One part cinema, one part circus, equals good family fun on Martha’s Vineyard

Musicians lead the parade into the theater during the weekly Cinema Circus. — Photo by Eli Dagostino

Acrobats, artists, and smiling faces fill the lawn of the Chilmark Community Center’s Cinema Circus.

“Cinema Circus is for families looking to do great things with their kids, because we want our families to have playful and inspiring experiences together,” said Lindsey Scott, who founded the program in 2009.

In its fourth year, Cinema Circus is the children’s portion of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival (MVFF) summer season. Every Wednesday families can gather outside the Chilmark Community Center (CCC) to watch a circus performance, enjoy local food, and learn about film.

Ms. Scott got the idea for the program after taking her children to MVFF founder Thomas Bena’s children’s movie night at the Chilmark Library in 2008. “I was moved by what I saw Thomas doing for the kids and thought that it could be even greater with other dimensions,” she said. She was hired as the Director of the Children’s Program soon after and expanded the kids festival from a low-key movie night with pillows and popcorn into a carnival, school, and lively learning experience for kids and adults alike.

Cinema Circus presents families with live and onscreen entertainment of circus performances and short films in order to promote media understanding.”We are focused on doing the same thing as the MVFF for a different demographic,” Ms. Scott said. “MVFF is motivated by the idea of bringing people together through film for the enrichment of the community.”

The Circus

The fun begins at 5 pm outside the CCC. Performers dance and hula-hoop between the circus tent and picnic tables, while face painters prepare young moviegoers for the night’s festivities. Kids can jump into costumes, be creative at the art table, and meet this year’s newest guest, Ellie the African Elephant, a two-person full body puppet created by Hugh Phear, education director and production designer. “She’s far-sighted and a little shy,” Mr. Phear said, but Ellie loves to squirt water from her trunk and play with new friends.

At food stands, local vendors sell treats: Chilmark Cottage Bakery, Not Your Sugar Mamas chocolates, smoothies from Blissed-Out, coffee from the Chilmark Coffee Company, and, of course, MVFF organic popcorn. The Chilmark Store will serve pizza and the Scottish Bakehouse and Beetlebung Farm will offer greens, grains, and food from the grill. Before the performances begin, the Little Big Top tent contains Mr. Phear’s recreations of seven historic animation machines that show the mechanics of how the brain works to put together a moving image. The machines are made entirely out of recycled materials such as egg beaters and pencil sharpeners.

“The level of understanding depends on the age. Older kids can understand what is happening, while little kids just turn the cranks and have fun,” said Mr. Phear. “In either case, it’s exciting to watch the little light bulb go off in their head and see them run off to explain it to their parents.” So, if you don’t know what a zoetrope, thaumotrope, or phenakistascope is, head to the circus to check them out.

At 5:20 pm, the ringmaster wills everyone into the tent for the Little Big Top Show, where Ellie’s friend the lion is tamed and theater troops, dancers, and musical guests perform. This year’s lineup includes Pigpen Theatre Co. and The Vineyard Sound. “Throughout the night there is a lot of enthusiasm, great performers, and a very playful energy,” Ms. Scott said.

The films

After the show, the group parades into the CCC with props and musical instruments for the 45-minute film program of 8 to 10 short films, selected from various international film schools and festivals by Ms. Scott and Molly Coogan, the manager of children’s programs.

“We are particular about how we choose them,” said Ms. Scott. “They have to be of high quality and have good moral content.” Topics this year range from treating people kindly to eating a good lunch, with quirky stories about runaway pancakes, foxes in subway stations, and chicks and eggs doing ballet.

Altogether, 80 to 100 films are shown each summer, ranging from 1 to 12 minutes in length. Each is appropriate for ages 3 to 10.

“It’s important for kids to learn that the images and sounds on screens can be thoughtful and artful, especially given that there’s so much out there that’s not,” Ms. Coogan said. Following the film program, the mysterious and highly acclaimed film scientist Professor Projector leads a lesson on film literacy. Each week he discusses different aspects of how films are made — the techniques filmmakers use to show character intentions, for example, or how a soundtrack works to affect one’s viewing experience — to help the audience become more conscious as film viewers.

“Today, kids are surrounded by different types of media and will continue to be exposed to all types of messaging throughout their lives,” Ms. Scott said. “We want to help them develop the skills to interpret what they’re seeing so that they can interact with it and become more aware as viewers.”

Dinner is served afterwards at picnic tables outside before the MVFF adult film begins at 8 pm.

The future

The Cinema Circus and MVFF crew dedicates the entire year to the season-long event by making elephants and film machines in their kitchens like Mr. Phear, or watching and selecting short films from around the world at festivals like Ms. Scott and Ms. Coogan, to make Cinema Circus into the most fulfilling and exciting experience that it can be for both kids and adults. The focus this year is on extending its reach outside the community that has been attending the festival for the last four years.

“We’re at a major turning point,” said Nevette Previd, a marketing consultant. “Lindsey has made an incredible grassroots effort to build Cinema Circus, and we want to expand so that the audience consists of tourists and Islanders alike.”

In order to allow Cinema Circus to grow, first-come-first-serve complimentary family passes will be offered at the front desk of the Island’s public libraries and at various summer camps, and film programs will be held at the Harbor View Hotel.

Ms. Scott, Mr. Phear, and MVFF Managing Director Brian Ditchfield will bring the educational aspect of Cinema Circus outside of the CCC by coordinating film workshops at the West Tisbury School and the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, where they worked with kids last year on film editing, making, and acting.

“Like any education organization, we experiment, see what works, and coordinate with other organizations to make this into an effective community-based program,” Mr. Phear said.

This year the program will make its first leap beyond Island shores to Bozeman, Montana, where Bozeman residents Liza Eddy and Whitney Prism are in the process of creating Cinema Circus West for the Bozeman Film Festival this September. Ms. Scott hopes to continue to bring Cinema Circus to other places in order to promote film literacy for the younger generation. “Film is our vehicle for bringing people together,” she said.

Cinema Circus happens every Wednesday (except July 4 when it will be on July 2) through August 29 at the Chilmark Community Center from 5 to 7 pm. Admission is $10, $30 for a family; members are $5, $15. For more information, visit