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Filmmaker Sarah Carleton and the practice of telling stories

Sarah Carleton, right, with co-star Ben Measor, in 'Eddy's Island' >>>

There is a moment early in Transistor, Maple Films’ 2011 Cleveland 48 Hour Film Project entry, when the main character first reacts to what will become the short film’s MacGuffin - an eerie disembodied voice that only she can hear. Confused and unnerved, the woman scans the environment, looking for the source of this strange experience.

Sarah Carleton, as the runner, plays the moment subtly, conveying all the confusion and anxiety through her eyes, you couldn’t help but wonder when she would make the leap from the Cleveland 48 Hour Film Project to a blockbuster thriller.

One of her most recent projects, Evenfall, an online web series that reteams her with Transistor’s Dustin Lee and Maple Films, moves her one step closer. 
Carleton plays a mother searching for her young son in the post-apocalyptic action-adventure. 

She explores some of the same feelings in Fernando Lopez’s short film Culantro Fino, in which Carleton tries to find emotional and financial stability for her and her teenage daughter, both still distraught and finding their way after a traumatic event shakes up the family.

They are stories that resonate with 
Carleton’s journey, she will tell you. One rooted in rural Pennsylvania, where storytelling played a vital role in her life from a young age. In our interview with Carleton, she shares her early experiences in community theater and a deep love for films, which ignited her passion for storytelling.

Sarah Carleton in an experimental film by Fernando Lopez

Midwest Movie Maker (MMM):
What’s your backstory? And what drew you to acting and filmmaking?

Carleton (SC): I grew up in Western, Penn., in a rural community. From my earliest memories stories and storytelling were an important part of my life. Someone in my community converted a barn on their family's property into a community theater space for kids, and I had the chance to do plays as a young child there. That gave me my first chance to dive into the world of storytelling as an actor.

I didn't watch much TV growing up, but watching movies was an important family tradition. Friday nights equaled homemade pizza and movies. I fell in love with this avenue of storytelling and have so many great memories of watching films as a kid.

The importance of stories began to shift for me as I got older. As I was reaching middle school age, my parents took the step to adopt. Through adoption, we became a mixed-race family. Trying to understand and navigate race and racism as a white child in rural America in white communities meant I had few resources to put words or names to things I was noticing or experiencing.

I didn't find stories that spoke to my family's experience and it drove me to search for stories that helped me make sense of my own world and experiences.

In my early 20s, I decided to pursue my dream of being an actor. I knew I wanted training and found my way into the MFA program at the University of Louisville. One of the things that drew me to the school was its African American Theater certificate program and the opportunity to dive into the stories of Black Americans.

I love stories. Stories, for me, have been both a deep place of love and healing.

I continue to be drawn to the art. I have found the practice of telling stories has helped me process my own. And by connecting to others' stories I have found ways to put words and connections to experiences I haven’t had words for.

A scene from 'In Our Own Voices'

Your bio mentions you pursue projects that “create unexpected collaborations and bridge connections across artistic mediums and cultural backgrounds.” Can you share an example that embodies this approach and what you learned from it?

SC: When I completed graduate school in 2009, I didn't have a lot of connections and was trying to figure out what I wanted to do as an actor. I started out with a solo show I wrote that explored my family, some of our experiences with adoption, and how it impacted me.

I reached out to someone I knew who was a composer at the time and he was willing to dive into the project with me. Working with him and thinking about the questions he would ask me regarding my thoughts about sound was eye-opening and a new way for me to think about my project. I hadn't thought about the way feelings might sound, or what sound might represent a particular sibling. I loved the way his questions helped challenge my creativity and ways of doing things.

Another example has to do with a friend of mine, Lara Lynn McGill, who is an opera singer. We both wanted to do bigger roles and challenge ourselves. We weren't getting cast in main roles at the time so we decided to create our own work and combine acting and opera.

I've never sung opera in my life and knew so very little about the opera world, but working with my friend opened doors for several projects that would let us work together. That included a project that I wrote called The Heart of Shahrazad. We worked with a composer, Lara sang, and I performed.

I learned so much. Working with these artistic mediums that don’t always come together pushed me to see my own acting in new ways. The composer of that piece is originally from France and having her insight and cultural perspectives provided ideas that I wouldn't have had otherwise considered while working.

We also reached out to the community and hosted an evening of discussion around the topic of violence towards women, as that was the topic of the show and what we were wrestling with.

Working with Jumping Jack Theater

You've been involved in both traditional theater and film projects. What do you find most exciting or fulfilling about working on new, innovative projects?

SC: People are what drive me in projects. I believe in excellence and striving to do your best and grow, but in a process and path that is kind and safe for all. So I'm drawn to projects that have that process built-in - and then work to say how can we create a better world with our project. Either by creating a safe working environment and healthy environment or are working to create a story that asks how can we create a more beautiful world. Whether that is through highlighting hard things and helping people process through story, creating stories of hope, or celebrating humanity.

I've worked with Jumping Jack Theater, which strives to connect with autistic audiences and the autism community in a safe, supportive, and inclusive environment. Working with a company that is creating original work for audiences with sensory needs has pushed me to think about what it means to create work that allows everyone to be involved.

To me having the opportunity to grow and learn is what brings me to new projects and concepts as they challenge me - and not always in easy ways. But I do enjoy the opportunity to learn and grow and be open to seeing things in new ways.

Behind the scenes on 'Evenfall'

Could you elaborate on your collaborations? What unique challenges and opportunities does blending various art forms present?

SC: One thing I learned while working with people from different artistic practices and art forms is that we all have assumptions about how things work.

In theater, there are new projects made more frequently than in opera. With opera, you are often working on projects that have been around for years and years. I didn't realize my experiences of creating new work meant I had a different perspective and idea about how to approach projects than my friend Lara had.

It was a good learning moment to realize how different the worlds can be and how that can impact how you work together.

Working with folks from different art forms also provides chances for me to approach my own work in new ways. Working with new art forms helps me stay curious.

I love hanging out with the crew on film sets for this reason. Even though I don't have the same technical background hearing how the crew talk about light setups or sound or setting up a shot, teaches me so much about how a story can be told and the ways each artistic form works through the creative problems of how to tell the story.

MMM: Your work includes writing the libretto for a chamber opera called In Our Own Voices, which explores stories of transracial adoptees. What inspired you to tackle the project and the subject, and what impact did the piece have when it premiered?

SC: The composer for that project, Eliane Aberdam, was the composer I worked with previously on The Heart of Shahrazad. She reached out to me about a grant project searching for new operas. Eliane wanted to know if I wanted to apply for it with her.

I said yes.

We didn't get the grant, but she said, “Why don't we go for it and produce it?” The grant was asking for stories specific to social issues such as race and racism, and transracial adoption is something that is close to my heart as five of my siblings are transracial adoptees.

Growing up, I didn't hear many stories about this topic, and though I don't know the personal experience of being adopted or being a transracial adoptee, I have witnessed my siblings lives and watched first-hand the challenges this can create for individuals.

Growing up in white culture and having to work to unlearn so much of what my culture taught me about race has been an ongoing journey, and I believe loving my siblings includes doing the work of dismantling the racism in my own life. Stories have been so powerful for me in my life and it felt like one way I could tackle and address some of the racism that exists in America.

I believe stories can be a safe way for us to hear hard things and help us see from other perspectives that we might understand. I have learned so much from adoptees over the years, and I wrote the piece thinking of my own life story and how much I needed stories like this one.

The piece premiered in 2019 in Rhode Island and what felt the best about the reception was having several adult transracial adoptees who happened to see it say they saw themselves represented in it and all the complexities they felt about their own experiences.

I also had a student helper who was an adoptee and an opera student, and she shared how she didn't expect to ever hear a piece that spoke so closely to her own story. I was grateful for that as my concern is always to support and value the stories of adoptees without exploiting them. The opera was going to be produced in Pittsburgh as well but had to be canceled due to the pandemic.

The opening scene of 'Transistor'

How does your approach to acting change when performing for different audiences and in various settings?

SC: I think of the advice an acting teacher once gave me. Acting is a service role. Our job is to serve the audience, the story, the team putting the story together. I think about this idea a great deal as I approach each piece. How can my part in the whole serve the project? What kind of prep work do I need to do to serve the needs of the story?

I hear people disrespect children as an audience or dismiss their insight, but I find audiences full of children to be some of the most honest. It has pushed me to create work that, in turn, respects children and their perspectives as audience members.

No matter what the work is or who the audience is, being an honest, fully vulnerable human is what I strive to bring to my work, as well as a great respect for the audience - whoever they might be. And I think being human, flaws and all, is what connects us no matter our age or background.

MMM: Tell me a bit about how your film work has evolved over the years. Maybe from Transistor to Evenfall - a 48 Hour Film Project short to a full-fledged indie streaming program?

SC: I first met Dustin Lee, the director of Evenfall when he was doing a project for college. It was a mess of a project, but my first time working in film, and I loved getting the chance to try out film acting.

I'm so grateful for this journey. Working with folks who want to grow and create the kind of sets where that can happen has been a wonderful place for me to grow and learn more about the filmmaking process.

Transistor was such a great project, and I loved having the chance to work on it and meet folks who helped with it. And small projects just popped up around that film and a lot of 48 projects helped me grow and learn more about acting for film.

I worked with Fernando Lopez on Eddy's Island in 2019, and that project was a turning point for me. I've always been more intense, but hadn't had the opportunity to showcase that side of me on film. But it's the projects I'm drawn to, and Fernando wrote a part that provided the chance for me to show a part of my acting that hadn't had before. I think that really opened up doors for Evenfall. It's been slow little steps and some wonderful humans who have asked me to work with them that led to Evenfall.

Sarah, center, with 'Evenfall' director Dustin Lee, left, and co-star Morgan McLeod

What was it like working on a project as big and complicated as Evenfall? For instance, was the libretto more challenging?

SC: Being just the actor is great! There is stuff to worry about, but writing the story is so scary because if it doesn't work, it's your fault.

I think good stories are the foundation. Dustin had so much to navigate with Evenfall, and there were challenges for me, but things like the weather or being cold or navigating a tricky scene. But I wasn't in charge and that makes it easier for me.

Doing my own projects means having to do the production end, and that's an area I struggle with. Being the actor makes me feel a bit spoiled.

I write because I want to create work I want to see or because it gives me the chance to stretch my own acting skills or do a project that helps keep me creative. But I create my own work not because I'm always the best writer - and certainly not the best producer - but because I love telling stories and need to tell them.

MMM: Tell me a bit about your involvement with Culantro Fino.

Carleton and co-star Sofia Castellanos
I love working with Fernando Lopez. I had the chance to work with him on a 48 Hour Film Project that he co-directed with Dustin and then he cast me in Eddy's Island. I'm such a big supporter of his work and storytelling.

How I grew up sometimes makes me feel a little like a 'third-culture' kid. A lot of my friends are third-culture folks - either their parents grew up in a different country or there are other factors that found them growing up a little outside of the American culture “norms.”

Finding folks who get those aspects and who see stories that hit on the complexities of life feels like coming home for me.

I really would love for Fernando to make it big so that some of the stories he has can get told in longer forms and shared, as I believe so much in his stories and the need for them in the world. Fernando writes scripts that are simple on the surface, and then there is so much under each word and line, so there is so much to dig into and so many layers. I love that, and it is challenging as I want to get it right and I want to honor the story as I know how close it is to his heart.

It's such a gift to be trusted with such stories.

Sofia Castellanos, who played my daughter, was amazing and the whole crew was great to work with.

Fernando also makes sure to feed us when he works with us and it's always the best food. So I work with him to get fed well.

MMM: Can you share insights into your creative process? How do you approach character development and storytelling in your acting and creative projects?

SC: Each project is a little different. I try to figure out what the story needs and do as much research as I can to know the story and dive into it.

Some work means more physical work, others more research into understanding the characters and maybe things I don't know about their experiences. I practice a lot. Getting the words into my body. And I love rehearsing with my scene partners to get a sense of how we can work together and explore more together.

Things I try to come to my work with - vulnerability, curiosity, kindness, and work. Keep working and digging. Each project is a little different. Some I create a music playlist or color palette that I connect with the character or project. And I like time to marinate on a project. I think having space to let it sink in and deeper into my mind and body helps me find layers to it and keep adding to the project or character. Living in the Evenfall world for so long was a great way for me to sink into the character and build over time and just allow the story to live in my head and heart for a while.

With Culantro Fino, I appreciate the rehearsal space Fernando provides as it gives me time to sink into the character and story and spend time with the complexities. It allows for me to be aware of things in life that pop up that might fit in with the character, whether it's food they might eat, books they might read, and so forth. 

For instance, in prep for the short, food plays an important part in the story. I wanted to either find the food in a restaurant or try to make it on my own so I had a memory of the food as I was portraying my character in the short.

Lost in Las Vegas, from 'Evenfall'

: What advice would you give to aspiring actors and creatives who are looking to pursue a career in the arts and explore interdisciplinary collaborations?

SC: Don't listen to me. 🙂

Each artist's journey is unique, so most advice fits one journey. I tell people to listen to lots of artists' journeys and steal things that work for you. Then figure out what you want to say yes to and what you want to say no to.

Every once in a while I look back over the work I've done and I think, “Is this what I want? Is this the kind of work that is important to me? And how do I keep true to the work that I love and also work that I can best support the other creatives in the project?”

So learning to say no to projects that I don't think I can serve well has also been a hard but important part.

I appreciated someone once sharing this advice: Find folks whose work you like and see what they did to get on their journey.

I think being curious and open and realizing that everyone has something to add or offer to the process. I look up to folks who are older than me who continue to approach life and people with curiosity. And I find supporting and being around folks who are younger and older than me helps me learn and fuels my curiosity.

Check out more of Carleton's work at


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