Interview: Wayfarer Theaters’ Clayton Stamper Talks Highland Park’s Newest Community—and Cinema—Hub

Main street movie theaters have defined small downtown areas since the 1920s, but independent theaters across the country have been shutting their doors at alarming rates. Thankfully, Wayfarer Theaters is bringing back the beloved tradition of a night at the movies to Highland Park. Steve Sarowitz, a 27-year resident of Highland Park and co-founder of sister company Wayfarer Studios (with actor Justin Baldoni), saw a need for a communal space on the area's main street, and opportunity struck in the form of a vacant theater. Third Coast Review spoke with Wayfarer Theaters' general manager Clayton Stamper about the theater's grand re-opening, serving the Highland Park community, and the values behind every Wayfarer film.

You've just hosted this grand opening for the theater and premiere of the film, Ezra. What was the feeling like having the space open and operating for the community?

Truly, it was magical. Just because when we originally set out, this was basically an idea incubated in the mind. And then we sort of put it to paper, we assembled an amazing team to be able to bring the vision off of the page and kind of lift it up to be able to deliver it. And actually being in this space and seeing people move about this space and actually see the practicality of it and seeing how it kind of flowed, it had this integration of obviously buzz and excitement, but also just sort of genuine wonder about what is Wayfarer? What exactly did we envision when we set out? And so to be able to have the space kind of mirror that transformation and that journey...to be able to support and heighten what the mission is and what the intention is behind what we're trying to do here...it was just really, really magical is the best word.

I love that so much. I was wondering how Wayfarer Theaters and Wayfarer Studios will collaborate when it comes to producing and premiering new content.

So first it was just a kind of perfect storm for us. We had really, really hoped and had put all of our efforts and all of our energy into being able to open our doors on May 31, which was the date of the release of Ezra. And it's one of those things that's like, we had paintbrushes going on at 3pm that afternoon in order to open our doors by four o'clock. And then we had this moment of, alright, everybody, pencils down or paintbrushes down, this is it. She's beautiful and she's ready. And then we open up, there's the film with Jim Carrey, The Majestic, which is a very surreal experience to be on this side of that. To really experience what it is, to be able to provide that service and open our doors. And by it being our sister company Wayfarer Studios, for their film to be the first film that everyone really got to experience when walking in, was just incredibly powerful and exciting as to what dreams may come and what can really be realized with this.

Wayfarer Studios has existed, but they're really experiencing a triumph right now of a number of really high-profile films coming together. At one time they were producers on Garfield, which opened the week before . They have Ezra right now. And then of course there is the big huge sensation of It Ends With Us coming August 9. So we really want to be an extension of the studios, but this studio's mission and our mission are kind of aligned with the idea that we really want to create thoughtful content, content that really heightens the experience of what it is to curate or go into storytelling, why we tell these stories, and why these stories are on our screens. And so I liken Wayfarer Studios to our North Star and why we don't just show Wayfarer films.

We certainly look through all of the films and through all of our curation of what films we bring into the theaters as, is this a Wayfarer film? Meaning, is this a film that represents the ideas and the values that we want to have represented on the screens? Peace, love, unity, compassion, kindness, empathy, those are key words. Those are trigger words that are really, really important to society today. As we face the onslaught of polarization, and at any opportunity really creating division and discourse, we want to be a place that is just different than that. A place where it doesn't matter who you are, who you love, what you believe in. Whenever you walk in our door, we just want to shed some light and have some positive stuff going on. And so Wayfarer Studios is engrained in the very fabric of who we are and what we want to be as an exhibitor of films and stories. That it is very much the jump-off and the departure for us of where we aspire.

Wayfarer Theaters Concessions. Photo Courtesy of Deja Views.
Wayfarer Theaters Lounge Area. Photo Courtesy of Deja Views.

I really appreciate how you talked about these compassionate kinds of stories that have social justice at the root. Is there an ideal balance between narrative films or documentary features when it comes to screening work with a message about social progress?

Yeah, that's an incredible question actually. Because yes, one of the things that was very apparent and very important for us in the first year of operation, before we did the renovation, was to understand in that curation process what we wanted to have on the screens. And so because we were faced with a number of, not challenges, but a number of just questions about titles and about what we wanted to show. And one of the important things that Steve , our founder and I really discussed was making sure that we didn't sugarcoat it and that we didn't put it in a Hallmark lens or a Hallmark gloss...and so you're getting this sugarcoated kind of thing of, "If you're good, then all the good things will happen."

No, no, no. It was very important for us to show that darkness and that deep matters—of the lens that you talked about, social justice—it is not all lollipops, butterflies and rainbows. That there is sacrifice, that there is loss, that there is grief, that there is pain that coincides with growth. That coincides with trying to fight for something bigger than self and really making sure that we are showing accurate representations of those experiences on the screen. So while escapism is very important, showing truth is very, very important. One of the things that we set out for initially was to not bring in films that showcase guns and gun violence. And obviously, I mean, you can't throw a stone without hitting a movie that's coming out of Hollywood these days that has a gun in it. Absolutely. So then we had to reexamine. It's like, "Okay, where's the line for violence?"

And we specifically created this curation scale. Green is a go movie, green is a movie that has all the heart, has all the right things, and it is easily digestible and is clearly a Wayfarer movie. But then there's this gray area and that gray area is going to discuss topics and raise issues that are just more mature in being able to process them. For instance, Killers of the Flower Moon, a beautiful Martin Scorsese film, but a film rift with violence and showing the darkness and what happen to the indigenous people here . But whenever it comes to showing those stories, those stories matter because to whitewash or to disregard the realities and the stains on the very fabric of America as a culture and as America and the ways that we have set out to make ourself and to represent...we have to hold ourselves accountable. We have to learn from the sins of our fathers in order to not repeat them, in order to not go back into the dark ages of whitewashing, for lack of a better word, with so much political polarization, what's happening in schools of not teaching true history, of not really explaining and examining atrocities.

It's the same thing with we try not to show fantastical violence. Meaning violence that has large numbers of mass loss. So we don't show Marvel movies, we don't show Star Wars where planets are destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people are all lost. But at the same time, we did decide to show Oppenheimer. We knew it would be a great film, but we had to have that meeting at the table saying, here is a man who created this weapon of mass destruction. It happened that it was used, and he spent the rest of his life regretting it. We wanted to show that so that side of the lens can be seen, we can see it's not all black and white. There are so many shades of gray in every human, and there are so many shades of regret.

There are so many shades of human experience that it is important that we illuminate, because we can't act as if it's not there. We can't bury our head in the sand. Instead, we need to amplify or show it with the asterisk of saying, we're showing this film, which shows at the end the earth being covered in fire, in hopes that maybe someone sees that film and maybe realizes that we need to not go in the direction of war, that we need to go in the direction of conflict resolution. Talking about finding a way around death and destruction, those are the conversations that we have on a weekly basis. And that's why it's important to show warts and all whenever it comes to the human experience.

Wayfarer Theaters General Manager Clayton Stamper Showing Guests Renovated Lobby. Photo courtesy of Deja Views.

Absolutely. Wow. I mean, that's incredible that you decide through committee about what messages you will and will not promote through showing the media. Because as a venue, you're taking responsibility for those messages. That's really incredible.

You're absolutely right, and it is really challenging. Because at the end of the day, if we know something is commercially viable, but it is irresponsible or not living up to the values that we say that we represent, we cannot be hypocrites in this. But it's also really difficult too, because it's hit or miss. There's not an exact science. As far as I know, we're the only theater in the country that is trying to curate it in this lens. It's really challenging because here on the surface, and whenever we curated that film, we had a tagline and we had a trailer and that was it.

And so that's why it is very much a learning curve for us to figure out exactly what this is. So there will be mistakes along the way, and we just ask for when we make a mistake, that we have an opportunity to hopefully explain our way of thinking so that it can be understood. Because it is very important for us to try to figure out how to live by our values and showcase those values in a market or in a startup that otherwise doesn't have a true blueprint. We're literally figuring it out as we go.

Yeah, absolutely. I can't imagine trying to balance the interests of the theater with your moral interests, especially when it comes to balancing independent releases with big box office releases. I imagine there's some level of demand from audiences to show those big movies, but then you're trying to have the best idea of how this will impact Wayfarer's ethos or how it will or will not align. So do you find that you are drawn more towards independent films, or that you have to accommodate both independent and big box office films?

Awesome question. So we're in a unique space in the market because we are brand new, so the studios don't know us. And whenever I say studios, these are the big players: it's Warner Brothers, it's Paramount, it's Universal, Sony, Disney. So they don't know us, they don't know who Steve is, which is good. It's one of those things you always want to be underestimated or undervalued so that you can carve your own way. And because of that, we are not yet beholden in our relationships to the studio. Now, that very well may change, but the excitement about that means that we are sort of free to figure it out and to choose our own adventure. Meaning that we want to hold true no matter where we go, how we grow. We want to be able to choose our own direction and use our platform to amplify independent films that do not have distribution, that otherwise get put on a shelf or their only option is streaming.

One of the things that we really want to focus on is showing films by women filmmakers, by filmmakers of color, by BIPOC, by people who are otherwise marginalized in the traditional film cycles that exist, and sort of use our platform to amplify their stories.

And that's exciting. To go out there and discover these films, to canvas the different releases coming out at all the big film festivals, but even the smaller ones. Because these independent filmmakers, many of them have spent decades of their lives trying to make this one picture, and they get one shot at getting that picture sold. And if it's picked up, that's great. But for so many, if it's not picked up, then their only option is streaming. And we really want to explore other avenues for them. We really want to be able to help in our little way, and our little place here in Highland Park, to be able to amplify those stories that matter. And to your point, that's actually a bit driven by necessity for us.

The last thing I would ask about is how Wayfarer is adding to the cultural scene in Highland Park and what events you're most excited about coming up.

Yeah, thank you for asking. Our founder has lived in Highland Park for 27 years. There used to be a movie theater in Highland Park, as with many of these downtown areas. If you look at Wilmette, Des Plains is another example. They all used to have a small movie theater. It used to be vaudeville houses back in the twenties that were really a part of the fabric of the community and allowing there to be an entertainment respite. So it wasn't just restaurants, it wasn't just retail spaces, but there was a level of something to do on a weekend. And that has really by and large gone away because of the mega flex cycle and what that is. And so they demolished the old Highland Park Theater, which was in a number of movies, it was in this business. And there was this sense of an exodus after the terrible tragedy, which happened on July 4th , of a lot of retail businesses here on Central Street vacating. And the community itself has kind of despondent. I said, how do you rebound when a tragedy like that happens literally on the mainstreet, the main through fair? How do you recover? Where do you go from here? And Steve had an opportunity to be able to take over this theater that was going to be vacated. They were going to turn it into an event space, he had an opportunity to take it over and said, I wanted make this for the community.

And so we sat down when I was first brought in and talked about how we can make it a community center, how we can be a refuge from the everyday grind so that folks have an opportunity to go in a little downtown area and go see a movie. That's where we really got the community center concept, the idea of being of service to the community. That means that we have a list where you can come and if there's a movie that you want to see, you can come and add it to the list. And if it fits in the parameters of Wayfarer, we will do our best to bring it in. It doesn't matter if it's a movie from the '20s, the '50s, or a movie that's off the beaten path, a cult classic, whatever it is.

We want to be a liaison to the community, to be their extension of what they experience in their own downtown. And we want them to have a say in that. It's just as much about giving people, empowering the community in that way. It's not our theater. It is Wayfarer theaters, yes. But it is the community's theater. That is the purpose of what we're here to serve. So at the end of the day, that is one of the important tenants that we live by, is how are we serving the community?

Ribbon cutting attendees. Photo courtesy of Deja Views.

It sounds like you're at the beginning of a really exciting journey with the newly renovated theater. Thank you so much for talking with me. I hope I get to come out and visit soon.

We also have an awesome event coming up this Saturday with Ezra where we're actually going to have the screenwriter Tony Spiridakis here. It's something that we call the silver screen social, and that's where a film professor from Loyola University, once a month, picks a film from our slate of films and does a full deep dive into the film talking about the behind-the-scenes process, where the subject matter came from. And so having Tony Spiridakis here is going to be really great.

And then the following week we're really excited, we have, on June 15, the Madame Zuzu matinees. Madame Zuzu is a tea house owned in part by Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins, and it's right here in downtown Highland Park.

And we went and reached out to him when we first opened and talked about doing this series where we would use sort of throwback films from his childhood that he really, really loved. And we would build programming around it. And so we're doing The Great Muppet Caper, and we're actually going to have a puppeteer workshop here. So one of the cool things that we try to do is make filmmaking accessible for people and sort of lift the magic curtain. So we're going to do a puppeteer workshop for kids on Saturday, June 15, an hour before the film. It's a cool way to show an homage to an incredible filmmaker. But we do that once a month as well. So we're really trying to create these different series, which give people an incentive to get out of the house, off the couch, and come out to check us out.

Wayfarer Theaters is located at 1850 Second Street, Highland Park. For events and showtimes, check out their website.

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Row Light

Row Light (she/they) is a Chicago-based culture writer and editor. You can find their work at row-light.com.