Tucson pulls together to save the Screening Room

By Laura Latzko

Since it opened in 1989, the Screening Room has offered a space for filmmakers, especially those local to Arizona, to show their work. The Tucson venue hosts a number of different film festivals, including the Arizona International and Arizona Underground film festivals and Tucson Terrorfest.

Over the years, the space has become even more wide ranging, as different community groups have begun to put on shows in the venue.

Similarly to other performance spaces, the Screening Room has been hit financially by the COVID-19 pandemic because of having to close in March.

The extended closure prompted operator and manager David Pike, along with local organizations and performers, to pull together to try to raise money to keep the space open.

Through a GoFundMe account, the Screening Room been trying to raise $10,000 to help cover bills. 

Keep Tucson Sketchy, a local sketch company group, and Miss Nature, a Tucson drag queen, have also organized shows to raise money for the Screening Room.

“By having this fundraiser, this will make us OK into next year,” Pike says. “We are asking for enough to get us by.”

The shutdown has been an uncertain time for businesses such as the Screening Room, which aren’t allowed to reopen under social distancing guidelines.

The venue has had to cancel major events, including premieres and film festivals, after having a strong year last year. 

This year, the Arizona Underground Film Festival has gone online from September 11 to September 19, and proceeds will go to the Screening Room. 

Pike says the closure has especially been impactful for filmmakers who were going to show their work at the venue this year.

“We were set to do a lot of things when we were closing. A lot of local filmmakers premiere their films at the theater,” Pike says. “We have so many filmmakers—local, international and national—that come through and show their movies. It’s really centered in the film community.” 

Pike initially thought the venue would be closed for two to three months.

In the last few months, the Screening Room has held online events, but the amount of money raised has not been enough to sustain operating costs.

“Just being open the public, showing movies, serving popcorn and beers, that’s what pays the bills. We are trying everything we can online to bridge the gap and build, but the fundraiser is definitely needed,” Pike says.

Pike has a long history with the theater. He worked as a programmer at Screening Room from 2010 to 2013 and is the founder and festival director for the Arizona Underground Film Festival and Tucson Terrorfest.   

He says it has been tough not working because of how much he enjoys interaction with other film aficionados.

“I miss popping popcorn, serving customers and meeting them. I really miss playing movies for people,” Pike says.

The Screening Room was founded by Giulio Scalinger, who continues serve as the Arizona International Film Festival director. From the beginning, the space was meant to serve as an incubator for local filmmakers.

When he came in March 2018, Pike wanted to continue to offer a place for filmmakers.

He has also expanded on the venue’s offerings by opening it up to other types of entertainment, including comedy and drag shows. 

“I’m a movie guy. I’ve always been a movie person. I’ve studied film. I’ve written and directed movies. … Film is very important to me, but all the other events that we have in there, it’s good to have that stuff because it makes it more of a community theater,” Pike says.

Community members have also rented the venue for weddings, birthday parties, office or holiday parties, and engagement celebrations.

Pike has found that expanding on programming has helped to bring in different crowds.

“There are so many diverse people in town who support many different things. A lot of events we have, we get really good crowds for,” Pike says.

Keep Tucson Sketchy has operated out of the Screening Room since March 2019. The troupe does a bi-monthly sketch comedy show similar to “Saturday Night Live” with musical performers and guest hosts.

Joel Foster, one of the founding members of Keep Tucson Sketchy, says the Screening Room allows groups such as his to experiment and have creative freedom.

“That’s a testament to David. If you have an idea for a show and you want to start something up, he’s all about it. … It’s this core group of weirdos that are trying stuff out, but it’s cool to see that happening. It’s an incubator,” Foster says.

Foster says the venue is set up well for a sketch comedy show that combines in-person skits and video because of the stage and screen setup.

“Just the interaction with the video to the live show, it’s so important to how the show flows. … It’s been integral to the success of our show,” Foster says.

The space can accommodate the 20-person crew, which recently had to be reduced to eight to 10 during the pandemic.

Foster says working with the Screening Room has been a positive experience because Pike has always been accommodating, especially in letting his group come in during off hours to work out sound issues and lighting cues.

“He works with us in making sure it is a great experience for us and everyone else,” Foster says.

Starting in March, the group started hosting virtual shows. A portion of proceeds from its August 22 show went to the Screening Room.

Foster says it is important to save the space because without it, his group would not be able to continue to exist. 

With its virtual shows, Keep Tucson Sketchy has incorporated recurring characters, such as a doctor who is unsure about everything and a homicidal, drunken cooking show host.

The sketches have delved into life during quarantine, focusing on topics such as puttering championships and COVID-19 fashions.

The group often touches upon local topics, such as the Tucson City Council and Gov. Doug Ducey’s press conferences, in its sketches.

Foster says the troupe tries to keep the shows light and irreverent.

“We just want people to laugh and see things for as ridiculous as they are sometimes,” Foster says.

In recent years, the Screening Room has offered a space for different types of niche communities, including drag performers. 

Miss Nature has been putting on charity drag shows at the Screening Room since 2018. 

The shows have raised over $15,000 for organizations such as Wings for Women, the NAACP, the Southern Arizona Network for Down Syndrome, Marshall Home for Men, Drag Story Hour-Arizona and the American Cancer Society. 

The “Save the Screening Room” drag show on September 12 will be a combination limited-capacity, in-person and virtual show. It will feature more than a dozen entertainers from Casa Grande, Tucson and Phoenix.

At the Screening Room, Miss Nature offers a more intimate experience for audiences and performers.

The entertainers are introduced to audience members through slideshow presentations with their names and pictures. 

Teddy Michael, Grand Duke of the Imperial Court of Arizona, says that the Screening Room offers an open and affirming environment for audience members, volunteers and performers of different backgrounds.

He has always felt welcome in the space as a Black, transgender, queer performer.

“This is a place that has made a conscious decision to be open and available to the whole community. That is something really important, in my opinion, to highlight and applaud them for because not every business is that way,” Michael says.

“I feel that it is my duty and responsibility to be a part of an event that will help them to keep their doors open for many years to continue to keep giving back to their Tucson community.”

Justin Deeper-Love, Mister Tucson Pride and a former Arizona Entertainer of the Year King, has performed in almost every charity drag show hosted by Miss Nature.

The performer, who has been in Tucson since 2010, says the Screening Room offers a place to perform for different generations of audience members. 

“It’s out of a bar scene, which is awesome because it gives the opportunity to perform for the youth of all ages that come out,” Deeper-Love says.

The shows often attract diverse audiences ranging from children as young as 3 to seniors in their 70s and 80s.

Maggie Maloney, an audience member who regularly attends the drag shows, has gone to the performances with her aunt and mom and plans to bring her daughter to an upcoming show.

“The great thing about the Screening Room is it is all inclusive. There are a lot of people who come that are older. … I have friends that are under the age of 21 that want to attend events like this. It opens the door for all kinds of arts for all ages and really brings communities together,” Maloney says.

She says the social movement, of giving back to local organizations and connecting LGBTQ and straight communities, drew her in when she started attending shows about a year ago.

“The performers, they share a lot, not only their performances but why they are doing this, how they are trying to bring communities together and bridge the gaps,” Maloney says.

Haze Hollywood, Mister Imperial Court 2020, says that having a larger space allows him to do more elaborate performances.

“I think the stage itself is amazing. You can two cartwheels, a split and a shablam. … I can jump freely, do a toe touch and not have to worry about kicking someone in the face,” Hollywood says.

Hollywood says the setup of the venue allows for more interaction between performers and audience members than other performance spaces.

“You actually get to interact with the performers. It’s not just a show. You get to talk to us. You get to know us after the show,” Hollywood says.

For some individuals, such as volunteer Tyrell Potter, the Screening Room has been more than a venue.

He had gone to the venue when he was younger to see movies, but the space took on a new meaning for him when he started attending and later volunteering for drag shows there.

He has run lights and sound, DJed and helped to coordinate volunteers for the charity drag shows for the last two years.

He says being part of these events at the Screening Room helped him to get through a dark period in his life.

From the first time he went back to the Screening Room, he felt like he is part of a tight-knit community.

“Losing the Screening Room, I think all of us who have helped or performed would be losing a part of ourselves. It’s one of those things where you walk in the door and you feel that you’re home,” Potter says.

To donate to the GoFundMe, visit gofundme.com/f/save-the-screening-room

more info
What: Save the Screening Room
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, September 12

Cost: Donations go toward the Screening Room

Info: facebook.com/events/981026632358808

What: Arizona Underground

Film Festival

When: Friday, September 11, to

Saturday, September 19

Info: azuff.org