Creative Campus Aims To Draw Artists

By Laura Moore, posted May 20, 2022
Jengo's Playhouse is a newly renovated 70-seat cinema in the heart of Wilmington's Soda Pop District. (Photo c/o Dan Brawley)
The Cucalorus Festival has covered a lot of ground over the past 28 years, and with executive director Dan Brawley at the helm, it continues to add new features, including spaces for visitors to get on board the creative train, so to speak.
Brawley has been leading the charge for Cucalorus since 1999, and in that time, he has helped the festival grow by creating a creative campus for both the festival and artists, alike. With its recent expansion, the Jengo’s Playhouse creative campus is expected to reach farther than ever before.
“I am an artist, and I don’t ever stop creating things. My process is constant,” Brawley said.
Jengo’s Playhouse is a newly renovated 70-seat cinema in the heart of Wilmington’s Soda Pop District, an area name that stuck after it was coined jokingly by Brawley and his fellow artists.
Downtime resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic allowed Brawley to renovate Jengo’s Playhouse without disruptions to the typical frenzy of filmmaking and presentation.
“It was a great gift of having to pause for a minute and not being able to do the [Cucalorus film] festival for a year. I don’t know that we would have been able to do it,” Brawley said.
A new marquee out front clearly reveals Jengo’s as a cinema, but it is so much more. The updated lobby is decorated with custom wallpaper with a funky print that brings the Cucalorus design to life among the concessions counter while leading the way to the remodeled theater.
A new drop ceiling envelops the space that is anchored by rehomed theater seats built in the 1950s by Irwin Manufacturing Co., a 100-yearold business, and salvaged from UNC Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall. Refurbished and spaced for maximum comfort, the jewel-toned seats are accompanied by couches in front of the screen to add to the relaxing cinema atmosphere.
Look to the left front corner of the cinema to find the recently completed map project created by local artist Zach Duff. The wall art presents a collection of mostly coastal area maps that reflect a juxtaposition of historic and current maps on the wall leading to the newest addition to the space.
Step through to the new craft-cocktail bar within the Playhouse to keep the drinks and the creativity flowing for its guests. The air flows well, too, as a garage door lifts to a wide expanse connecting to the rest of the campus. Two houses and a cabin are available to rent as a package and can be combined with the cinema and the bar.
“It’s geared towards large groups,” Brawley said. “We keep working with existing clients as we look to get some new business and people to take advantage of the unique campus.”
“The Compound of Curious Creativity” is available through Airbnb when it is not being used for various Cucalorus residency programs hosting artists from around the globe. The houses host choreographers, Black documentary filmmakers and a virtual reality creation lab, in addition to other residency programs.
“The compound is broken up into two separate houses from the early 20th century with Southern front porches and outdoor spaces that scream comfort and relaxation,” according to its Airbnb listing.
The Pink House, Yellow House and Blue Cabin can hold up to 12 people. Brawley sees the compound being utilized for corporate or nonprofit organization retreats, wedding parties or other arts organizations.
“It is a place to convene, share work, break bread and just create art together,” Brawley said.
To enjoy the cinema and the bar, in conjunction with Cucalorus and the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Brawley invites area filmmakers to the NC Film Forum Series. It began May 11 and will continue through September.
The free workshops focus on connecting “media makers with the resources they need to be successful,” according to the NC Film Forum website, and will take place the second Wednesday of each month at 5:30 p.m. at Jengo’s Playhouse.
Brawley said Jengo’s will announce its summer film lineup next month. The community will be invited to see “indie hits from the festival circuit, documentaries and local films. The bar will be open,” Brawley said.
Speaking of films, Brawley is passionate about making sure filmmakers are compensated for their work.
“Our policy is that we pay the filmmaker. Anytime a film or movie is shown in public, the filmmaker gets paid,” Brawley said.
Brawley is adamant that he will continue to fight against the “small Southern city mentality” that often expects artists to work for free.
“Our underlying philosophy is trying to create conditions for people to have careers,” Brawley said. “It is not possible to make good movies unless you’re getting paid.”
Brawley referred to Freedom Maps, a movement that “shows stark divestment in Southern arts and culture when compared to the rest of the nation,” according to its website. For example, New York City provides $46 of artist funding per person compared to 13 cents per person in Wilmington.
“Wilmington has been shockingly negligent at supporting the arts,” Brawley said. “The arts community here is not because of anyone trying to make that happen. We take it for granted. We are spoiled here. We have really talented people regardless of whatever we got funding the arts. But the reality is, it has held us back. We’ve got a long way to go. We have made some progress in recent years, but not at the scale that’s needed.”
Brawley sees the development of the Soda Pop District as “critical to success.” He is encouraged by plans for restaurants, workspaces, retail and breweries making their home in the area and rounding out the creative campus.
“We have a deficit to overcome. The infrastructure hasn’t been built, and we have to fight and scrape for some ridiculously small amounts of money,” Brawley said. “In another five to 10 years, we will have another thriving multi-use district here.”
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