Lighting the Shade: An Interview with The Shadow Electric – Part One

The sky slowly darkens, the colour changing from blue, to purple, to black. The screen lights up and then the bats arrive. They stream overhead in their hundreds, leaving their lairs to hunt, signalling it’s time to begin. It’s not a sight one usually experiences while waiting for a film to start, but it’s part of what makes The Shadow Electric and its Melbourne-based outdoor cinema brethren unique; one of the many reasons that people are flocking to these spaces in greater numbers than ever before.

In the first of a new series that looks in depth at Melbourne’s alternative cinema experiences, we spoke with Jay Rayner, Creative Director at The Shadow Electric andJean Lizza, Programmer & Communications Coordinator, about the history of the project.

Nostalgia, for the cinematic memories of childhood, or for earlier periods of cinema, seems to be embedded in the DNA of The Shadow Electric. It can be seen in the choices for the film programme and in the name in particular. Jay recalls that the first serious name for the proposed open air cinema in The Abbotsford Convent came from his childhood. “When I was growing up in Canberra there was a quite famous cinema, a famous old twin cinema…two houses downstairs that were really long, narrow, with old-school plush leather seats…kind of 70s style thing, and it was called the Electric Shadows. It was either that or the multiplexes in Canberra and my mum used to take me there all the time.” It showed classic pre-feature cartoons and was one of the last places in Australia to screen short films, but closed down when he was about 15. Being such an important part of his cinematic education meant it was the first thing that popped into his head when discussing names with Dave Chestwig (Communications & Development), “I went ‘Oh what about we just call it either Electric Shadows, sort of reinvigorated, or Shadow Electric?’ And then when we started talking about it and we wanted for it to go beyond being a cinema to be a social space and a venue and have music and all these other things, then we decided to put The in there so it became its own entity; so it wasn’t Shadow Electric Open Air Cinema, it was The Shadow Electric, which is an Open Air Cinema and a band room and a bar, and it’s a courtyard and all those things.” It ties in with the origins of cinema itself, and Jean sees the name as simply encapsulating the space and cinema as a whole, “It really thematically works with an outdoor cinema in that location. I mean it’s just beautiful shadows, kind of electrified. That’s what projection is, it’s like this magical kind of thing where you shine light…through film and there it is. It’s a gorgeous space.”

The Shadow Electric is in its third year now, but it’s taken almost twice that long to get to this point. Jay and Jean had worked together in art-house cinemas and events for years, and Jean says “It was really just Jay spearheading this, just bringing together like-minded people who had an interest in putting on events, putting on something that’s a great experience, passion for film, passion for music, and then just bringing all these people together to try and do something unique.” The Convent had tried the idea of a cinema on their grounds before, but Jay explains how it hadn’t really taken off, “[it was] in more of a pop-up context…and no-one had really done a great job of it, especially promoting it.” When he approached them with his plans Jay says that they were supportive, but that “you got the feeling that they talked to lots of people about all sorts of things all the time” and encouraged him to come back with a more solid idea. As an important arts and cultural hub for Melbourne it was critical for the Convent that if there was going to be a cinema on site it had to be “pretty special and spectacular and well thought out,” and fit what they were doing artistically there. He left the meeting thinking they didn’t expect him to come back, but after four months working in Papua New Guinea he “came back with this big proposal and they were like ‘Wow, that’s awesome. No-one ever does that stuff!’”

Fitting in with the Convent’s vision and objectives for creating a socially interactive cultural site is really important for The Shadow Electric. Jean sees the Convent as “the great enablers. What they create is a space where artists can work, as well as people who run businesses. I think what they try to do…is just to try and get together people who are passionate about what they do. Whether it’s just that they’ve got a studio space in the Convent and that’s where they work on their sculpture, or Shadow Electric who are trying to do something for the community at large.” Building the whole cinema and band room each season does require checking in with powers-that-be, but in terms of content they are allowed a large degree of freedom. “Generally speaking we choose whatever we want. You’ll see in the programme that we even now have a cult film element, which is very schlocky, murderfest, tits-out, grindhouse kind of business. But I think in terms of core values, the sorts of people that go down to the Abbotsford Convent are culturally aware people who enjoy experience, and we just felt that real synergy [with the Convent’s values].”

From that big proposal onwards the Convent were very behind them, but Jay says they found it was a steep learning curve and another 18 months to get it organised. “We’d all been involved with cinema and events for years, but we’d never actually put on a cinema before, which was something new, and we had to do a lot of research into equipment etc, and basically get it together – finding the money, finding the staff, working out exactly what we’re gonna do.” They also found themselves somewhat winging their way through the early stages, “There was a big period there where we’d signed a contract with the Convent, didn’t have any equipment, and didn’t have any money to do it, and we were sort of bluffing, booking films with no way of paying for them – I certainly had a lot of sleepless nights.”

But the nights that were once sleepless are now filled with screenings at the Convent.

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