Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival plans Cinema Circus

Cinema Circus's mission is to expand and eventually present a three-ring circus. Pictured is Isaac Taylor in 2009, the circus's first year. — File photo by Lynn Christoffers

An unusual group gathered June 23, on the expanse of lawn adjacent to the Chilmark Community Center. Some local circus performers were meeting for the first time to begin rehearsals for the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival’s (MVFF) weekly Cinema Circus.

There were dancers, a minstrel, a face painter, a fire twirler, and one young woman whose talents include trapeze work, fire-eating, and stilt-walking. Some of them are alums of circus schools, others are involved with circus clubs at their college campuses. Not present that day but likely to be on the Cinema Circus roster are a tightrope walker, unicyclists, jugglers, and clowns.

Brooke Hardman, founder of ArtFarm, is co-producing the circus along with MVFF.

“We put an ad in the paper, and were amazed at how many circus performers there are on the Island,” Ms. Hardman said. Her mission is to expand on the program’s concept of a festival environment and present what she calls a three-ring circus.

The entertainment trio that she refers to is a pre-show carnival with strolling performers, face painters, a community costume chest, and interactive crafts and presentations, followed by the week’s feature act under the circus tent, concluding with the evening’s short (around an hour) family film offering.

Adding to the fairground atmosphere, there will be outside food tents this year. But, unlike the usual circus fare, the emphasis will be on healthy refreshments such as fresh fruit smoothies and organic juice popsicles. Jan Buhrman’s Kitchen Porch caterers will offer a build-a-burrito bar and two new businesses, Chilmark Cottage Bakers and Chilmark Coffee Company, will offer goodies and beverages respectively.

This is the third season for MVFF’s Cinema Circus, which precedes the festival’s weekly adult film program on Wednesday evenings. The MVFF has dual goals for the event, which it is continuing to grow and evolve.

Lindsey Scott, director of children’s programs, said, “Our mission statement is two-pronged — to draw community together and to promote media literacy.”

Media literacy, she says, is “teaching kids to be critical thinkers, encouraging kids to investigate what they’re looking at, as opposed to being passive participants.”

MVFF recruited Ms. Hardman this year to help make a more cohesive event out of the circus portion of the evening. Last year, the festival added the strolling performers. This year, they want to take it to the next level. Along with the additional circus acts that she was able to unearth, Ms. Hardman will also be bringing in performers from other organizations to headline the bigtop shows.

“Brooke’s experience in the theater world,” Ms. Scott says, “has given her lots of connections with fabulous performers. She’s bringing a collaboration with The Yard, Rick Bausman’s drummers, a group from Pittsburgh called Pigpen Theater, puppeteers, and more. Brooke has really helped us to focus and make the hour-long circus a tight show.”

Ms. Hardman has also brought local actor, singer, and director Mac Young into the mix, to act as circus director and ringmaster. Mr. Young will be familiar to many from his performances with The Vineyard Playhouse main stage and Amphitheater productions, and Shakespeare for the Masses, for which he acted and did fight choreography.

“I’m thinking of it as sort of a variety show,” Mr. Young says. “Wonderful guest performers coming in and a range of circus skills. It’s going to be sort of a patchwork quilt.”

Addressing the assembled performers last week, Ms. Scott told them that one of their functions is to engage the arriving families and provide an atmosphere conducive to socializing.

As for the Cinema Circus’ second initiative — education — the carnival portion of the evening will include animation exhibits presented by industrial designer Hugh Phear. He will provide working models, made from household objects, that will demonstrate some of the physical principles of film and animation. Working alongside him will be art teacher Jennifer Christy, who will help kids construct a take-home project such as a thaumatrope, a spinning disc that presents the optical illusion of a single static image composed of the visual combination of the image on either side.

The films themselves are chosen to inspire conversation between kids and parents, Ms. Scott says. “We try to program high quality material that has depth. We’re trying to get kids to analyze, evaluate, think critically.”

And, of course, they’ll have fun, she adds. It is a circus after all.

Cinema Circus 5 pm, Wednesdays, June 29-Aug. 31, Chilmark Community Center. Children’s circus hour, live performances, food. $14, $10 children; $7, $5 member children.

Gwyn McAllister of Oak Bluffs is a frequent contributor to The Times.