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LarryvilleLife: Free State Festival 2021 preview — Let’s all go to the movies

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After a year away due to the pandemic, Lawrence’s popular Free State Festival is returning next week with a new format centered on outdoor films in various locations around town. 

As in previous years, the festival’s films will be accompanied by a mix of other components ranging from Q&A sessions to panel discussions to live music and performances that complement the films. After all, if you’re going to enjoy John Waters’ “Hairspray” outdoors on a summer evening, why not enjoy it with a performance from beloved Lawrence drag queen Deja Brooks?

Though this year’s festival may be considerably more streamlined and film-centric than previous years, the week of activities still offers a diverse mix of entertainment. Festival organizers are also hopeful that the headliners of last year’s cancelled festival (John Waters, Boots Riley, and Cameron Esposito) will be able to join us in town for a weekend in the fall or winter, schedules permitting.

I reached out to festival organizer Marlo Angell, who provided an excellent overview of this year’s programming: 

“There’s been a great deal of small screen-viewing this past year and it’s about time to embrace the bigness of an outdoor canvas – both the one we project images onto and the backdrop of favorite Lawrence locations. These places and spaces have been so important this past year during the pandemic. The library kept us connected through virtual programming, the Lied Center brought concerts to the streets, and the Fairgrounds housed our first rays of hope. When I volunteered at the Health Department’s vaccine clinic [at the Fairgrounds], I just knew it just had to be a festival venue this year. We’re here to celebrate film, but also our film community.”

On that note, let’s take a brief look at each evening’s film along with a few other short statements submitted by festival participants. The times in bold reflect the screening times, but please note that doors open at 8 p.m. for the events, and many of the screenings are preceded by various forms of pre-show entertainment. 

Please check the Free State Festival website for complete info and policies regarding each location, then pack your lawn chairs and enjoy the movies! 

“Triumph,” 9-11 p.m. Monday, June 21, Lawrence Public Library lawn — free

This year’s opening night film is an inspiring story about a high-school wrestler overcoming the obstacles of cerebral palsy. “Triumph” is written by Michael D. Coffey and based on his own experiences growing up. Coffey offered this take on what viewers can expect from their night on the lawn:

“In the spirit of ‘Rudy’ and ‘The Karate Kid,’ the story of ‘Triumph’ will grip and uplift its audience, entertaining and enlightening them. ‘Triumph’ is set in the mid ‘80s and rocks with totally awesome music!”

The pre-show experience features live music, puzzles from Breakout Lawrence, prizes from Game Nut, and an appearance from Coffey.

“End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock,” 9-11 p.m. Tuesday, June 22, Lawrence College and Career Center — $10

This documentary focuses on the efforts of a group of Indigenous women to stop the desecration of their land caused by the Dakota Pipeline. The film will be preceded by music from Alaskan native Gracie Denning and a screening of a short documentary. 

On the evening prior to the film, Haskell University’s Dr. Dan Wildcat will join activists and the filmmaker for a virtual panel discussion. When asked what the audience should expect from the panel, Wildcat said:

“The Hiawatha Center for Justice will highlight the pivotal role women played in the activities of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline.”

One Reel Under the Stars, 9-10:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 23, Cider Gallery courtyard — $6

This evening of short films will be preceded by music from Kirsten Paludan. Guests are also encouraged to arrive early and check out Tonja Torgerson’s Garden of Eden installation in the Cider Gallery. 

“Hairspray” (1988), 8:30-10:30 p.m. June 24, Theatre Lawrence — free

This event promises to be the liveliest of the week. John Waters’ classic comedy of dance contests and integration in 1960’s Baltimore will be preceded by a preshow experience from Lawrence’s own Deja Brooks, performing as the film’s Tracy Turnblad. Deja provided this feel for what to expect:

“An evening at Theatre Lawrence with Hairspray, Miss Gay Kansas Deja Brooks, and Miss Kansas Annika Wooton is sure to provide an upbeat and energetic night, taking us back to 1962 with a ‘pleasantly plump’ evening reminding us about integration and love. You can’t stop the beat to this divine night under the stars.”

Nice pun on the film’s star, Divine, Deja!

“For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close,” 8:30-10:30 p.m. Friday, June 25, Lied Center — $10

This documentary about a relatively unknown Manhattan, Kansas comedy guru seems likely to be one of the festival’s most fun surprises. I admitted to filmmaker Heather Ross that I’d never heard of Del Close and asked her to provide a little background on the film:

“Del Close’s obscurity is part of the mystery that drew us to him. We actually assume that our audience has never heard of him, and begin with the question: How did this one oddball influence three generations of comedy and invent a whole new genre – improv – without becoming famous himself? The film becomes a wild ride through comedy history, by way of the brain of this underground legend/madman. And as you’re hearing great anecdotes about Bill Murray, Amy Poehler, and others you’re taken on a journey through the highs and lows of the creative life. I think you emerge with a great appreciation for what these risk-takers do for the rest of us.”

The film will be preceded by live music from Lawrence songwriter Ellie LeBar.

“The 24th,” 8:30-11 p.m. Saturday, June 26, Dole Institute — free

Lawrence is always excited for a new film from Kevin Wilmott. “The 24th” details a clash between African American soldiers and a racist police force that led to the Houston Riot of 1917. Wilmott will be on hand for a pre-film Q&A. If you’ve experienced one of his Q&As before, you know they are typically fun, blunt, and lively. 

I reached out to Wilmott for his assessment of what to expect that evening: 

“I really enjoy Q&A because it allows me to talk about so many different aspects of the film. ‘The 24th’ is steeped in a buried American racial history. It is a challenging and very entertaining film and [the subject matter] is the focus of much discussion in the nation right now. I think people will have a great summer evening discussing it!”

Not So Silent Cinema, 8:30-10:30 p.m. Sunday, June 27, Douglas County Fairgrounds — $10

The festival closes with an intriguing and unusual bit of programming: two classic silent short films (Charlie Chaplin’s “The Immigrant” and Louis Bunuel’s “Un Chien Andalou”) with musical accompaniment from local performers Alex Kimball Williams and Mike Quillin. 

I asked Williams what to expect: 

“Listeners can expect a novel experience of silent films & cinematic live music – mediums many of us are familiar with but perhaps have not experienced [together] in person before! Mike Quillin & I look forward to showcasing exclusively synths for a complementary musical experience to accent the nuances of silent film. We will pull from musical influences like French classical, contemporary horror, dramatic theatre, & more. In ‘Un Chien Andalou’s’ spirit of artistic & class protest, we’re creatively utilizing very few instruments for our set.”

Despite the smaller scale, this year’s Festival, produced by the Lawrence Arts Center, offers seven nights of solid summer entertainment. I hope to see you out there.

— LarryvilleLife is the name of a semi-anonymous long-running local cultural commentary Twitter account managed by a lapsed KU academic currently dabbling in social media and freelance work. You probably know him in real life. Follow @larryvillelife on Twitter. Read more of LarryvilleLife’s work for the Times here.

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