The popcorn machine remains silent and the box office window is still tightly closed, but signs of life are returning to Vinegar Hill Theatre this summer. After the arthouse cinema and adjacent restaurant closed in 2013, the building remained vacant for almost two years. In that time, someone stole the chalkboard by the front door; the kitchen garden behind the former restaurant went to seed. Then, local nonprofit Light House Studio announced in May that it was buying the space in order to expand its youth filmmaking classes.
Since then, the building has sprung back to life, with filmmaking mentors, students and parents bringing new energy and activity. This summer is a test run for the new space, with approximately seven classes meeting there as the nonprofit prepares to begin construction this autumn. “Our first priority is teaching filmmaking, and within that of course we’re using the theatre for teaching and film critique classes,” said Light House Studio Executive Director Deanna Gould. And so the theatre itself has remained intact, but the restaurant has become an open teaching area where students can circle around a mentor or break off into small groups for brainstorming. Dining tables have stayed in place for now, but serve as editing stations in the studio’s new incarnation.
Over the next year, the building will undergo a transformation worthy of any movie makeover montage. The renovations will dramatically increase the amount of room dedicated to teaching studios, student workspace, editing stations, administrative offices, and common areas for students. Gould hopes that the new location will also allow Light House to expand the ways the organization engages with the public. This includes the possibility of increased rough cut screenings for local filmmakers as well as partnerships with other local organizations that are relevant to our community.
“We genuinely need more space, but being able to serve the community at the same time and do something positive is such a bonus,” says Gould. “Vinegar Hill has been so unique for people over the years.”
Light House Studio mentor Reid Hildebrand got involved with the organization in 2008—not as a mentor, but a student. He has remained a dedicated presence in the organization since then, learning the ins and outs of filmmaking and production, eventually becoming a mentor. “Vinegar Hill Theatre is a very special place,” he says. “It was always about bringing film to the people, films that otherwise would be difficult to see. I believe that Light House carries on that mission in a different light, through education and an introduction to the medium for kids.”
Much like Hildebrand’s transformational experience, Keaton Monger began interning with the nonprofit in 2008 as a second-year student at UVA. He recalls, “Despite my endless drive to produce content, I lacked the confidence to commit to filmmaking before beginning my work at Light House. It really was mentoring these sessions that gave me the confidence to pursue [collaborative filmmaking] as a career.” He now works as a professional film editor in New York but continues to return to Charlottesville nearly every summer as a Light House mentor.
The roster of past Light House Studio students is full of stories like Hildebrand’s and Monger’s. Each workshop trains students in skills of self-expression and exposes them to collaborative teamwork. While filming, students forge friendships between takes and work with mentors to nudge each other outside of their creative comfort zones. The electrifying effect of this on students—almost 300 of them this summer alone—is impossible to ignore as they buzz around the new teaching and screening spaces at Vinegar Hill Theatre.
And what kinds of reactions have the students had to the new space so far? “As far as I can tell, they love it,” says Hildebrand. “There’s still so much work to be done in the theatre, but there is just such a realness to watching your work on a big screen. If they didn’t believe in [their work] before, they certainly believe in it after—especially when you have a full house laughing and clapping along. Really, it enhances everything that Light House does, and I think the kids are really responding to that.”
And don’t worry, the box office and popcorn machine won’t be going anywhere. “There are certain things you just can’t do away with, you know,” says Gould.
Public screenings of Light House Studio student work will be held on select Fridays at Vinegar Hill Theatre through August. Go to lighthousestudio.org for dates and times of these screenings.
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