Over the past year or so, the programming at CALS Ron Robinson Theater has been incredibly impressive. I remember when the theater first opened, circa 2014, and how much potential I thought the 300-seat theater had. But other than hosting the Little Rock Film Festival and a handful of events, the venue was underutilized.
Fast forward to now, where you can find the theater hosting two to three screenings a week. It shows everything from classic films to cult favorites of the '80s, and even a monthly screening of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" that encourages full on fan interaction. It also still hosts film festivals and special events. Late last year, Ron Robinson started a new monthly series, called Exhibition on Screen.
When I first saw advertisements for its Exhibition on Screen series, it appeared to focus on famous paintings and their painters. With my curiosity piqued, I tried to attend this month's screening that focused on everyone's favorite one-eared visionary, Vincent van Gogh. But once I arrived at the ticket booth, I was told that the screening for "Vincent van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing" was sold out. This was a life lesson for me, to make sure to order tickets in advance. I also learned that Arkansans really love their art. Since I didn't get to attend this screening, to find out what exactly I was missing out on, I contacted Ron Robinson's Theater Events Coordinator Debra Wood.
Al Topich: What exactly is the Exhibition on Screen series?
Debra Wood: Exhibition on Screen began in 2011 when Seventh Art Productions [one of the UK's leading independent producers of films for cinema, TV, and digital platforms] brought major art exhibitions into cinemas across the globe with "Leonardo Live" from London's National Gallery. This was the first ever exhibition from a gallery or museum on the big screen. Currently, more than 1,500 cinemas show regular arts films in over 60 countries. This hugely successful art cinema brand is now in its 13th season of films.
AT: Can you talk about the style of these films that you're screening? Are they just documentary films about the artists, or do they add a deeper appreciation for the artworks that are depicted in them?
DW: The films are part documentary, part scholarly interpretation, and part cinematic experience. The direction, the music, and cinematography are all extraordinary. Each film takes an in-depth look at the subject matter via interviews with curators, conservation experts, and historians, but the films are made in such a way that they are truly captivating and engrossing, and on a level that anyone can enjoy.
AT: Why did Ron Robinson decide to offer this series, as it feels different from the stuff you regularly program? Who is the audience for these screenings?
DW: My sister is retired and lives in the Washington, D.C., area where she volunteers at the National Gallery of Art. She had seen several of these films and mentioned them to me. I brought them to the attention of our theater manager who is always willing to try new things. We scheduled two films to begin with to see what the reaction would be, and both ended up with over 100 tickets sold and patrons asking for more. As the series was so well received, we scheduled one each month for 2024. As we are part of a public library system, we are always looking for ways to engage our patrons and our community. That said, the audience is made up of art lovers, art students and patrons who love our theater and who visit frequently. Last month, we even had a young girl bring a sketchpad with her to the screening. We were so excited to see her enthusiasm for art!
AT: What do you hope the audience gets out of these screenings?
DW: We hope that the audience gains new information and new perspectives about artists and artworks they have known about for probably most of their lives. Seeing experts discuss famous works of art in ways that anyone can understand and enjoy puts art on a level playing field for everyone. I remember seeing a scene in the Vermeer film about "The Girl with the Pearl Earring," one of the most iconic paintings of our time. The expert being interviewed mentioned the earring while a close-up of it was shown. The bright white that creates the reflection on the earring is a small curved brush stroke. A simple, yet perfect stroke of white that is part of the genius of that work but, without it, it would have been a totally different painting. It made the viewer really appreciate the tiny details and Vermeer's extraordinary talent.
AT: Having sold out the van Gogh screening, I'm assuming audience reactions to seeing paintings on the big screen have been well received? What other new and interesting screenings can we expect from Ron Robinson?
DW: The response has been overwhelmingly positive, and we're thrilled by the response. So thrilled, in fact, that we're bringing in another arts series, National Theatre Live, beginning with "Romeo and Juliet" on Valentine's Day.
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Exhibition on Screen will continue once a month at 4 p.m. Saturdays for the remainder of the year. Future screenings will focus on the realist works of Edward Hopper ("Nighthawks"), renaissance artists like da Vinci and Rembrandt, Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, and post-impressionist painters like Paul Cézanne and Picasso.
For a full list of screenings and future events visit cals.org/ron-robinson-theater.