By Cam Edson
When the 200-seat Vinegar Hill Theatre closed in 2013, the city’s arts scene lost a beloved venue for independent and international films. The expansion of Light House Studio into the former cinema space (the studio also has a Water Street location) is a resounding statement of redemption.
In 2015, Light House—a nonprofit filmmaking academy—bought the theater and launched the Vinegar Hill Campaign, a three-phase fundraising plan to renovate, expand, and maintain the space.
“When we announced that we wanted to purchase the theater, we met with a group of our supporters, and they immediately loved the story,” says Deanna Gould, the executive director of Light House. “Within one sentence we could say what we wanted to do: purchase the Vinegar Hill Theatre, retain the historical space, and use it for teaching filmmaking and screening films.”
Wolf Ackerman architects worked with Light House to renovate the theater and restaurant, and they reopened in June of 2016, fulfilling the first phase of the campaign. In July, Light House broke ground on a three-story addition—also designed by Wolf Ackerman—that includes two teaching studios and a roof terrace for filming, meetings, and receptions, projected for completion next summer. Gould says a recent $200,000 matching gift from the Perry Foundation will help to cover the costs.
“The addition is crucial, because we really need the space for our programming,” Gould says. “We have over 70 children on the waitlist this summer, and next summer, we’ll be able to accommodate all of them.”
Since moving into Vinegar Hill Theatre, Light House has increased its outreach, working with 59 community partners in 2018, and renting its theater space to local organizations, including Charlottesville Visual Storytellers and Common House, for screenings and other events. Fundraising for Phase Three —a $1,000,000 preservation reserve—is already underway. “We feel like we’re at a good place for fundraising,” Gould says. “The community has been amazing.”
Gould says the two new studios will allow Light House to more comfortably run three workshops at the same time next summer—two at Vinegar Hill and one at the original Light House location.
This summer, Light House students at Vinegar Hill Theatre are working out of the soon-to-be administrative space and film library. While the tall windows welcome a generous stream of sunlight, perfect for fostering a cheerful office space, too much natural light can be a filmmaker’s worst enemy when trying to light a scene or edit shots together. The new studios will be purpose-built, with no windows and sound-proofing elements.
“The students get a lot of time to understand how to light a scene with sunlight, but to give them an opportunity just to have a completely dark room, and learn lighting from scratch—that’s something I didn’t get to learn until film school,” says lead instructor and former Light House student Sam Gorman, who graduated from the Film Conservatory at SUNY Purchase.
Gorman says Light House’s focus on exploring the creative side of filmmaking, rather than perfecting technical skills, cultivates a tight-knit, passionate community of artists.
“This is my first week running a summer camp,” Gorman says. “I was super stressed leading up to it. I felt unprepared. And then I caught myself: ‘Why do my lips hurt so bad?’ I realized I had been smiling all day.”