Once the doors of Playland Café officially closed in 1998, members of the LGBTQ+ community thought there would never be a chance to relive nights of glory within one of Boston's oldest gay bars. But filmmaker Georden West depicts one final soirée within the now vacant establishment in their directorial debut entitled Playland. Clouds of smoke and extravagant gowns portray the nuances of life and intimate moments that are remembered through LGBTQ+ experiences, told across the perspective of different characters that represent the beloved nature of the historical space.
West cleverly depicts the bar within different timelines to show the history of nightlife that inhabited Playland. With scenes and stories set in 1943, 1965, 1977, and 1992, there is a sense of totality captured within the past criminality and amount of support the community faced throughout these time periods. Through the use of archival videos and audio, West provides stimulating visuals and storylines within this multimedia tribute to LGBTQ+ history. Having screened at film festivals like Rotterdam, TriBeCa and Outfest, we speak to executive producer Emily Ruhl to find out more about the inner-workings of the film.
What inspired the idea to create a story around Boston’s Playland Café?
Georden West, the writer and director of "Playland," was working at a Boston gay bar called Club Café. They bore witness to the variety of experiences people brought to the space, whether it was someone’s first gay bar experience or whether they were reliving the memory of the bar’s forty year history. Around the corner from the bar was the History Project, one of the largest independent LGBTQIA+ archives in the nation. What started out as a research project for Georden blossomed into a script speculating on the archival silence that defines so many queer historical records — erased, redacted, forgotten. The first archive Georden pulled was that of Sylvia Sidney, an infamous Boston drag queen. She mentioned the Playland Café and, in doing some research, they realized it would have been the oldest gay bar in Boston had it survived the turn of the century. Thus, it felt kismet to them to tell this story and Playland the film was born.
What was the creative process like in terms of character creation, costume design, and set design? How much of this film is imagination, and how much of it is pulled from real-life experiences and history?
Georden knew how paramount building an intentional material culture into the film would be. They worked very closely with Edwin Mohney (costume designer) and Kristen Dempsey (production designer) to realize the specificity and edifice of the characters. They had precious months of sharing archival material and influences, leading up to the production. It is not a film à clef in any way, but definitely contains an amalgamation of archived happenings and people; Georden spent years researching and creating a framework for the film that had a location identity and was firmly immersed in exhuming what lived in the archival silence. As they worked with Edwin and Kristen, new discoveries emerged as the characters solidified and as the space became more textured and historically informed. From the team’s collaboration emerged novel ideas, which demanded new responses from the script. Because of them, Playland is a rich and textured treasure trove of aesthetics that links this piece across time.
Why is Playland best told through the eyes of multiple characters and forms of media?
I think the polyphonic nature of the film reflects Georden’s approach to a queer art practice: one that demands the recognition of the entanglement and multitudinous nature of queerness. Fred Moten (paraphrasing Glissant) says, “Our destiny is not to be one, but many.” Intradependence is fundamental. Individuality or an idea of being held in a space/time container must fall away. Space and time emanate from objects. Objects are aesthetic and causal. They speak to each other across seemingly disparate distances. The ensemble is paramount to this. Film has an unsettling relationship to time that can highlight and confuse this in an interesting and bountiful way.
What kind of feelings, memories, or realizations were evoked from the research and filming of "Playland?" What do you hope for audiences to gain from this film?
I think the gay bar as a memory palace allows it to contain so much for each character, using the space itself as a container. This includes the way memory itself is quite fragmented, biased, repetitive, overwritten by time and by the deluge of other associations that are conjured alongside recall in the consciousness. It was an attempt to surface what the most memorable things would be for each character; not the most exciting or moving moments, but what––after a long passage of years––embeds itself in the mind and how memory can distort; even if it is inaccurate or exaggerated this version exists because it is remembered. For embittered Sunday, it could be a seemingly endless filling of salt shakers; for Steff and Rabbit, it is passing a joint back and forth; for Rosie, it is that one time Hella said a kind word. It is what happens when you cannot remember a face or a name any longer, but only the sensation around the edges of what you can still grasp.
What was essential to the completion of "Playland?" Who or what were the people, places, things, or ideas that you found yourself coming back to throughout this creative process?
The team at Artless Media (producers Russell Sheaffer and Hannah McSwiggins) championed this film from the very early stages of Georden’s first draft; their enthusiasm for the ambitious vision of the film allowed them to grow as an artist. That support was met by that of the Stars Collective who invited Georden to join their collective after their Student Academy Awards win. The team at Stars and Starlight Entertainment became vital partners to making the leap from shorts to a feature film. The film’s participation in the Gotham’s Gotham Week was the catalyst for connecting with the amazing teams and individuals who helped finish the film. Through Kickstarter, my production company (Public School Pictures) was introduced to Georden and the wonderful folks at Artless Media. "Playland" brought Sarah D'hanens (Cinnamon Entertainment) and her collaborator, Jacky De Groen, into Georden’s life. Both champions of queer artists working across mediums. There was not a single partner on this project that I could not see myself working with again, which speaks to the immensely visionary team that "Playland" attracted.