New documentary captures 10 years of New London Talent Show
Of the recurring presentations on the calendar for New London's Garde Arts Center, perhaps one of the most unlikely "hot ticket" events is the annual New London Talent Show. The title alone suggests little beyond quaint grade school gatherings where parents dutifully applaud a processional of beaming and/or embarrassed kids as they play the piano or operate puppets or sing or rap or dance.
In fact, as captured in "Those People," a new documentary by The Day, the New London Talent Show, with a decade of sold-out shows in the books, is on the surface a very similar proposition — just with a larger talent pool extending across the southeastern part of the state.
And yet "Those People" fluidly and dramatically demonstrates how the show, founded by a small group of concerned citizens in the wake of the 2010 murder of Matthew Chew by six teenagers, has had and continues to have a profound effect. Dedicated to the idea that art heals and nurtures — and created with the belief that the youth in the community needed more opportunities — the New London Talent Show has changed hundreds of lives, helped heal the torn community at its thematic heart, and sparked meaningful dialogue and awareness between youth and adults in dozens of cities and across a wide racial and cultural spectrum.
"Those People" premieres Thursday in the Garde.
The film, produced by The Day in partnership with the New London Talent Show, was directed by the paper's director of multimedia, Peter Huoppi, and co-produced by Huoppi and Talent Show co-founder Curtis Goodwin, who is also a local businessman and city councilor. The project also represents a bold partnership where a newspaper and a free-standing entity collaborate to capture a story that probably couldn't have been told otherwise.
The film's title, "Those People," is a reference to the blanket and racist term thrown about in the wake of Chew's murder to describe and imply responsibility to an entire demographic of New London. "Bored thugs" was another catchphrase where the accused — all convicted — somehow came to represent, in the eyes of many, an entire culture.
The initial reporting on the murder and its aftermath resulted in a social media inferno of hatred, division, anger, fear and in-the-streets-and-meeting-halls confrontation.
Almost spontaneously, at one such meeting in the Garde, the idea arose of a city- or even region-wide talent show. The thought was a show could bring together all types of people from various neighborhoods, ethnicities and cultures with a collective focus that art and dreams can productively heal. Over the past decade, the show has proven to be enormously successful well beyond the footlights and 10 capacity performances.
Over the course of the past three-plus years, Huoppi and Goodwin collaborated on the documentary as time and responsibilities allowed — with substantial help from Day staff writer Mike DiMauro and several longtime Talent Show and community volunteers, partners and supporters including co-founders Frank Colmenares, Susan Connolly and Anthony Nolan.
Dozens of former participants and members of the community were interviewed for the film. As representative examples of the show's wide spectrum of artists and artistic disciplines, "Those People" utilizes the stories of five young people — Todd Belcher, Erycka Ortiz, Marco Fabretti, Casey Flax and Ryan "S.I.P. Supreme" Townshend — whose journeys to the stage helped them navigate their own disparate histories.
Their work and interactions with each other as well as people behind the scenes are presented in a fashion that demonstrated the experiences and opportunities presented to all the talent over the years. As the film shows, "Those People" came to suggest that we are ALL "Those People" — and, at the same time, none of us are.
Last week, Huoppi and Goodwin sat for interviews in one of the upstairs conference rooms at the Garde. Spring sunshine beamed through the windows as they discussed their perhaps unlikely journey, and their comments reflected a modest sense of pride in accomplishment as well as a larger sense of cautious optimism for the film and the community it captures.
On how the documentary came about
Huoppi: It was Curtis's and Frank's idea first, and it wasn't presented in the way that "I" or "The Day" would make it. Frank just asked me if I knew how to go about making a documentary. I hadn't done anything on this scale before, but (The Day) has done some multi-part video series online that ran 30 minutes or so. I gave Frank some general ideas, but then wheels started turning in my head, and I thought, wait, if this was going to happen, I wanted to do it, and I thought The Day was the proper vessel to tell the story. But maybe Frank and Curtis had an ulterior motive all along.
Goodwin: For me, it was intentional (that they approached Huoppi) because in my opinion the (inflammatory) words appeared in The Day when it first happened. I wanted to change that narrative for The Day, for people of color, and for the communities that read the paper — and show how we could do something intentional together.
The idea that it could be a community-led thing with the media actually joining us — that was prevalent in us actually doing it. That partnership in itself is kind of a love story.
On how the film is representative of what New London has the potential to be and whether maybe it's reflective of what's happening in the country at large
Goodwin: I think this story is so timely and timeless that it's something that every community and every human can relate to and connect with. I think the film could be shown nationally and resonate.
Huoppi: The story we've told here is that individual lives have been changed. I think anyone involved one-on-one by participating — or if you have a friend who participated, or your kids participated — would have if not a better opinion about New London then at least a different view.
A murder happened, and people tried to do good, and as a result, there have been a lot of good stories. A lot of people have been through something difficult, and the talent show helped them. A few hundred people have been on that stage, and you extrapolate that out and a lot more people have been changed. That's great.
On whether "Those People" meets or exceeds expectations
Goodwin: I think it's better than I hoped it would be. It captures the essence of what I was thinking it could be. With the talent show, I've never limited myself to think small. The whole process started with the idea that kids of color in this community are coming from an environment where there are so many limits put on us. We don't get the chance to aspire to be something bigger than what we can immediately see in our surroundings.
I think watching the film definitely captures the spirit and that it will continue to grow. Whether you talk to acts from Year One or Year 10 or Year Five, the talent show is still a center of conversation, and it's just so great to see the different years of alums connecting on their own whether they're starting businesses or making music. There's still that connection and excitement.
Huoppi: The idea was to produce something feature-length and shown on a big screen. In terms of the story, it's really moving or I wouldn't have done it. We wanted to make people feel something.
Also, while The Day did some things well, I think some of our failures in the original coverage helped contribute to a narrative that people in New London are scared of violence. The reality? People who look like me — a white guy — are afraid. Did the murder make Curtis afraid to walk around New London? No. The narrative was largely written by white middle class people for white middle class people, but that is not representative of the whole of New London. Part of the goal of this documentary was to tell the other side of the story, and I think we've done that.
On the rules of journalism
Huoppi: What Curtis was originally proposing was something that, under the rules of journalism, we would have in the past turned down, by which I mean a collaboration.
But I've become aware of people of color and underserved communities and their relationships with the media. To produce this story under our normal rules wasn't really going to work. To me, we had to talk about the ground rules and get (Day publisher) Tim Dwyer to sign off on what we wanted to do.
Normally, the subject of a story doesn't get to read the story beforehand, and now Curtis and a few other people were going to be a part of this story from start to finish. They'd see work in progress and make comments and suggestions. And though we didn't anticipate a lot of differences of opinion, I felt, in the end, The Day was going to reserve the right to make editorial decisions and Dwyer would be the final arbiter.
Goodwin: It was tough (to agree to that). I took a week or so to really give it some thought. It was hard because I had to entrust my right to have final say over something that is bigger than me.
The vision for creating this film was to highlight a story that deserved worldwide attention. To go deeper, to mend the relationship with media. Far too often, stories and imagery depicting people of color fall short. I felt compelled to build that bridge ... to change the whole narrative of "those people" and "bored thugs," and I had to trust the media that was a part of the narrative, too. This film is about art and how it heals, and this partnership was another vital layer.
What: The premiere of "Those People," a new documentary about the New London Talent Show, followed by a conversation with the creative team hosted by Tiffani Gavin, executive director of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, doors at 6 p.m.
Where: Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London
How much: $5 advance, $10 door, all proceeds benefit the New London Talent Show
Good to know: Masks required, innoculations preferred
For more information and tickets: www.gardearts.org
Sneak a peek: To see a trailer for "Those People" go to https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=217992962788060