On Tour: David E. Simpson reports back from Vineland, NJ

30 Apr

I had modest expectations rolling into the town of Vineland, in a somewhat run-down-looking part of southern New Jersey. The fact that the road leading into Cumberland County College was laced with strip malls and trailer homes did little to raise those expectations. I have nothing against trailer homes; they just don’t generally coincide with my core audience.

The road in to Cumberland County College

In addition, my prior communication with Greg, my host at CCC, was not encouraging: because of a scheduling conflict he had re-booked my show an hour earlier (which tends to cause half the audience to arrive half way through the film). On top of that, Greg said that the turnout for most shows in the film series had been so dismal that he wasn’t planning to re-up next year.

Not a good omen…

From the moment I arrived at the college, those expectations crashed up against a stranger-than-fiction reality that surprised me happily at every turn. The first shock was the campus: lushly landscaped and idyllic, and boasting a handsome, state-of-the-art performing arts center.

The campus

My excitement faded a bit when I learned that because this great theater was booked that night for Fiddler on the Roof, my film had been relegated to a lecture hall across the way.

No matter. As people started filtering in I soon found that this lecture hall was just where I wanted to be. The pic below was snapped when I first entered the room. The 14-year old girl on the right opined that this was the crowd that was too hip to go to Fiddler on the Roof. I couldn’t disagree. Before we got even close to screening time the audience barraged me with questions about technique, content, funding, you name it… I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a more engaged audience.

The beginnings of a great audience

In the end, Gary said that my modest crowd of some 25 people was the largest in his series. I’m not sure my film can take the credit. I was the last of six films on this season’s tour, and I am guessing that awareness of the series spreads in the course of the year. I’m a veteran of three trips on the Southern Circuit Film Tour (which I take it that OSIP was partly modeled on). I have noticed that venues that have been part of the circuit for many years do the best with audiences, and I suspect that the cause-effect here is circular.

Anyway, we had a great old time at this screening. Afterwards, I talked for a long while with the couple in the center of the above pic. They were Vegans and Quakers. They sang in a choir. And they organized monthly gatherings with friends on their own to watch independent documentaries. The revamping of my preconceptions about this backwater-looking corner of southern New Jersey was now complete. Or so I thought. I had one more surprise in store.….

My screening over, I wandered over to check out Fiddler. This being a community college performance, my expectations were, well, you know…. Fiddler had started at 8; it was now 9:30 so I figured I’d catch the end. I ran into Greg in the lobby and he told me they were still an hour away from intermission (surprise #1). Then he told me he’d find me a seat because the 500-seat house was sold out (surprise #2). Then I walked in to the theater. There was a 30-piece orchestra that sounded GREAT. The cast was at least 40-strong. I arrived just before the scene in which Tevye recounts his nightmare. In the midst of swelling, dark chords from the orchestra and billowing smoke against a now-blood-red backdrop, a hideous figure soared into the air from behind the bed-board and screeched at Tevye while flying speedily around the stage. … I’m not much for traditional theater, but let’s just say I was blown away! The cast, music, staging, wardrobe… all were top notch! This is the last time I will judge any school, town or part of the country by its cover.

Exhausted from a long drive and from having my mind blown so many times in one night, I left at intermission, found myself a milkshake and went to bed, sans-nightmares.

Post by OSIP touring filmmaker, David E. Simpson

To read more posts by this filmmaker, please click here.

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