Of the recurring shows on the Garde Arts Center New London calendar, perhaps one of the most unlikely hot ticket events is the annual New London Talent Show. The title alone suggests little beyond the quaint elementary school gatherings where parents dutifully applaud a procession of beaming and / or embarrassed children as they play the piano or operate puppets or sing, rap. or dance.
In fact, as captured in “Those People,” a new documentary from The Day, the New London Talent Show, with a decade of sold-out shows on the books, is on the surface a very similar proposition – just with greater flair. swimming pool stretching across the southeastern part of the state.
And yet “Those People” shows in a fluid and dramatic way how the show, founded by a small group of concerned citizens following the 2010 murder of Matthew Chew by six teenagers, had and continues to have a profound effect. Dedicated to the idea that art heals and nourishes – and created with the belief that young people in the community needed more opportunities – the New London Talent Show has changed hundreds of lives, helped heal the community torn at the heart of its theme and sparked meaningful dialogue and awareness between youth and adults in dozens of cities and across a broad racial and cultural spectrum.
“Those People” premiered Thursday at La Garde.
The film, produced by The Day in partnership with the New London Talent Show, was directed by the newspaper’s multimedia director, Peter Huoppi, and co-produced by Huoppi and Talent Show co-founder Curtis Goodwin, who is also a man of local affairs and city councilor. The project also represents a bold partnership where a newspaper and a stand-alone entity work together to capture a story that probably couldn’t have been told otherwise.
The film’s title, “Those People”, is a reference to the generic and racist term used in the wake of Chew’s murder to describe and implicate the responsibility of an entire demographic in New London. “Bored thugs” was another slogan where the accused – all convicted – came to represent, in the eyes of many, a whole culture.
The initial reporting of the murder and its aftermath resulted in social media hell of hate, division, anger, fear and confrontation on the streets and boardrooms.
Almost spontaneously, during one of these meetings at the Guard, the idea arose out of a talent competition on the scale of the city, even of the region. The idea was that a show could bring together all types of people from diverse neighborhoods, ethnicities and cultures with a collective goal that art and dreams can productively heal. Over the past decade, the show has proven to be a huge success far beyond the limelight and 10 capacity performances.
For the past three plus years, Huoppi and Goodwin have collaborated on the documentary as time and responsibility allowed – with substantial help from Day staff writer Mike DiMauro and several volunteers, partners. and longtime Talent Show and community supporters, including co-founders Frank Colmenares, Susan Connolly and Anthony Nolan.
Dozens of former participants and community members were interviewed for the film. As representative examples of the wide range of performing artists and artistic disciplines, “Those People” uses the stories of five young people – Todd Belcher, Erycka Ortiz, Marco Fabretti, Casey Flax and Ryan “SIP Supreme” Townshend – whose travels on scene helped them navigate their own disparate histories.
Their work and interactions with each other as well as with the people behind the scenes are presented in a way that demonstrates the experiences and opportunities presented to all talent over the years. As the movie shows, “These People” has come to suggest that we are ALL “These People” – and, at the same time, neither of us are.
Last week, Huoppi and Goodwin sat down for interviews in one of the conference rooms on the Guard’s floor. The spring sun shone through the windows as they discussed their possibly unlikely trip, and their comments reflected a modest sense of pride in having accomplished as well as a greater sense of cautious optimism for the film and the community it captures.
How the documentary was born
Huoppi: It was Curtis and Frank’s idea first, and it wasn’t presented the way “I” or “The Day” would. Frank just asked me if I knew how to make a documentary. I hadn’t done anything on this scale before, but (The Day) did an online multi-part video series that was about 30 minutes long. I gave Frank some general ideas, but then the wheels started spinning in my head, and I thought, wait, if that was to happen, I wanted to do it, and I thought The Day was the good vessel to tell the story. But maybe Frank and Curtis had an ulterior motive from the start.
Goodwin: For me it was intentional (that they approached Huoppi) because in my opinion the words (incendiary) 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 newspaper – and show how we could do something intentional together.
The idea that this could be a community driven thing with the media actually reaching out to us – it was prevalent in our doing it. This partnership in itself is a kind of love story.
On how the film is representative of what New London has the potential to be and whether it perhaps reflects what is happening in the country as a whole
Goodwin: I think this story is so current and timeless that it’s something that every community and every human being can relate to and connect with. I think the film could be released nationally and have an echo.
Huoppi: The story we have 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 attended, or your kids participated – would if not have a better opinion of New London, at least a different opinion.
A murder happened, and people tried to do good, and as a result, there were a lot of good stories. A lot of people went through something difficult and the talent competition helped them. A few hundred people have been on that scene, and you extrapolate that and a lot more people have been changed. It’s awesome.
On whether “These people” meet or exceed expectations
Goodwin: I think it’s better than I expected. It captures the essence of what I thought it could be. With the talent competition, I never limited myself to thinking small. The whole process started with the idea that the children of color in this community come from an environment where so many limits are placed on us. We are not fortunate enough to aspire to be something bigger than what we can immediately see in our surroundings.
I think watching the movie definitely captures the spirit and it will continue to grow. Whether you’re talking to first-year, tenth, or fifth-year artists, the talent show is always a conversation center, and it’s so great to see the different years of alumni connect through them- same whether they are starting a business or making music. . There’s still that connection and that excitement.
Huoppi: The idea was to produce something full-length and show it on the big screen. In terms of the story, it’s really moving otherwise I wouldn’t have done it. We wanted to make people feel something.
Plus, while The Day did some things right, I think some of our failures in the original cover helped contribute to a narrative that the people of New London are afraid of violence. Reality? People who look like me – a white man – are afraid. Did the murder scare Curtis from walking around New London? No. Much of the story was written by middle-class whites for middle-class whites, but it is not representative of New London as a whole. Part of the purpose of this documentary was to tell the other side of the story, and I think we did.
On the rules of journalism
Huoppi: What Curtis was originally proposing was something that by the rules of journalism we would in the past have refused, by that I mean collaboration.
But I became aware of people of color and underserved communities and their dealings with the media. Producing this story by our normal rules wasn’t really going to work. For me, we had to talk about the ground rules and ask (Day editor) Tim Dwyer to approve what we wanted to do.
Normally the subject of a story can’t read the story ahead of time, and now Curtis and a few other people were going to be a part of that story from start to finish. They would see the work in progress and make comments and suggestions. And while we hadn’t anticipated a lot of differences of opinion, I felt that in the end, The Day was going to reserve the right to make editorial decisions and that Dwyer would be the final arbiter.
Goodwin: It was hard (to accept that). I took about a week to really think about it. It was difficult because I had to trust my right to have the final say on something bigger than me.
The vision for the creation of this film was to highlight a story that deserved the attention of the whole world. To go further, to mend the relationship with the media. All too often, stories and images depicting people of color are insufficient. I felt compelled to build that bridge… to change the whole narrative of “those people” and “bored thugs”, and I also had to trust the media that was part of the narrative. This movie is about art and how it heals, and that partnership was another vital layer.