One night at the Belcourt

Thursday, August 8, 2013 at 10:05pm
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Jody Stephens and friends perform at the Belcourt.

It was a dark and stormy night.

No, really, it was a dark and stormy night. The buildings in Hillsboro Village were barely visible through sheets of rain. Pedestrians who had been strolling leisurely around the neighborhood just moments before quickened their pace, racing from restaurants and bars to their cars. Lightning illuminated the historic Belcourt Theatre, which, despite the weather, had a line extending from the exterior box office window.

The staff at the Belcourt was dealing with a much bigger problem before the storm broke out. The entire building was recovering from a brownout, which, unlike a blackout’s complete loss of power, meant that nearly everything — the film projectors, the air conditioning, the computers that printed the movie tickets — was turned off. After hours of partial electricity, NES restored full power at 8:18 p.m., bringing the air conditioner back to life, though it struggled to circulate around the influx of rain-soaked theatergoers on a sticky July evening. The atmosphere inside was stifling, making it difficult for people to dry off before filing into the ’20s-era building.

Despite the less-than-palatial conditions that night, the lobby was packed. It was opening weekend for Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, a documentary about legendary Memphis rock band Big Star, and the 9 p.m. screening in the larger of the Belcourt’s two auditoriums was sold out. Following the film, the theater planned a special event: a performance featuring Jody Stephens, Big Star drummer and lone surviving member of the original early 1970s lineup.

The audience inside was rapt throughout the duration of the film and the subsequent performance, which also featured Nashville artists Bill Lloyd and John Davis, music supervisor/producer and sometimes-Nashvillian Rick Clark, and the film’s co-director, Olivia Mori. The cheerful set for The Ugly Duckling — the current production of the Belcourt house children’s troupe, Olde Worlde Theatre Company — served as an unintentional backdrop for the band, lending a charming, whimsical and almost eerie feel to the performance. It was a sharp contrast to the bittersweet tone of the Big Star film, which told the story of a band that never quite made it by commercial standards, but whose music — also an exercise in sharp contrasts, a battle between misery and joy, sometimes in the same song — broke out of obscurity to win a legion of fans and influence a generation of musicians.

When the band finished, the audience — many still damp with a mix of rain and perspiration from the muggy auditorium — escaped to the comparatively cool lobby. Outside, the rain had ceased, but inside, people weren’t quite ready to go home. They were eager to discuss the documentary with friends, or perhaps introduce themselves to Stephens and the rest of the band, who were mingling with the crowd. Simultaneously, a younger late-night crowd showed up for the midnight screening of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey in the smaller auditorium.

If you happened to walk past the Belcourt that evening and momentarily observed the scene, it might not have appeared that anything out of the ordinary was happening. But to anyone in the theater that night, it was an extraordinary evening, one not to be missed despite the awful weather and the inconvenient power outage. Such memorable experiences occur frequently at the Belcourt, and they aren’t just happenstance; they’re due to the hard work of the Belcourt staff, particularly Allison Inman, the Belcourt’s education and engagement director.

Inman, a filmmaker and community activist who worked part time at the Belcourt before joining the staff full time last month, previously served as the national engagement coordinator for Independent Television Service (ITVS), a film outreach program through PBS. While Belcourt staff and volunteers have been producing special events — including panel discussions and Q&A sessions — to complement screenings for many years, Inman is the first staffer solely dedicated to the task.

In addition to increasing engagement opportunities at the theater, like the Big Star event, Inman is responsible for creating and implementing an educational program to increase outreach in the community, bringing films to audiences who might not otherwise see them.

“Allison is whip-smart, hysterically funny, a film lover through and through, and a community connector and educator at heart,” said Stephanie Silverman, the Belcourt’s executive director. “Those passions make her the ideal person to build the Belcourt’s education and engagement programs for the future. She has seeded and grown a program to take film, the lessons it can teach, and the doorways it can open, out into our community.”

This year, Inman has conceptualized and executed more than 65 engagement and education events, including panels, guest speakers, Skype sessions and performances, usually occurring immediately before or after a film screening. With guidance from Inman or a guest moderator, the audience is encouraged to expand upon their film experience by joining an interactive discussion.

In planning these events, Inman says she starts by examining the slate of upcoming films (selected by Belcourt programming director Toby Leonard), looking for a Nashville connection.

"Obviously, we can’t do something for every film; I want to focus on quality rather than quantity,” Inman said. “I’m always looking for a film where we have some kind of special connection with someone in Nashville. The way that the Big Star documentary worked was just wonderful. We had Rick Clark here in town — he spends half of his time in Nashville — and Bill Lloyd had moderated a Q&A for 20 Feet From Stardom a few weeks before. It was great to have him playing in the band with Rick and Jody, as they have a history together. Then, we found out that Olivia [Mori], the co-director, wanted to come down, so it just kept getting bigger and more fun.”

With the recent hit 20 Feet From Stardom, an acclaimed documentary that places backup singers at center stage, special events came together in a similar snowballing way. Inman knew she wanted to involve singers from the Nashville community, and a phone conversation with local singer Britt Savage — who had called the Belcourt to inquire about bulk tickets for a large group of vocalists who wanted to watch the film together — paved the way.

“I thought, let’s make this big,” Inman said. “Instead of just having one night and boiling this down to four background singers to represent all of the singers in Nashville, let’s try to do multiple events. So we ended up doing three Sunday matinees with a Q&A after each one. It was really great; we had huge crowds for each one.”

The engagement activities extend far beyond the Belcourt’s doors. Inman has spearheaded educational outreach programs with area schools and nonprofits including the Martha O’Bryan Center, Oasis Center and the Nashville After Zone Alliance, a network of afterschool program providers. Inman also works with universities including Vanderbilt, Belmont, Lipscomb, MTSU, Watkins College of Art, Design and Film, and The University of the South, bringing professors and students to the theater to offer expertise and join the discussion.

Inman says her role is still somewhat new for an arthouse theater, but she anticipates growth in this field as other theaters recognize the need for film education to better connect with their respective communities.

“As people start to adapt the classroom to how media-centered life is now, there will be more of a need for film education,” Inman said.

The power of film is a remarkable educational tool in or out of the classroom. Inman draws on her strengths of working with difficult subjects and guiding conversations to transform a film’s impact on the viewer into a learning experience. To address issues raised in a film, Inman may ask younger children to draw pictures, while older children may write about it. Often, there are opportunities for parents to participate, opening a dialogue between them and their children.

Cindy Wall, the theater’s marketing and development director, says that Inman’s role is a natural extension of the Belcourt’s mission, to engage and entertain the community, ultimately deepening people’s understanding of the world. “It’s entertainment with a purpose,” Wall said. “And every story doesn’t have to be a tough documentary — everyone can experience the universality of a great story.”

Allison Inman (Michael W. Bunch/SouthComm)