My Penn Studios Experience

A lesson in persistence and gratitude

By Jenelle Dulack

Knight News Reporter

College students often find it difficult to know what they might want to do as a job. There are thousands of jobs, hundreds of different job titles and dozens of obstacles to overcome, such as gaining the experience and skill required to comfortably enter the job market.

I am the primary video editor and story writer of The Knight Way, a Central Penn video series about campus events, and over the past two years, I have worked hard to improve the videos’ quality.

I have worked on a minidocumentary as preparation for future endeavors, which highlighted the philanthropic efforts of a fishily clad man on roller skates in Harrisburg dubbed Mr. Sharky Shark.

Through this experience, I learned some of the basics of documentary filmmaking, something I had never dipped my toes into, but enjoyed far more than I expected.

As I’ve written about in past for The Knightly News Media Club, internships are a must, and luckily, I was given the opportunity to complete one early. Professor Paul Miller approached me with the idea of creating a class dedicated to learning media production, a field I am highly interested in as the start of my career. Fortunately, Salim Makhlouf, director at PennStudios, a video production company within PennLive, an online media outlet that covers Harrisburg and other parts of Pennsylvania, had an intern-shaped hole that I was willing to fill. After much deliberation among Miller, Maklouf and me, and a little bit of paperwork, I began my time as an intern on Jan. 11.

A quick, deep dip into ‘the real world’

On my first day, I met Maklouf and Martin Boutros, a video producer and animator, at a Weis Market in Enola. Our goal was to create a trailer for the “Cheers! PA” series that PennStudios would be shooting to showcase the beer trails in 13 Pennsylvania counties. Much of what I did that day was setting up and tearing down lights, putting the camera in position and listening in on the audio.

“This is much more involved than using the One Button Studio!” I thought nearly every 15 minutes.

Not only did we need to shoot the video, but there were many people to meet and cater to, such as the president of PA Media Group, of which PennLive is a part, and a few sales representatives. It was an overwhelming day, and I was surrounded by many people who were as confused as I, but I can’t say I didn’t learn anything. Tracks – used to move the camera smoothly on a horizontal plane – audio and adaptability were a few of the notable lessons from that day.

Four days later, we met again to record the first episode of “Cheers! PA.” It was an uphill climb – literally. After shooting a few clips at a brewery in Carlisle, we headed over to Steeple Pole Trail and hiked vertically for two miles. To be frank, I am not an athlete or a hiker, nor am I especially physically fit, so I was huffing and heaving as I carried a heavy metal audio receiver and a pair of over-the-ear headphones up a cliff. My boss had placed his hand on my shoulder and asked – multiple times – whether I needed to stop and go back down, but I persisted. I wanted to prove in a literal and metaphorical sense that no matter how difficult this internship may become, I planned to push through it until the end.

As we approached the top, we were rewarded by a delicate breeze and a gorgeous view of one of Pennsylvania’s state parks. We spent about five minutes recording a short clip and hiked back down, a disappointing conclusion to our epic trek, yet I felt fulfilled. This hike gave me the knowledge that this was not going to be as easy as I thought, but fueled a passion in me to continue my work with intention and purpose, to work hard, even if it occasionally feels like an uphill climb — also literally.

Drilling deeper

Makhlouf allowed me to create a video on any topic I desired, as long as it could be deemed newsworthy and was approved by Vice President of Content Burke Noel and Director of Content Teresa Bonner.  That’s quite a daunting task, but I know very well where my interests lie.

On the first day of my internship, I decided to present my idea (a bold move, indeed), and I was met with much praise. It was unique to the newsroom, and an underreported topic that has barely seen light in the public sphere: drag queens. Well, one drag queen in particular, Betty Whitecastle. Drag is an art form of the gender nonconformists, one that bends gender and fashion to create ultimate self-expression for those engaged in it.

Most drag performers lip-sync and dance at bars, but COVID-19 annihilated the live-performance industry, and so everyone moved their work online to social-media platforms. Before the pandemic, Betty was an active member of the Harrisburg community. She would raise funds for the LGBT Center of Central PA and the Trevor Project. She would read for and entertain children at The Midtown Scholar Bookstore. She would sing in the Harrisburg Gay Men’s Chorus. But all of those things had been stripped from her by the cold hands of an outbreak.

There is a lot of malice toward drag queens, with many people claiming that drag queens are corrupting our children or are sexual deviants, but I wanted to call attention to the duality of a drag queen’s life, and how Betty’s work is beneficial to the Harrisburg community, regardless of whether she’s wearing a smock during her day job as an elementary school art teacher or a gown during her night gigs as a queen.

Diving into my role

The first step to completing this video was interviewing Betty  Usually, I have time to prepare for such a thing, but I received an unexpected phone call while in my car and decided to question her about her work right then. With this information, I created a logline, which is a one- to two-sentence explanation of my concept, and pitch to represent my idea to Noel and Bonner, which was successful. I later included a 5-page script, as well as a storyboard to give myself, Makhlouf and the executives a better idea of how the video would look and sound.

Now that the preproduction stage was complete, it was time to move on to creating the video – the real deal, as some might say. I scheduled a time with Betty and Boutros to meet at the studio and shoot the first half of the video, in which Betty would shed her drag persona, and show us Jeffery, the compassionate artist and performer.

John Luciew, a talented reporter at PennLive, asked to attend the shoot and ask a few questions of his own in order to write a story to pair with my video.  One week later I recorded the second half, which was the in-drag interview and a short photo shoot at Betty’s house with photographer Sean Simmers, who captured some beautiful photos that I was allowed to use in my video.

I was required to meet with Betty one more time at the 704 Lounge, in Harrisburg, to get a few shots of her on stage with a crowd, and we then took a short jaunt around the neighborhood. We were met with a massive amount of love and admiration, and many Harrisburgers who dared approach said Betty was beautiful and brave, characteristics I hoped to portray well in my video.

Usually, when I edit The Knight Way, I don’t require many directions unless I make a blatant error, and in that case, I would quickly re-edit the video in 10 to 20 minutes, tops. For the Betty video, I spent more than 15 hours editing, mostly due to much-needed revisions. I first sent the video to Miller for review and got some feedback that caused me to re-edit it. After sending it to Boutros, I was met with a long list of requested revisions, and so I spent a day reworking the video for the second time, to the liking of the folks at PennStudios. It was posted about a month later and sticks out comically, far from all other videos on the company’s YouTube page. Even the name, “Community Queen,” sticks out like a sore thumb, and I like it that way.

By the time it was done and I sent it in for the final time, I felt great relief. No longer did I need to constantly worry about how others would perceive my work and I began to feel pride in not only the finished video but also in the journey I took over the past three months. During my internship, I met with Miller weekly, and more than once, I left that meeting teary-eyed, discouraged and hopeless. Regardless of the multiple weeks of feeling like I was running against the clock, I made it through and have the content to prove it.

A lot of work, but well worth it

Creating a minidocumentary while being a full-time student, a resident assistant and active member of approximately (the real number is a mystery these days) six clubs was a difficult task, but absolutely a doable one. I feel fortunate to have been able to go to the places I’ve gone, use the equipment I used and meet the people I’ve met, and I know that this experience will forever shape my confidence in my abilities, strengthen my perseverance and give me the stepping stones to a future I know I will thoroughly enjoy.

Rather than wrapping up this experience with a self-reflective blurb reminding the reader of the importance of internships, I’d rather sprinkle some pixie dust. Gratitude is the greatest of virtues, and I would like to share the wealth.

Miller has watched me cry from six feet apart far more times than I’d like to admit, and I am forever appreciative of the amount of care that went into my work and mental well-being for the duration of my internship.

Boutros and Maklouf taught me not only about the technical side of media production, such as the names of different lights or how to monitor audio, but also about how to engage with the subject you shoot to get the best product and create lasting relationships.

Betty Whitecastle is back to entertaining in person, and her talent, resilience and flexibility in the face of adversity are admirable.

I am endlessly thankful for the experience I’ve had, the struggles I’ve overcome, and the people who have supported me and my left-field ideas.

Dulack is co-president of The Knightly News Media Club @ Central Penn College.

Comment or story idea? Contact KnghtlyEditors@CentralPenn.Edu.

Edited by media-club co-advisor and blog editor Professor Michael Lear-Olimpi.