By LE McCullough
As a teenager in the 1990s, Mary Ann McBride-Tackett dreamed of making movies that would change the world. As the new director of WQED Film Academyshe helps middle and high school students in Pittsburgh realize their dreams on screens around the world.
Founded in 2002 by Ellen and Gregg Kander as Steeltown Film Academy and acquired earlier this year by WQED Multimedia, WQED Film Academy teaches filmmaking and digital media arts to students in grades seven through 12. Each cohort produces a short film after absorbing over 100 hours of hands-on collaborative learning from professional filmmakers using cutting-edge digital media technology.
McBride-Tackett grew up in Alliance, Ohio, about 20 miles east of Canton; Throughout her teenage years, she was an active participant in school and community theater. In 2007, she graduated from Point Park University Film and digital arts program with a concentration in screenwriting and directing and a minor in child development.
She went on to work on several films made in Pittsburgh, including “Adventureland” and “She’s Out of My League,” and as a film tax incentive specialist for Entertainment Partners, a leading payroll and services company. support.
In 2016, she joined Steeltown Film Academy, first as Community Outreach Manager and later as Program Director.
NEXTpittsburgh spoke with McBride-Tackett about the academy’s mission to shape the next generation of Pittsburgh filmmakers.
NEXTpittsburgh: When did you know you had a passion for cinema?
Mary Ann McBride-Tackett: 3 years. I remember watching my first movie with my dad and really watching with as much focus as a 3 year old could. He was a big movie buff and book reader, and my mother was very involved in local theater. I had a lot of stories around me at a young age. In college, I wanted to seriously study film because I wanted to tell my own stories. Film was a medium that brought together the things I loved – visual art, music, storytelling.
NEXTpittsburgh: Did the narrative element draw you to Steeltown Film Academy?
McBride-Tackett: I saw right away that this was the kind of program I wish I had when I was a teenager. Through my work with Entertainment Partners, I had met Lisa Smith-Reed and Wendy Burtner at Steeltown, and the more I got involved, the more I fell in love with them.
NEXTpittsburgh: What do you think is the main benefit of the WQED Film Academy for students?
McBride-Tackett: This creates space for students to feel less alone; they are with peers who understand and see the world like them. Making a film or video can be isolating, especially when you’re young. It is rewarding to see our students find an artistic home, a space where they feel like they belong among other students and teachers.
NEXTpittsburgh: Collaboration is an essential skill in filmmaking, but many students who come to the program may not have much experience in this area. How do you help develop this?
McBride-Tackett: The academy brings together students from across the city, from all walks of life – cultural, racial, economic, educational, identity, ability. We start the first day with an icebreaker exercise. We put them in small groups and give each group a three-page script. They have the week to film and edit and see what they come up with.
NEXTpittsburgh: Throw them right into the deep end!
McBride-Tackett: Right. Then we step back, sort them into their respective tiers, and start digging into what we’re working on this semester. But it does make them talk and interact with each other. Everything we do is incredibly intentional.
NEXTpittsburgh: Do the students choose their film subjects themselves?
McBride-Tackett: Yes. They present their story to us, and we give it the green light or guide them to rework it where it can go forward, as it does in the film industry. Right from the start, they have a sense of ownership and responsibility even before a camera is picked up. You get the best content when you tap into student passion.
NEXTpittsburgh: Were there any stories that really surprised you?
McBride-Tackett: The one that had a very big impact was “The Pittsburgh Reel Queens», an episode of our Reel teens Web series. It was a glimpse into the local LGBTQIA+ community with drag performers discussing their art form in some pretty thoughtful conversations. “rat loverwas made by a student who loves animals and wanted to show that rats are amazing pets. The film depicts him convincing a friend to accept a rat as a pet. It has been screened at four film festivals and now works for a pet store and produces animal care videos.
NEXTpittsburgh: Four film festivals?
McBride-Tackett: We submit our student films to festivals everywhere. Over the past three years, we’ve had 15 accepted for festival appearances, including the American High School Film Festival At New York. And the resources of WQED allow us to send students to festivals and to discover the world of cinema in terms of workshops and networking. We also have external clients who ask students to film live events or create promotional or educational films.
NEXTpittsburgh: Like a small production company.
McBride-Tackett: Exactly. We’ve worked with Pandora Radio, Industrial Arts Workshop, Wilkins Township, Saltworks Theater Company, and New America, which is a Washington, DC think tank.
NEXTpittsburgh: Why do you think it’s important for this program to take place in Pittsburgh with young people now?
McBride-Tackett: We are fortunate to live in a culturally diverse city, although there have been frictions or tensions between certain groups. Filmmaking creates content for the community, but also builds relationships within that community from the ground up. Getting young people to engage with each other is a huge benefit to the community, now and in the future. The film industry here is thriving and we need to get students up to speed as they will be our next media makers.
NEXTpittsburgh: What will the WQED Film Academy look like in 5 or 10 years? New directions?
McBride-Tackett: There is a very strong desire to reach more students. We always try to reach as many people in the community, all ages. The WQED education department has an excellent reputation for getting into the community and reaching people, especially with early childhood and elementary school programs. The Film Academy strives to reach tweens and teens.
It is also vital to expand our geographic reach, develop the virtual space and offer our programs to a student living anywhere. We launched our virtual program in 2020 out of pandemic necessity, but quickly realized it was a valuable tool for reaching students who cannot physically travel to the studio. Students receive a home movie kit adaptable to their mobile device and take classes over Zoom.
NEXTpittsburgh: And they keep the material to continue learning?
McBride-Tackett: Yes. We have a great partner based in Harrisburg in Reach Cyber Charter School that connects us to students across the state. Reaching students in rural communities is part of our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. I grew up in a small town and wish I had that kind of access.
NEXTpittsburgh: And now you have the access and the technology to bring it to others.
McBride-Tackett: We are in an age where the media is present in all aspects of our lives. Being able to create a space where everyone, regardless of background, has a place and a voice is super important. The more we can create a diverse landscape, the more we can have a tolerable and equitable world. I think that’s the biggest benefit of the academy…providing a diverse landscape for content creators, because it affects us all.
WQED Film Academy’s in-person fall session runs from September 27 through December 27. 22 with registration information here; scholarships are available.
LE McCullough is a musician/writer/journalist from Pittsburgh with a lifelong curiosity about who, what, when, where, why, and most importantly, how.