KCP Arts Blog #4 – May Days

This is the fourth in my series of blogs.  If you’d like to keep receiving them, just email me back and write “Blog” on the subject line or within the email.  Or write to greer@KingdomCounty.org and she will sign you up. This week’s blog is prompted by today’s feeling that spring is finally here, as I take the road for Peter and John film previews. 

KCP–Behind the Scenes

* This week-end: Peter and John and

hilarious Ethan Lipton comedy

* A calamitous film premiere.

* May Days — memories of maple sugaring and a Mexican Hat Dance.

Tonight we start our Vermont preview tour for my new film, Peter and John – we’ll play Brattleboro, Montpelier, Burlington, and St. Johnsbury.  And this week-end marks an anniversary, an ending, and some new beginnings. By the looks of this morning’s sunny sky, our tour will coincide with the first real burst of spring. What better way to celebrate!  Garden or bask in the spring sun all day and relax with an evening show.

 Peter and John is based on the 19th century novel Pierre et Jean

by Guy de Maupassant and it’s set in 1872 Nantucket, during the island’s “ghost period,” after the decline of whaling, before the rise of tourism, and in the New England shadow of the Civil War.  The film tells the story of two brothers whose relationship strains when the younger one receives news of an unexpected inheritance-and both brothers become attracted to the same young woman who arrives on their island.

Christian Coulson (left) as Peter.  Shane Patrick Kearns as John.

Peter and John will play the Latchis Theater, Brattleboro (7pm, Wed. April 29); Montpelier’s Bethany Church (7pm, Thursday, April 30); The Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center, Burlington (7pm, Friday, May 1); and Catamount Arts, St. Johnsbury (2:30 and 7pm, Sunday May 3rd). Actor Gordon Clapp (NYPD Blue, Flags of Our Fathers, Broadway’s Glengarry Glen Ross) will join us in Brattleboro, Burlington, and St. Johnsbury.  Peter and John co star Shane Patrick Kearns, who plays John in the film, will join us in Montpelier and Burlington.

There will be tickets at the door for each screening.

 Click here for a film trailer.

Click here for tickets.

Our terrific cast is led by the sublime and enduring Jacqueline Bisset as Peter and John’s mother, Louise Roland, and Emmy winner and Tony nominee Gordon Clapp as their father.  Diane Guerrero from Orange is the New Black plays the mysterious love interest who arrives on the island carrying secrets. The supporting cast includes two young Northeast Kingdom native actresses Abbey Volmer and Tessa Klein (“War Horse,” “Disappearances”).

Tickets are available at the door-or at the Catamount regional box office (888-757-5559).

Click here for online tickets, information, and a film trailer. 

 For people within driving distance of Lyndon State College, I hope you’ll join us at 7:30pm, Saturday, May 2nd for the hilarious up-to-date satire of Ethan Lipton and His Orchestra performing No Place to Go, a semi-autobiographical satire about a struggling artist who loses his permanent temp job when it gets outsourced to another planet-Mars.

Click here for tickets.

New York Times theater critic called Ethan Lipton’s No Place to Go, “One of the ten most galvanizing moments on stage in 20014.”  It’s guaranteed laughs, or your money back. Tickets are $14 and $22. 

And, if money’s an issue, drop me a note (jcraven@marlboro.edu) We’re looking forward to a fun weekend and want everybody who would like to join us, to do so.  As Burlington jazz ace and Hardwick native Brian McCarthy pointed out this week on his Facebook page, “Great band Ethan has with him, too.  See it for the music, or the comedy…or the acting.  Or all of it!”

May Days

 I’ve always liked early May as a time of culmination and transition.  I moved to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom on May 1st, 1974.  Exactly a year later, I launched Catamount Arts, an upstart film and arts organization that started out strong and is still standing forty years later under Jody Fried’s excellent leadership. I left Catamount on May 1, 1991 to make Vermont feature films at my new non-profit, Kingdom County Productions.

 My first dramatic film, High Water, premiered around May 1st, 1989 and, in retrospect, we should have waited until June.  It wasn’t finished when we set the date and we arrived at the last minute from New York, having grabbed the 16mm print from our New York lab at 10am the morning of our premiere.  The lab insisted we preview the print but we didn’t have time. So we slid into St. Johnsbury with only minutes to spare–and after a dozen setbacks of varying magnitude that resulted in an opening night that resembled a Laurel and Hardy calamity.

 High Water tells the story of a Vermont farm boy determined, against the odds, to get his souped-up 1938 Plymouth to a stock car race up across the border in Sherbrooke.  The picture premiered to 800 highly expectant people including Vermont Governor Madeleine Kunin.  Every seat was filled.

 Among other calamities, one of our volunteer crew members accidentally kicked a hole in our speaker on the state at St. J’s Fuller Hall, causing the sound to warble.  And our most embarrassing  problem occurred during the projection of “High Water’s” climactic scene where our teen protagonist, Waterman, races his stock car over improvised wooden planks to jump the yellow ’39 Plymouth cross a rain-swollen stream in time to save calves from drowning in the flooding field.  It was our film’s most high-stakes moment-and a big deal for our very low budget production. We spent $1000 to heighten the scene by triple-printing film frames, in order to squeeze every bit of drama and tension we could muster.

 Suspense mounted on screen, as Waterman lugged the heavy oak planks into position, under a punishing torrent of rain that we manufactured, using deluge guns we’d borrowed from the Barnet Fire Department and strawberry farmer Hez Somers — to pump thousands of gallons of frigid November Joe’s Brook water onto our beleagured star.  As the cinematic moment gained dramatic weight, audience members sat on the edge of their seats. Everyone wanted to know: “Will Waterman get across the teeming brook in time to save the calves?”

 Then, as the stock car raced toward the planks, to make the climb onto the planks — to vault across the brook, the film suddenly turned from a positive image into a negative picture that was impossible to decipher.  It looked like a bad episode of The Twilight Zone or film that starts to burn from an overheated projector lamp. People scratched their heads.  I could hear them grumble.  “What the hell just happened?”

 It turned out that Lou Somerstein, our ancient negative cutter, had reversed the film negative for this crucial special section of film.  He cut in the wrong material.

Lou liked to brag that he had worked so long in the business that he had cut the negative for a large number of Hollywood classics.  “I cut the negative on (Orson Welles’) “Citizen Kane,” Lou proudly announced the minute I met him.  And he did.  Then, Lou experienced a steady stream of setbacks, including a sudden four day bout of blindness, his wife’s broken hip, and an impossibly tight schedule to finish the film.  At one particularly exasperating moment, with Lou running hopelessly behind schedule, he just threw up his hands.

Lou liked to brag that he had worked so long in the business that he had cut the negative for a large number of Hollywood classics.  “I cut the negative on (Orson Welles’) “Citizen Kane,” Lou proudly announced the minute I met him.  And he did.  Then, Lou experienced a steady stream of setbacks, including a sudden four day bout of blindness, his wife’s broken hip, and an impossibly tight schedule to finish the film.  At one particularly exasperating moment, with Lou running hopelessly behind schedule, he just threw up his hands.

“Compared to this, Citizen Kane was nothing!” Lou said.

It’s the best thing anyone has ever said about a film of mine.

More than anything, I wanted my first-time collaborator Howard Mosher to like my film so I winced when he was quoted in the next week’s Barton Chronicle.  When asked about the “High Water” screening, the best the normally effusive Mosher would say was, “Given the fact that the Red Sox weren’t playing that night, it wasn’t an altogether bad way to spend an evening.”

Defeated, I returned to the rustic and un-insulated old farmhouse house I was house sitting for the winter–to find the irate owner who showed up a week earlier than announced.  He evicted me on the spot and I ended up sleeping for the next three nights in my ’65 Plymouth Valiant.  The farmhouse had little heat — just a tiny woodstove in the kitchen. And I’d been away for two weeks, to finish the film.  In my absence, mice and raccoons had taken over the kitchen.

This was the perfect ending to a terrible day.  I went back to New York to correct the image problem–and eventually High Water went on to win film festival awards and play 65 Vermont towns.

 Guess what?  We set the dates for our Peter and John tour before that film was finished, too.  In fact, we made tweaks to it last night.  You won’t to miss the preview screenings, where anything can happen! I mean, at our Northern Borders previews in 2013, everything went great for four screenings–and then the projection system failed to operate for the last night!

My first feature film, “Where the Rivers Flow North” was also scheduled for an early May premiere, in the fevered market of the Cannes Film Festival market. I arrived five minutes before show time, sprinting the last quarter mile on foot, lugging heavy 35mm film cans whose sharp steel handles gouged deep red crevices in each hand.  But the show rolled on time and afterwards an audience member took me to lunch and committed $50,000 to my next picture.

Maple Sugaring and a Mexican Hat Dance

During my early days in Vermont, the start of May traditionally marked the first moment you could begin to hope for a string of days warm enough to melt the last lingering snow drifts.  It was the time when farmers would take down their maple sap buckets, wash them, and put them away in the barn.

These days, snow usually vanishes much sooner, though this year it stuck around.  I’ll always relish the memory of making maple syrup with Marvin Bailey at the end of my first winter in Vermont.  I was still nursing my right arm, which I’d broken the previous November when the brakes gave out on an old flatbed truck I’d borrowed from my farmer neighbor, Desmond Stuart, to haul the firewood I’d cut on our hill.  Careening steeply and at breakneck speed down our long and twisting dirt road, I quickly calculated my rough odds for survival and leaped from the clunky red truck’s cab, just in time to avoid a head-on collision with a huge tree.

 Four months later, my plaster cast was off, just in time for maple sugar season. But my arm still hurt, especially when I hauled Marvin’s big stainless steel pail from tree to tree, adding to its weight as I poured in watery sap from the galvanized buckets hanging from the taps.  But I can easily recall the sights and smells of the slowly emerging Vermont spring, the gradual melting of the deep winter snow pack, and the sweet steam rising from the boiling sap.

May Day was always my favorite holiday at the Plymouth Meeting Friends School I attended during second, third, and fourth grades, while living with my grandparents outside Philadelphia. Each spring, my class prepared its part in the school’s lavish May celebration, which included field day games, a strawberry festival, and contests where we could win candy root beer barrels and live goldfish without having to show too much skill.

 Each class spent weeks rehearsing and making costumes for the May Pole dance that kicked off the event.  In second grade, we dressed up as sunbeams. Not a lot was expected of us.  But in third grade we performed a Mexican hat dance and I had the edge on other kids when my Texas grandmother pulled out her father’s sombrero and found a Mexican rug packed in with mothballs.  The sombrero was too big and frequently dropped down to cover my face, but my grandmother cut a slit in the orange-and-black Mexican throw rug to make it sort of look like a poncho. I impressed my teacher enough with my get-up that she stuck me in the front row of the dancers. I worked especially hard to move my feet to keep up with the festive music, which gets faster as the dance progresses.  This was my first real experience in show business.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply