Missouri State University
Arts & Letters Expressions
An online publication for the alumni and friends of the College of Arts and Letters

Actress from Missouri State student film earns role in “Pacific Rim 2”

Josh Pfaff, Teri Austin and Cailee Spaeny at premiere
Josh Pfaff and actresses Teri Austin and Cailee Spaeny at the film’s Moxie Cinema premiere. Photo credit: Ryan Welch.

Springfield native Cailee Spaeny has been cast in a lead role in the upcoming box office hit Pacific Rim 2, starring alongside John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens). You might recognize her from her debut film role in a Missouri State electronic arts senior project, Counting to 1000.

We sat down with director and writer Josh Pfaff to talk about the filmmaking experience.

Josh Pfaff outlines a scene with actress Cailee Spaeny
Josh Pfaff outlines a scene with actress Cailee Spaeny. Photo credit: Colby Jennings.

How did you find Cailee?

She contacted me about shooting her music video while I was casting for Counting. She was always going out to audition in (Los Angeles), so she was going to make it. We were just proud of her.

Has her success affected the film?

Counting to 1000 has received more interest because she mentioned us in her interview with Variety.

What about Ran Cummings, who plays the male lead?

I looked in dive bars for actors, for people who were distinct and had some earth to them. Ran was a friend of my girlfriend’s and I talked to him for an hour in a bar. He had this presence, this confidence.

What classes at Missouri State helped you prepare?

Scriptwriting classes with Diana Botsford helped a ton. I also took a scriptwriting intersession class during the summer with Richard Amberg, who helped sharpen scripts before producing them in the fall. All media courses because you get to know different classmates that are interested in the same topics as you. Independent study courses to work on different senior thesis projects was probably the most helpful. If you want to direct, I highly encourage taking an acting class or two. It really helps being in an actor’s shoes for directing.

Crew set up the interrogation room for the film Counting to 1000
The crew prepares to shoot an interrogation scene. Photo credit: Josh Pfaff.

What were some of the pitfalls of filming?

Expecting the unexpected. There are so many little things you have to deal with and delegate. I think what makes or breaks a film is surrounding yourself with crew members who know more about their craft than you.

How did you raise money for the film?

Missouri State helps by allowing us to borrow equipment, but students have to budget funding. We did two Indiegogo campaigns. One before shooting, which was the majority of it, and one at the end to finish up all the post things. A portion of it was my own money because I felt like I needed to have skin in the game.

Cailee Spaeny and Teri Austin sign posters at premiere of Counting to 1000 at the Moxie
Actresses Cailee Spaeny and Teri Austin sign posters at the premiere at Moxie Cinema. Photo credit: Ryan Welch.

Josh raised $7,000 for the project and he and his crew built the sets. The actors volunteered and his mom provided catering for the cast and crew for the ten-day shoot. The film won a Los Angeles Independent Film Festival Award and Award of Excellence at Best Shorts Competition. It’s been shown in numerous film festivals.

Josh Pfaff and Teri Austin study the script
Josh Pfaff and Teri Austin study the script. Photo credit: Michael Dameron.

Josh has since started a video production company, Locke + Stache, with alumni Chris Olson and Austin Elliott. he says the low cost of living in Springfield means he can offer lower bids than competitors living in more expensive cities. He said that half of his clients find him through his website, and many live in other cities.

“Now with cloud tech and things being online, it’s like, do we have to be there to do good work?” he said. “We love traveling and we are a flight away.”

Josh expects to graduate in December 2016.

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COAL to host commencement reception to celebrate grads

The College of Arts and Letters invites its graduating students, their families, and faculty and staff to the its biannual commencement reception to be held Friday, Dec. 16 at the First and Calvary Presbyterian Church.

Refreshments will be served at 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the church’s atrium. Missouri State’s fall commencement will be held later that day at JQH Arena. To RSVP, contact Barb Jones by email or by calling the COAL office at 417-836-5247.


Share your story

Help us celebrate the accomplishments of our graduates by sharing the experience on social media. If you are graduating or attending graduation to celebrate with someone, we want to hear about it. Tag your posts with the official hashtag: #BearGrads.

Commencement schedule

10 a.m.

College of Business; College of Education


  • former MSU president Dr. Michael T. Nietzel, current senior policy advisor to Missouri Governor Jay Nixon and Governmental Excellence Award recipient
  • Dion Hallmark, an entrepreneurship major from Andover, Kansas

4 p.m.

College of Arts and Letters; College of Health and Human Services; College of Humanities and Public Affairs; College of Natural and Applied Sciences; William H. Darr School of Agriculture; Global Studies graduates


  • Missouri State President Clif Smart
  • Longtime MSU friend and donor Bobby Allison, Bronze Bear Award recipient
  • Marissa Kyser, an instrumental music education major from Troy, Missouri

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Missouri Humanities Council grant supports oral history project on local African-American history

Lucie Amberg, a Missouri State new media specialist, per course faculty member and graduate student pursuing a Master of Science and Administrative Studies degree, recently wrote a successful grant application to the Missouri Humanities Council for an interdisciplinary, multimedia project on African-American history in the Ozarks.

Stories that are waiting to be told

This project began with sociology faculty members Lyle Foster and Tim Knapp, who completed a series of KSMU interviews last spring. Amberg joined the project as a producer when Foster and Knapp became interested in expanding it into video and other forms of media.

“I have always been interested in people and their stories,” Amberg said. “And these stories are right there, waiting to be told. The exciting thing about digital media is that we can share people’s experiences in their own words.”

Documenting history of African-Americans in the Ozarks

The project is a living archive; Amberg and her research partners are developing a website that details the purpose of the project — to document and share the experiences of African-Americans in the Ozarks. The website features specific people, interviews, events and places illustrated through videos, articles and audio recordings.

When the first version releases, Amberg hopes other contributors will add their own stories and experiences to this living archive: “If you want to know what an experience was like for someone, you have to ask them — and then you have to listen. Even a situation you feel you know, you never truly understand until you hear from someone who has lived it.”

Amberg credits successful collaboration between the research partners with drawing out these stories. “As a producer, you know that the interview can only be as good as the interviewer. It’s incumbent on the interviewer to listen deeply and create an atmosphere of openness. Lyle did this beautifully, which is why the footage is so compelling.”

Photo from the Lederer Collection in Meyer Library, which has provided resources for the project.

Photo from the Lederer Collection in Meyer Library, which has provided resources for the project.

Grant pays for production costs

The Missouri Humanities Council grant is a critical supporter in making the technological pieces of this project happen.

“The council was very generous in awarding us money,” Amberg said. “The grant has allowed us to hire an extra editor and paid for a few other costs associated with getting the videos and website up and running.”

Workshop gives boost needed to apply    

Lucie Amberg

Lucie Amberg

Although Amberg had no experience with the grant process, she sensed this project held potential for grant-funded support. In May, she attended a grant-writing workshop the College of Arts and Letters hosted with the College of Humanities and Public Affairs, which pointed her in the direction of the Missouri Humanities Council grant.

“As part of the grant, we have public interaction around this piece,” Amberg said. “We are currently talking about events timed with African American Heritage Month and the Collaborative Diversity Conference.”

Blending academic studies with professional life

Amberg will graduate in 2017. From the experience she has gained from the MSAS program, Amberg said she feels she has furthered her professional development.

“I’m able to customize my studies into my professional world, which gives me the opportunity to work on producing and writing for new media — advancing my professional skills and experience.”

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Showcases ready acting, musical theatre and dance students for the next stage

Each year, Missouri State arranges for acting, musical theatre and dance students to perform for and network with industry professionals in hotspots such as New York City and Los Angeles. 

Hannah Green lightly hops up and down, her high heels clicking the floor to a steady beat. A few feet away, Nick Driscoll’s mouth is awkwardly poised as he quietly emits didgeridoo-like noises.

Others around the room are engaging in similar rituals, and the florescent light against a bright neon green accent wall offers no cover for the palpable tension.

Easing into a zone of energy and anxiety, one by one the 15 Missouri State musical theatre seniors walk through the door marked Studio 2. On the other side is a panel of casting professionals waiting for what could be — what hopefully will be — career-launching performances.


Camille Clossum performs “You Are the Sunshine of my Life” at the New York City showcase cabaret show. Photo by Nick Coleman.

Gaining exposure, building relationships

These auditions launched the eighth annual musical theatre showcase, a week’s worth of professional development opportunities held in New York City for Missouri State students.

The musical theatre showcase, most recently held in March 2016, is one of three showcase events coordinated by Missouri State’s theatre and dance department to put university seniors directly in front of talent professionals who can offer advice — and maybe even a job.

In April, students travel to Los Angeles for an acting showcase, with events focused on the television and film industry. And each spring semester, the dance program sends students to performance conferences for similar experiences in their field.

LA Showcase 2016

Acting Program Coordinator Dr. Kurt Heinlein said the exposure is invaluable, since it could take years to get an agent or to develop relationships with casting directors.

“This gives our students the opportunity to be seen before they even get out of school. It could save them five years of pounding the pavement.”

Heinlein said the trips also allow students to become acquainted with the scenes and cities in which they may eventually work. They also take industry workshops and connect to alumni living in those cities.

Sophomores and juniors often join the upperclass students to offer support and experience the city and workshops, too.

Other Missouri State visitors to the New York showcase include students in design, technology and stage management, the Missouri State Jazz Ensemble, and art and design students who show their works in galleries.

Hearing honest critiques from industry experts

Heather Luellen, staff music director and accompanist, organizes the New York showcase. She said each program’s showcase is tailored to what works in that respective industry.

For live theater, Luellen wants to give students a preview of what happens in a real audition room.

“It’s great for the students to experience being in one of those spaces in front of a real casting director. We simulate that in classes all the time, but to really have that experience in New York is a fantastic way for them to be prepared when they actually move there.”

Students pose at New York City's iconic Times Square TKTS pavilion.

Students pose at New York City’s iconic Times Square TKTS pavilion.

New York-bound students perform individually for casting professionals, who then offer honest feedback in a speed-dating-style critique.

Anything is fair game, from the students’ appearances to song selections, talent, decorum and more.

Travis Holt, a senior musical theatre student, said the panel thought his songs were too similar.

“Since then, I’ve been building my repertoire with songs that show who I am as a person. I’m finding my type as an actor and working on how I can showcase that in an audition.”

The panel also said they saw him as a young romantic lead and encouraged him to embrace his Native American heritage when looking for roles.

Alumnus Mark Albrecht teaches students and alumni tap techniques in a New York workshop.

Alumnus Mark Albrecht teaches students and alumni tap techniques in a New York workshop. Photo by Nick Coleman.

A handful of students were advised to add comedy to their routines. According to one comment, “It has to be moving or funny. Everything else is just boring.”

The critiques given this year were pretty tame compared to some in the past. Luellen said this portion of the showcase is sometimes the most heart-wrenching part for students.

However, this is the real industry and she said the critiques are a good opportunity for students to see beyond the glitz and glamour.

During each year’s New York trip, students also perform a cabaret show accompanied by the MSU Jazz Ensemble. Their audience for the Cabaret and Connection event is largely alumni and friends of the university.

They wrap up the week with workshops, stage tours and more.

The MSU Jazz Ensemble sent 18 members to New York City in 2016 to provide musical accompaniment during the cabaret performances.

The MSU Jazz Ensemble sent 18 members to New York City in 2016 to provide musical accompaniment during the cabaret performances. Photo by Nick Coleman.

Developing professional confidence in Los Angeles

The Los Angeles acting showcase, in its seventh year, is thriving with a traditional showcase model, Heinlein said.

Students perform two-person scenes on stage for alumni and industry professionals, such as casting directors and agents. To be considered for the showcase, students must audition and spend the year leading up to it preparing in class.

“It’s really an artistic and curricular capstone experience for these students,” Heinlein said. “By prepping for the showcase, they learn about the industry, they learn about marketing, they learn how to be in business as an actor, not just how to perform.”

In the acting showcase, students perform in pairs in front of casting professionals.

Students perform in pairs in front of L.A. casting professionals. Photo by Kelli MacTaggart.

Students also participate in workshops, table reads, sitcom tapings and more. They spend time with working alumni, ranging from Academy Award winners to recent graduates, who share advice about what it’s like to begin in this industry.

Acting senior Leah Hawkins performed two scenes at the showcase. The experience has shown her a career in acting is possible,

she said.

“It’s scary to take that first step, but after being out there, doing the workshops and meeting with alumni, I feel more prepared. I can trust in my acting skills and know I have the tools to be a professional performer.”

MSU hosts events to give students and faculty a chance to connect with alumni and industry professionals in Los Angeles and New York.

MSU hosts events to give students and faculty a chance to connect with alumni and industry professionals in Los Angeles and New York. Photo by Kelli MacTaggart.

Broadening horizons for dance students

Though the dance counterpart is not called a showcase, dance students get similar experiences and benefits at the four-day American College Dance Association regional conference, said Ruth Barnes, dance program coordinator.

Students start their day at 8 a.m. and end at 11 p.m., taking classes in various styles and performing in concerts adjudicated by dance professionals from across the country.

The adjudicators meet with students for two minutes in speed-dating-style feedback sessions. The judges comment on the choreography and determine which student performances will be presented in a national gala concert.

Katie Griffiths, Kristen Bretzke, Molly Haslag and Alex Grossman attended the 2016 American College Dance Association regional conference.

Katie Griffiths, Kristen Bretzke, Molly Haslag and Alex Grossman attended the 2016 American College Dance Association regional conference.

Barnes said the conference illustrates the possible career opportunities in dance, which may not be evident in Springfield.

“Students don’t know what’s out there. This is a way of exposing them to the enormous diversity in the dance world.”

Professional dancers often lead unconventional lifestyles, Barnes said. Few are paid well for performing, so they take on day jobs. They must be versatile and have a passion for dancing. Those are lessons students glean from the conferences.

Kristen Bretzke, a junior dance major, said the conference was invigorating.

“I left each adjudication feedback session with pages full of notes, advice and ideas for how I can choreograph successful and meaningful pieces in the future. I came back to school rejuvenated, refreshed and inspired to continue my work as a collegiate dancer.”

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