Poly on Film Features Laura Terruso ’99, Director of “Work It”

“I was obsessed with musical theater in high school,” said director Laura Terruso ’99. “I loved to sing and act, but I couldn’t dance at all. My senior year [at Poly], they announced that the musical would be Crazy for You and I knew the lead role had quite a bit of dancing, so, much like the protagonist of Work It, I made it my mission to learn how to dance. I took ballroom dancing lessons for weeks before the audition, and I got the part! But learning to dance changed me in so many ways beyond just getting a part. My posture changed, I felt more confident and more in touch with my body than I had ever been. That journey was my inspiration for Work It.”

On January 27, the Poly community came together to discuss Work It during the third Poly on Film event, a free, multi-part discussion series featuring Poly alumni currently working in film and TV. In advance, attendees had watched the film, a high school dance comedy directed by Terruso about Quinn Ackerman (Sabrina Carpenter), who must shine in a dance competition in order to gain access to her dream college. The problem is she can’t dance.

Alumni-in-Film Series

Director of Arts Outreach Robert Aberlin ’62, P’00, ’03 welcomed everyone and introduced the “amazing group of panelists” including Terruso, dancers Lauren Perilli ’00 and Noah Aberlin ’00, current Poly Dance Team co-captains Ella Barnett ’21 and Lola Williams ’21, and Middle School dance teacher Ashley Hacker.

Aberlin began by asking Terruso to describe the trajectory of her career as a film director. “My time at Poly was so important and wonderful,” Terruso said. As an undergraduate, Terruso made social justice documentaries, but soon realized, “I am a comedy person.”

In advance, Terruso had named her heroes in filmmaking. “Some of my favorite filmmakers are Hal Ashby, Penny Marshall, Nancy Meyer, Nora Ephron, Tamara Jenkins—these are all filmmakers whose work is really funny while also being imbued with heart and honesty and that’s what I’m all about… It’s about constantly thinking about how I can make each scene funnier while remaining emotionally honest and true to the story. I do a lot of improv and am constantly rewriting the movie in my head as I shoot. It’s so much fun.”

“I worked as a film researcher for Getty Images after college.” Terruso said. “Working in an archive was amazing and I learned so much about the craft of filmmaking and its power to shape our ideas.”

She attended a graduate film program at NYU and made short films. They included a 10-minute short,  Doris and the Intern. After seeing it, one of her NYU teachers, Michael Showalter, asked her to work with him on a screenplay, which resulted in Hello, My Name Is Doris, a feature film starring Sally Field. Terruso went to LA to shoot the film. “I made it my mission to learn every aspect of filmmaking,” Terruso said. This included learning how to use all the equipment so she could communicate with the craft people. Doris was her big break, but she returned to NYC and wrote Fits and Starts, which was shot as her NYU thesis.

Returning to LA, Terruso wrote Good Girls Get High for HBO Max. “It got me in the room to pitch Work It,” she said. Terruso said that the main character, Quinn, “is a lot like myself.” As part of her pitch for why she should direct the film, Terruso shared the video of herself and Noah Aberlin dancing together in Crazy for You.

As a special treat, Robert Aberlin shared the video with the attendees. After which Terruso said, “We really sold it, Noah!”

Noah Aberlin admitted it took many hours of rehearsal to accomplish what looks seamless. The experience was important in his decision to pursue dance as a career, he said. “We were the beginning of the dance program [at Poly],” he said, noting that at the time, a new fitness center had been built with a dance studio. Aberlin and Lauren Perilli credited Poly’s first dance teacher, Amy Salomon Kohn, with opening new styles of dance to them. “We were thrilled that dance was finally at Poly,” Perilli said.

Current Middle School dance teacher Hacker said she identified with the character of Quinn in Work It. Hacker started her dance career with tap, ballet, and jazz and wanted to be a ballerina. But her focus changed when she took a hip hop class. As a dancer, “you should expand,” she said. “It gave me the confidence to trust my body. I can move like that.” Although it was rough for a time, she knew she could do it.

Lola Williams '21
Lola Williams ’21
Ella Barnett '21
Ella Barnett ’21

The co-captains of Poly’s Dance Team echoed Hacker. “I love to dance,” said Williams, who has performed with Young Dancers and Towers Dancer, “It is a vessel to express emotions.”

“Poly has always been a really great place for me to push myself [as a dancer],” added Barnett.

Head of Arts Michael Robinson added that Poly’s Advanced Dance program has carried on despite the pandemic. “I am proud of how Dance has been resilient.”

Robert Aberlin asked Terruso to talk about the actual shooting of Work It. She explained the film was shot in Toronto and she went with the choreographer, Aakomon Jones, to a dance call to find local talent. “I was looking for authenticity,” she said. Terruso invited dancers who had “special talent tricks” to “do it now!” It turned out that these dancers—a young man who did multiple backflips and a woman performing an Indian dance style among them—were many of the dancers that she hired. “It struck me how much of a community dancers are,” she said.  It was important to her that the cast was diverse in many ways. “Every audience member should see themselves represented,” Terruso said. She did not give up until she located a retired teacher, Shirley A.S. Clements, who could dance in a hip hop style and found “ILL-Abilities dancers.” On the other hand, she changed a “mean girl” character in the original script because she would rather that her female characters are supportive of each other.

Alumni In Film Work it Panel

Noah Aberlin asked Terruso to talk about how she interacted with the choreographer. “It started with the script,” she said. “I know emotionally what I needed out of each dance number. Each should be like a scene, moving the story forward.”

Robert Aberlin asked Terruso, “How do you direct a good dancer to be a bad dancer,” as was the main character, Quinn, originally.

“Sabrina [Carpenter as Quinn] is a good dancer,” Terruso said, “but Sabrina is a great actress” who was able to make us think at the opening of the film that she was a bad dancer. Terruso added, “The set was like the best summer camp you can imagine, supportive, safe, and comfortable. That’s when the magic happens.”

When asked to name her favorite scene in the movie, Terruso chose the dance scene between Quinn and Jake under the highway. “It shows the chemistry between the two actors,” she said. The scene was shot between midnight and 4 AM, under a highway in Toronto. The camera operator carrying the 125-pound steadicam danced along with the actors to get the shot. When the final take ended with a kiss, “I just let it keep going,” Terruso said. “I yelled ‘yes’ instead of ‘cut.’”

Earlier Terruso had shared advice for students or young alumni who might aspire to a career in filmmaking. “Start now!” Terruso said. “The iPhone has a better camera on it than I had access to in college. Start making short films with your friends, telling stories, and editing them. YouTube and TikTok videos count. Just start expressing yourself through a visual medium. Also, volunteer on film sets! You’ll learn so much simply by watching other people.”

The next Poly On Film discussion event is Sprinter on February 25 at 6 PM. 

From Executive Producers Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, and directed by Storm Saulter, Sprinter (2018) stars David Alan Grier in a sports drama which revolves around the personal struggles of a teen athlete’s meteoric rise in track and field. The panelists will be producer Rob Maylor ’96, Poly Director of Performance Fitness and former Olympian Richard James, and Head of Athletics Richard Corso. Sprinter is available on Netflix.

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