing and storytelling and form. It was such an invaluable experience because I remember taking her performance composition class very early on in my journey here at AU. And at the same time I was writing screenplays, so I was going straight from one to the other.
Rolfe said O’Meara would challenge her writing and storytelling skills on stage, while Buzzell opened her mind as a screenwriter.
“After Dr. O’Meara’s course, I would go straight to screenwriting and hear all this really great stuff from Professor Buzzell about form when it comes to screenwriting and learning all the rules before you break them Rolf said, laughing. “And I think taken together, they gave me such a unique and excellent perspective on writing and storytelling, which is exactly what I wanted. So I’m really lucky to have talented writers as my tutors.
We set an example for the future
While Rolf has thoroughly enjoyed her classes at Augusta University, she admits that this past semester she also felt some pressure to set the stage for future students pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Digital and Visual Storytelling.
“For a long time I thought, ‘Wow, this is the first student short film in this major.’ I do a lot of things before anyone else,’ said Rolf, smiling. “So hopefully I’m setting a good example for the program and the students that come after me.”
In December, Rolfe will screen his major motion picture, Thick on the Ground, at the Maxwell Theatre.
“The title is based on an Appalachian phrase that means an abundance of something or you have an excess of something,” Rolfe said. “The story is about a family that is homeless. It’s a single mom and two kids who live in a car together, but the kids don’t know they’re homeless. Their mother told them they were just at summer camp. And over the course of a day, they somehow realize that things are not what they seem.
In “Thick on the Ground,” Rolfe said he explored his own identity as a child who grew up both in rural West Virginia and in a large urban area like Boston.
“A lot of my work here is exploring that identity and the things that maybe a little bit contrast with me, like being from West Virginia and also being from a city like Boston and also being queer, a young man and a woman at a time when the world is kind of crazy,” Rolfe said. “I think these little intimate stories are really important for me to tell in a world like that. So that’s what the movie is about.”
As Rolf prepares to walk across the stage and accept her degree as the first graduate of the Bachelor of Fine Arts in Digital and Visual Storytelling program, she feels her life has come full circle.
“When I was a little kid, people asked me what I wanted to do, and a lot of the time I answered as a writer and an author. But I always said I wanted to go to college because I just loved learning. I always loved him,” she said. “And I love learning what I love to do. So being here and learning about film and writing about film and some of the things that I love so much has been such a privilege. I just think about my younger self and how I would be so excited for him to see me now.