Conversation with a Creative

Marie Barnas

Media Arts Associate Professor Marie Barnas should add juggling to her skill set because she has successfully juggled academics and creative works for years as she’s traveled the globe. The West Virginia native has a bachelor’s degree from West Virginia State University as well as two M.F.A. degrees--first in Film Production from Ohio University and then in Creative Writing from Georgia College and State University. She teaches courses in scriptwriting and film and video production

She has been awarded fellowships by The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, The International Radio and Television Society (which gave her two!), and The National Association of Television Producers and Executives. She has taught both on ground and online classes in Ohio, Georgia, Tennessee and abroad in Lithuania and Bulgaria for over two decades and has traveled to 20 countries.

She worked in the Atlanta film industry before joining MTSU and continues making documentaries, including the upcoming film called The Cost of Caring, which is about the high rate of suicides in the veterinary profession.

Her short films have won numerous domestic and international awards including Telly, Cindy, and Worldfest Houston, among others.

She spoke to Beverly Keel about what inspired her to make films, be a strong advocate of online education and sing John Denver songs—or at least one, anyway.

  • You have such an interesting background. Please tell us a little about your background and hometown.

    • I am originally from Charleston, West “By God” Virginia. We say “By God” because native West Virginians are very proud of our beautiful state that has the most amazing landscape for outdoor activities. I spent many summers white water rafting, hiking and camping in the New River Gorge National Park area. I went to West Virginia State University, which had an amazing Communications program, but I drove up to Morgantown to WVU every weekend in the fall semesters to go see my beloved Mountaineers play on Mountaineer Field. No matter where I am, I have been known to belt out "Country Roads Take Me Home" by John Denver every time it begins to play. West Virginia is often stereotyped, but it is full of amazing people and has such a rich history. I am a very proud Appalachian and I have a lot of love and nostalgia for my home state.

  • How did you get interested in film?

    • My mom married my stepfather when I was very young. He brought over his Beta player and the movie Splash with Tom Hanks. I must have watched that movie dozens of times on that old Beta player. That’s a first memory of watching film as a kid. I know everyone says this, but I think I got to grow up during a time when great films were in the theatres. I got to see some of the most iconic blockbusters during my childhood. Then as I got older, I wore out our VHS player, then DVD player, with constant rentals. In late high school and early college, independent cinema was thriving, and that’s probably when I really began studying film and taking it more seriously.

  • Please tell us about some of the films you worked on in Atlanta after grad school. What were some of your favorite moments?

    • I usually worked in the production office and started working my way up on the accounting side. My first gig was as an assistant to an executive at Warner Brothers who was overseeing the production of We Are Marshall. This was a favorite experience of mine because I was seeing everything I learned in school actually happen right in front of me. I got to meet Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox, and David Strathairn on that production. It was a real treat meeting Mr. Strathairn as he starred in one of my all-time favorite films about my home state, Matewan. Another great experience was on the film Zombieland. The energy and creative flow of this project was just amazing. Every day I walked past the art department and the props master’s office and there were just zombified mannequins and prosthetic parts everywhere, it was so much fun! Stop me in the hall sometime and ask me about hanging out with Woody Harrelson at the wrap party! And you can check out my IMDB page to see what all I worked on here:

  • You have such an interesting career. When and how did you decide to become a full-time educator? Why did you get two terminal degrees in different creative areas?

    • I loved working on set and in the production office. I learned so much from the producers and heads of department on every film, but I was working for someone else’s creative vision and I missed creating on my own. I am a lifelong learner, and I always knew I would eventually go into teaching. I just didn’t know when I would completely transition over to it full time. I ultimately decided I wanted to focus on my writing, so I went back to school for a second MFA in Creative Writing with an emphasis on dramatic writing. The assistantship I was awarded required that I teach English and study theories of teaching English composition and literature. It was such a rewarding experience because it was in this program that I really learned how to teach in an academic university setting and it prepared me for the career I have today.

  • You have been a proponent of online education even before the pandemic. How was your passion sparked? Why do you believe it is important? What is its future in the College?

    • I first got involved with online learning and teaching in graduate school. I took my first online graduate course over one of the summers. It was a screenwriting class, and I loved the flexibility it afforded me. Then, after I went into teaching, it seemed that every semester I would hear from students about their online options for their classes in Gen Ed, so it got me to thinking about what the possibilities could be in their major. I started looking at other programs and found that a lot of them offered online options. When I came to MTSU in 2016, I told Billy Pittard there were several options in Media Arts that could do well with online classes for our students and he really embraced the idea. From there, I started taking certification courses through Quality Matters and The Online Learning Consortium, and then I enrolled in the graduate certificate program for Online Teaching and Learning at UTK. It was then that the Office of MTSU Online and University College started making calls for grant proposals for online enhancement in departments across campus, so I took a chance and turned in several proposals and ultimately raised $156,000 for my department for online support. I believe that online options are important because students today want more school/work balance. I believe that online options support lifelong learning, offer flexibility for today’s student and help build sought-after skills and strategies for the workplace, plus they give students the freedom to do more in their personal and daily work lives, and can be more accessible and affordable. For students who major in our concentration areas across our college, where most of our courses are hands-on in our studios, in the field or in our labs, students have the added choice of taking less practical classes online to free up time for their production requirements and activities. I see our college using what we learned from COVID as an opportunity to make sure that what we learned from going remote last year lends itself to quality driven online course development in the future.

  • Please tell us about some of your scholarly activity since coming to MTSU.

    • I will be the first to admit that I am not a journal article writer, per se. I enjoy some research writing, but I am a creative person at heart, so my scholarly activity usually lies in making creative projects. I’ve been blessed to be able to work with my husband and colleague, Frank Barnas, who shares a media production background with me, his rooted in broadcast news and mine in filmmaking, and we love teaching and working on projects together (feel free to visit our website to learn more about what we do here: Recently, I became a co-author on the latest edition of his textbook Broadcast News Writing, Reporting, and Producing and was able to contribute on drone technology and editing through the lens of that overlap between broadcast news production and video and film production. We are now developing another textbook, Scripting Media, which we will write over the next year. I have also published two journal articles since coming to MTSU, and been able to finish two short films. I feel that every creative project I produce is practice, and that in doing these projects, I learn more and more about my craft as I continue to create. I think this is an important message for our students.

  • You also have a passion for Study Abroad programs. How did that develop? What are some experiences you have had in that area?

    • I developed a love for taking students abroad because I have had so many students that have never traveled and I love seeing them experience somewhere new for the first time. I am a huge advocate for travel, especially how it aligns with what we often want our students to gain from coming to college in the first place like problem solving, human inquiry, communication and learning about other cultures and ideas. I love showing students how to travel, what to do, what to expect or how to communicate when you don’t speak the local language. I have lived in Lithuania and Bulgaria and have traveled to over 20 countries. I have been a faculty advocate for international development at previous institutions and I have taught students internationally. Before coming to MTSU, I successfully ran a study abroad program to Ireland for several years with Frank where our students made creative productions and won awards. We are starting this again here at MTSU this upcoming summer and we already have several students signed up.

  • Please tell us about your podcast, Voca Vacay.

    • One of the things that has come about from my love of travel is starting this podcast, Voca Vacay with Frank. We started it during the pandemic lock down and it really boosted my mood and kept me in good spirits as we all struggled, and in some ways still struggle, with COVID. On the show we basically riff on our travels and share our experiences visiting different places. I sound utterly ridiculous, but it comes from a place of authenticity--what you hear is what you get--and I like to think that people would love to travel with us! We have an accompanying webcast on YouTube and we have been listened to in over 150 countries! You can listen and check it out here, if anything, it will help you kill some time on your commute home after class:

  • Tell us about some of the creative projects on which you are working, including The Cost of Caring:

    • I have a few short documentaries in various stages of production and post-production. One of them is about a man who makes huge balloon installations across the United States. Another one is a re-cut of a project that Frank and I did about wooden sculptures in Lithuania. But our most recent project has put everything else on hold because I am obsessed with getting it accomplished. It was originally titled Not One More Vet but we just retitled it The Cost of Caring. It’s a documentary about the high rate of suicides in the veterinary profession. We successfully produced a fundraising trailer with $10,000 from the MTSU Office of Research and Sponsored Programs and our own personal funds. Then, we successfully raised another $25,000 and continued filming over the fall semester. Thankfully, the latest great news is that we now have two big names in vet med sponsoring us so we can focus on finishing it and getting it in festivals. We plan to continue filming through February then go into post-production through spring and early summer. We then hope to get the film in major festivals for the autumn and winter circuits. This is a film that is going to make a difference in many people’s lives and I am so fortunate to be making it. You can learn more about it and keep up with our progress by visiting the film’s new website here:

  • What do you do when you aren’t working? What TV shows do you binge?

    • I just turned in my tenure and promotion dossier in August, so it’s nice to have a little break from all of that for a while! That being said, I still work a full day every day focusing on my teaching and all of my projects. When I’m not working, I try to travel, but COVID certainly put a stop to that this past year. I spend a lot of time with my two fur babies, Roxy Roo and Heidi Roo, and I try to do as much for our vet clinic as possible like visit the animals that aren’t adopted yet or take everyone food. I love cooking, but if I’m honest, every day in my house is like an episode of the Food Network series Chopped where I walk into the kitchen and try to make a meal out of impossible ingredients that don’t go together like chocolate ice cream, kale, pine nuts, and beet root! Okay, it’s not that bad, but you understand the frustration! And of course, in my down time, I watch A LOT of documentaries and TV shows. Notable favorites that I have binged multiple times include The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Grey’s Anatomy, Friends, The Great British Baking Show, and The Office. I am huge fan of FX’s American Crime Story anthology and I also like a lot of the docuseries projects that Netflix has been putting out lately. I have a huge list of documentaries that I keep up to date every time I see new one, so stop me sometime in the hall and ask me for a recommendation!