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Fool for the Movies

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George Romero notwithstanding, for a stretch there in 2004, Pittsburgh's most widely screened resident filmmaker just might have been some Fool you never heard of. And he managed it with silent, black-and-white movies not much longer than the average TV commercial.

 

Drew Richardson, a.k.a. Drew the Dramatic Fool, is a theatrical clown who lives and works here, wearing flyaway hair and epaulets to gigs where he juggles, mimes and generally tries to crack the place up. At Downtown's CLO Cabaret, he recently presented "Help! Help! I Know This Title is Long But Someone is Trying to Kill Me," a solo tour-de-force in which he plays a man forced to perform all the acts in a vaudeville show because the other players have all been murdered.

 

Richardson's big-screen break came about four years ago, when his dialogueless, nine-minute "The Guy Who Lived on a Chair" played at a Chicago festival. Subsequently, Iowa-based Ovation Interactive, which supplies ads and other pre-show content for multiplexes, contacted the festival producer, Wit's End Shorts. Ovation asked whether Wit's End had any minute-long silent comedies at hand. Wit's End called Richardson, who said he did and raced to complete a demo ("The Guy Who Needed Exercise"). Richardson got the gig, and turned out one short a month for the next year. "The Guy Who Couldn't Sleep," "The Guy Who Lived on a Chair" and the rest screened for a month each before audiences at more than 80 theaters Ovation served, mostly in Illinois.

 

Richardson's moving-picture output comes full circle when Film Kitchen -- which premiered "The Guy Who Lived on a Chair" in June 2001 -- presents all 12 of the commissioned shorts, plus a bonus piece, "The Guy Who Made Movies," on Tue., July 12. Also screening are Jill Wiggins' "Don's Diner," a short documentary about an unusual Pittsburgh eatery, and experimental shorts by Jared Larson.

 

For Richardson, the "Guy Who ..." project didn't pay especially well -- $200 per short, each of which took a couple weeks to make. But it helped the self-taught filmmaker explore the craft of Chaplin, Keaton and other great silent-film clowns who inspired him. It also allowed him to try some things he might not have attempted on stage. For instance, he'd always wanted to substitute eggs for the beanbags he uses in a particular botched-juggling routine, but considered the switch unfair to janitorial staff. With video, he thought, "Well, this is a chance for me to do that routine!"

 

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For a documentarian with a thirst for untold everyday stories, even lunch at a diner can inspire your next project. It happened last year to Jill Wiggins, an aspiring filmmaker and a digital-imaging instructor at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild. A co-worker took Wiggins to lunch at Don's Diner, a humble-looking place with a hand-painted sign, tucked beneath a bridge near the now-shuttered Western Penitentiary.

 

"I just felt different when I left there," says Wiggins. She kept going back, and eventually realized it was because of the owners, Don and Sandy Notaro. Though the food was good, Wiggins says, "It's who they are that makes the place so special."

 

Shooting the footage that would become her 17-minute "Don's Diner," Wiggins learned the stories behind the owners and the customers, some of them homeless or otherwise dispossessed folks the Notaros befriend and feed, including an annual Thanksgiving feast.

 

It was just two years ago that Wiggins moved from Erie to pursue a long-delayed ambition by studying film at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. "Don's Diner" fits her artistic mission. "I actually prefer to spend time with people that other people don't normally recognize," says Wiggins. "To me, they do extraordinary things. I like to bring that out and show it, to affirm them."

 

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Offbeat, darkly comic silent vignettes complement the poem "My Brother's Twin," a free verse about a young man's antagonistic relationship with a sibling. "Fifty States" chronicles a lengthy 1970s road trip in still snapshots, edited to the rhythms of the narrator's voice. In "I'll Fight Sleep," our protagonist does just that, sometimes literally.

 

Upstate New Yorker Jared Larson moved here two years ago, after touring Pittsburgh Filmmakers as a prospective student at Point Park University. Now 21, he's earned a film/video-production certificate at Filmmakers, and he makes videos in a distinctive style, often based on his poems. At the July 12 Film Kitchen, he'll screen four recent shorts; this fall he's off to study film and video at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

 

"I just like documenting something interesting," says Larson. "I like doing things that three different people could watch and they would take it completely different ways."

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