Tonight's showing is part of a weekly film series at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church. The sanctuary smells like popcorn; plastic jugs near the entryway await donations.
It's mid-November, and tonight's screening is Kansas City filmmaker Lisa Marie Evans' The Same But Different.
In it, Evans profiles four people connected by one label. The fact that her subjects are transsexuals is about the only thing they have in common transsexual, as it turns out, is a big-tent gender.
In the church's pews sit three of the film's four stars.
There's Jaron, a stocky, silver-haired man with a well-manicured goatee, who used to be a woman.
There's Claven, a slim-looking guy with dark facial hair who is both a fundamentalist Christian and an anarchist.
There's Andrea, a graduate student at the University of Kansas, who was born male but dresses female on the days his calendar is marked pink. (On the blue days, he's a man who goes by Pooch.)
The fourth, a male-to-female transgender comedian named Nicole, isn't here.
Evans, dressed casually in blue jeans and a long-sleeved white shirt, introduces her film with self-deprecation. A 29-year-old with olive-colored skin and hair that curls tightly like black licorice, she hawks DVDs for $20, telling audience members that their cash will go toward finishing The Same But Different. After four years of filming, Evans is still tweaking the movie.
"I hope you enjoy it," she says.
Things don't go smoothly. The film starts without sound. The audio wire is unplugged. Then the disc skips.
Evans grabs a copy from her box of DVDs. Unflustered, she rips off the shrink-wrap and restarts the film.
In the movie, Claven dives in Dumpsters for discarded food to feed homeless people. Pooch (aka Andrea) explains his political leanings in a scene that always shocks viewers: He's a Republican. Jaron shares his search for a spiritual mate. And Nicole, the foxy, redheaded ex-truck driver, reveals that one year she spent $4,000 at McDonald's.
Their private lives unfold on the screen. Jaron shares his dating difficulties on Dr. Phil. Pooch transforms into Andrea, applying makeup and strapping on a bra. Claven laments his inability to find an accepting church. Nicole reveals her fear that her children will consider her an aunt instead of a parent.
With the camera rolling, Claven talks about the physical changes his body has endured. To demonstrate, he drops his drawers. The camera pans down to reveal the growth of Claven's clitoris, which has developed a small, penislike head.
It's the stuff of medical journals, but Evans doesn't exploit it; she treats it as Claven's reality. And the audience accepts it. It's a holy shit moment in the film, but no one gasps. No one giggles. Claven keeps his dignity; Evans keeps her credibility.
After the film, Evans and her stars field questions. Audience members open up. A woman says she was born without an anus. Someone asks what's changed since the film was made.
"I am still a Republican," Andrea says.
"And I'm still an anarchist," Claven chimes.
They give each other high-fives.
But the story doesn't end there. Evans is considering filling in a few of the blanks, especially when it comes to Claven. At the end of the film, Claven says he has heard a message from God telling him to end his effort to become a female. The audience doesn't know that testosterone injections nearly killed Claven; a doctor told him that if he hadn't stopped taking the hormones, he'd have blown a heart valve and died.
As it is, the film won the Best Feature Film award last April at the 2006 Kansas City Filmmakers Jubilee, an annual showcase of local independent film. At the 2003 Jubilee, Evans won local acclaim for the animated short Box This, a collaboration with fellow filmmaker Kirby Cobb in which a stick figure smashes the boxes in which people put one another.
Watch some of Evans' work, including Box This:
Embedded in her film is a visual activism. The Same But Different makes the case that everyone is unique, no matter how they're labeled.
"You know what? I feel like sometimes people judge me for merely doing this film," Evans tells the Pitch. "I can feel it. It touches upon a glimpse of what people in the movie might feel. And that's good for me. Everyone should feel outcast a bit in life."
It's a feeling that Evans knows well.
Evans' next documentary, she hopes, will be about trying to find her biological father.
Larry Tebben married Kathy Thelen in 1976. Lisa Marie was born on May 27, 1977. Her parents' marriage dissolved shortly after that.
Her mother remarried in 1978 to Mike Evans, who adopted Lisa. She took his last name and still calls him dad.
Evans' mother never told her much about her biological father. She knew that Tebben played college football. She knew that he was a country boy from a family of farmers. And she'd heard that he had a temper. When she was in high school at St. Thomas Aquinas in Overland Park, Evans asked her grandmother for a photo of Tebben. Her grandmother gave her a picture from her parents' wedding. It was the first time that Evans had seen her father's face.
They looked alike. He was dark, with shaggy hair and a handlebar mustache. But the man in the photo was still a mystery. Although her mother had told Lisa that she would answer any question about Tebben, Lisa says the topic seemed off-limits.
In college, Evans started hanging out with an artsy crowd. She spent her freshman year studying psychology at Kansas State University, but the next year, she transferred to the University of Kansas, where she graduated with an advertising degree.
During her sophomore year, she decided not to come home for spring break. She wasn't avoiding her parents; she just had other plans. Her mother convinced her to come home anyway, and a talk at the dinner table led to a blowup.
Lisa's mother couldn't pinpoint the source of the unspoken tension with her daughter.
But Mike Evans was suspicious. "Well, you like boys, don't you?" he asked.
"Yeah," Lisa said.
"I wasn't exactly lying," Evans tells the Pitch now.
But she wasn't exactly telling the truth. After the argument, on a walk around her family's suburban Johnson County neighborhood, Lisa finally blurted out, "Mom, I like girls."
"Then it just clicked," Kathy Evans tells the Pitch.
Lisa figures her mom probably noted that day in her baby book. "She still writes things like that in my baby book."
Lisa's need to express herself was obvious. In a rusty old toolbox next to her bed, Evans keeps nearly 30 journals she has written. After she came out, things at home remained tense her mother told her that she didn't feel as though she knew her anymore. Evans started keeping a journal. She wrote for two years, and for Kathy's birthday in 1999, Lisa gave her a book-length record of her feelings.
"Whether it was good or bad, it was there," Kathy says. "It was kind of an eye opener." But the writing brought the two closer. "We could talk about things more openly," Kathy says.
"Now," Lisa adds, "I'm like the son my dad never had. I'll be like, 'Yeah, look at her. I dated her.' And he'll be like, 'Nice going.'"
After graduation, Lisa started volunteering at Campfire USA, working with preschoolers at a domestic-violence shelter. A full-time position came up, and she took a job conducting diversity training.
Five years ago, she bought an 8 mm camera off eBay but couldn't find film or manuals for it. She called Barnes & Noble for help. The guy on the other end of the phone invited her to the Westport Coffee House for a meeting of the Independent Filmmakers Coalition of Kansas City.
Lisa Evans sat quietly at the back of the room. The more meetings she attended, the more vocal she became.
Her first real project was a 3-minute film titled Tell Me for the IFC-KC Bentley Film Festival, a competition in which filmmakers shoot a 25-foot roll of film and return it undeveloped to IFC. The IFC develops the film, and the filmmakers see their work for the first time at its public screening. Evans' grainy short flashes questions Where do you find darkness? Are you safe within your own skin? and statements These things are not real, really and You see but your eyes do not spliced with images of a dominatrix, a cemetery and a man in a dress, all of it set to the UNKLE song "Lonely Soul."
Tell Me came about, Evans says, at a time when she'd begun to practice yoga and was dating a lot of women. "I think I've always had this innate feeling ... that one must look inside and feel for a person's connection. This probably stems from being gay and finding my place, often stumbling, in this world."
After five years at Campfire, she quit to search for a new challenge.
"I wanted more flexibility with my schedule and to be able to have more time for filmmaking," she says.
A couple of Lisa's friends were massage therapists. They convinced her to try it. She spent two years training, and now, for 30 hours a week, she is a massage therapist at Mario Tricoci Hair Salon and Day Spa on the Plaza. She spends the rest of her time working on film projects.
Evans swaps massages for lessons in the computer programs Photoshop and Flash. She has bartered for artwork for her DVD covers. She has given massages to her interview subjects to compensate them for their time. She has traded massages for the right to use equipment.
For a fledgling filmmaker such as Evans, the Independent Filmmakers Coalition of Kansas City is vital, says Joe Heyen, a former IFC-KC president who is now a producer for Evans' next film.
"Lisa needed knowledge and encouragement, and the IFC was good to give her both of those," Heyen says. "She needs, I think, to work on some bigger projects with some other people. Lisa's kind of in a tough position in that she would like to make a living as a full-time filmmaker, but she probably can't make enough money today to justify quitting her job and making that leap."
Evans is still trying to make a name for herself in a crowded scene. Kansas City filmmakers such as Benjamin Meade (Das Bus, American Stag and James Ellroy Presents Bazaar Bizarre), Kevin Willmott (C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America), Gary Huggins (First Date) and the team of Bruce Branit and Jeremy Hunt (405: The Movie) have all made national names for themselves.
Meade's Brakhage: The Final Word opened at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2005. Huggins' debut film made it to the Sundance Film Festival last year. Also last year, the Independent Film Channel bought Willmott's C.S.A. and put the film in theaters nationwide. And the special-effects wizardry that Branit and Hunt pulled off in 405 made the short (it was about a DC-10 landing on the Los Angeles freeway) an Internet sensation in 2000, with Rolling Stone listing it as a "Hot Web Movie."
But Evans' most important films never screen at festivals.
The cast and crew are a group of teenage delinquents, and their work probably won't be seen by anyone outside of their families.
Her most recent project with them starts in late August, when nine teenagers crowd into a muggy classroom at the Boys and Girls Club at 43rd Street and Cleveland. Most of the kids come from single-parent homes. They wear baggy denim shorts and basketball jerseys or Tupac T-shirts. The Jackson County Family Court requires them to be here for 10 weeks as part of their probation.
The young men have been sent to this program, called Sentenced to the Arts, as creative therapy for crimes that include assault, car theft, shoplifting and burglary.
Over the course of five weeks, Evans will collaborate with the teens on a short film: something like a public service announcement but more hard-hitting.
The class is run by Brett Winston, a laid-back but wise instructor. He isn't afraid to joke with the kids or raise his voice to regain control of his room.
This is Evans' third meeting with the teens. The first couple of days were rocky. The boys were closed off. Today, though, they're talking about death in their neighborhoods, high gas prices and pit bulls. Evans asks for examples of movie scenes funny or serious with violence or drugs. They talk about the dope-smoking comedy Friday and the seminal urban movie Boyz N the Hood.
"What's the tone of Boyz N the Hood?" Evans asks. "How do you feel when you watch it?"
"It's more of a drama," says Eric, who is sharply dressed in a suit and tie.
Someone brings up Denzel Washington's bad-cop action flick Training Day.
"What's the message of that?" Evans asks.
"Don't be a crooked cop," says Damon, a small, wiry guy in a tank top.
"Don't sell drugs," Eric says. "Don't be crooked, period."
Somebody brings up 1993's Menace II Society, about a young black man trying to escape the ghetto.
"What I got of that is, don't do drugs," says the kid in the suit. "Crack is whack."
"Have you guys seen someone so whacked out on drugs?" Evans asks.
The boys mumble yesses.
"What about drive-bys? Do you guys see that happening?"
More affirmative mumbles.
"One happened two blocks from me," one boy says.
"Is it over things that are worth taking lives for?"
A few mumble no.
Evans suggests that they make a film that shows the consequences of drugs and violence.
The kids start spitting out concepts. In an hour, they've come up with a six-scene short about two brothers on separate paths. The older brother gets locked up. After big brother's arrest, little brother tries to fill big brother's shoes. He wants to pull licks rob houses but after a jailhouse talk, he backs out.
A week later, filming starts on Pullin' Licks. An older-looking boy with a slight Afro, Joe wears a gray prison jumpsuit and sits across a metal table from Damon. Handcuffs clang on the steel table. Evans leans against a wall and uses a mini DV camera to film them running their lines.
The director is 16-year-old Eric, who spent two months under house arrest at a group home. He graduated from the program but has returned to help Winston.
A homemade tattoo on Eric's left hand depicts a crudely drawn tombstone with the epitaph "RIP, bro." Eric made the tattoo himself at age 14 as a tribute to his brother, who was shot and killed. His brother would be 26 now.
Eric used to have a problem with authority. Three Kansas City high schools kicked him out before his junior year. His hands are scarred from punching walls.
Now, he's angling around the edge of the scene, holding a script.
"Hold on, hold on, hold on," he tells Joe and Damon, who are clearly camera-shy. "Make a couple of facial expressions. Move your head like you're talking to one of your homies."
The next take, Damon and Joe show more emotion. But Eric still has some suggestions. "You can't just sit there and be all plain-looking," Eric tells Damon.
They run through the scene again, and it's another tight reading.
"That was good," Evans says. "That was great. You guys did good."
They go over nuances. When Joe reveals that he knows Damon is pulling a lick with Brad, Eric says, "Boy, you gotta look more surprised. You're still acting, like, nonchalant about it.
"Man, you gotta be happy to see your little bro," Eric tells Joe.
Evans encourages Joe: "You're getting better with feeling."
On a monitor, she shows the guys what they've filmed. Uncomfortable seeing themselves on the screen, the boys crack up and clown around. "It's hard to be up there on camera, but you just got to expect that a little bit," Evans tells them.
A day later, they shoot the film's opening scene at a group home in midtown. Crammed into an upstairs bedroom, Joe acts out getting dressed for the day while Evans crouches down with her camera.
On the porch, Brad and Tyrell film a scene in which Brad, the little brother, tries to convince his older brother that he can pull off a robbery. But Brad speeds through his lines.
"You got to put some periods in those sentences," Eric tells him.
When it comes time for his line, Brad nails the pause: "Aw, yeah ... I know just who you talkin' about."
Eric watches the two run through the scene, nodding as Brad hits the lines.
"Nice," Evans says.
"He got it," Eric says.
They move to another scene, one in which Damon and Brad agree to pull a lick together.
"Pretend like the camera ain't here," Eric directs. "Talk like you talk on the street."
Later, Winston tells the Pitch that Eric came into the class with a lot of anger. "He's just a kid who's been through a lot."
"When I first came in there, I was just wild," Eric says. "Couldn't nobody tell me nothing. But that's stupid."
Of the other teens, Eric says, "I did the same things they doing. So I feel like if they hear it from me, I'm only 16 years old, maybe they'll take to it more."
Now he's taking GED classes at Penn Valley Community College. He's also busing tables at a restaurant on the Plaza. And he's applying to colleges he wants to go to Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Florida. He hopes to study architecture or construction and carpentry.
From Evans, he is learning how to make scripts and storyboards.
"She let us make the movie how we wanted it," Eric says. "The story that we wrote, that could be the story of somebody's life. Those things happen every day."
Evans had planned to quit her gig with Sentenced to the Arts, which she has been involved with for four years. "I just have so much shit going on," she says. There's also her job at Mario Tricoci and a couple of other film projects. She makes a little money from Sentenced to the Arts, but her time is spread too thin.
Still, after Pullin' Licks is finished, she signs on for another session. It seems Evans has more than a love of film in common with these kids. Evans has Googled Larry Tebben's name, searching for clues about her father.
The idea to film her search for him came to Evans during lunch with filmmaker Barbara Hammer, who was in town for the Kansas International Film Festival in September 2005.
Evans told Hammer that she'd never met her father, and Hammer (an internationally known pioneer in independent and lesbian filmmaking) talked about the importance of recording family histories. Evans tossed out the name Stalking Daddy. It was a joke, but the idea stuck.
For research, Evans rented Be Good, Smile Pretty, a documentary about 32-year-old Tracy Droz Tragos' quest to learn more about her father, who was killed in an ambush on the Mekong Delta when Tragos was three months old. The film takes Tragos from Berkeley, California, to her father's hometown in Rich Hill, Missouri, near Butler in the southwestern part of the state.
Evans watched the film but fell asleep before it ended. She returned the DVD. Then a Video Mania clerk called. "Hey, Lisa, we got the case but no movie," he said.
Evans figured she might as well finish watching the film.
Afterward, she checked her e-mail. Up popped a message from a name she recognized, with the subject line "Hello."
Evans read the note in disbelief. "Lisa, my name is Larry. I live near Austin, Texas. Do you know who I am? Do you wish to communicate?"
Evans thought a friend was messing with her. "Did you think this would be funny?" she wrote in an angry reply.
After she thought about it, Evans sent another e-mail asking Tebben for more information.
He wrote back, telling her how he'd met her mother and explaining that he'd found her through her Web site (www.indyoutties.com). They exchanged e-mails and finally talked on the phone a couple of times.
Evans felt torn. She hadn't heard many positive things about Tebben, but when she talked to him, he seemed like a nice guy.
Evans told Tebben that she was making a movie about meeting her biological father for the first time. He agreed to let her record their conversations.
"I was nervous because I was on camera, too," Evans says. "But we pretty much didn't delve too far into things with those conversations. We've taken things slow."
The two agreed to meet in late October, with Evans' camera rolling.
By mid-November, Evans had returned from Texas. The leap from auteur to subject had been a struggle.
In the third-floor living space that Evans rents in midtown, she reflects on the meeting. Artwork on the walls is an unintentional reflection of her filmography: A pastel painting by her friend Lori Raye Erickson shows a Boy Scout saluting a rainbow flag; another painting of a woman reveals, on closer inspection, a penis.
Evans can't shake the weird feelings from meeting Tebben. "Sometimes it was hard for me to show my personality and let that come through because I was just kind of numb. I was like, Fuck, I don't know what I feel. Am I supposed to feel a certain way and try to adjust that?"
Stalking Daddy is still in its infancy. Evans isn't sure where the story is headed. She says she wants to make it into a short documentary, maybe 10 minutes long. She says she'll do the first edit and then pass it on to another filmmaker for the second edit. That way, she won't hold back.
"I'm too much [involved] in it to be able to do it justice," she admits.
For now, Stalking Daddy is on the back burner. Recently, she agreed to be an associate producer for University of Missouri-Kansas City film professor Daven Gee's documentary exploring what a dead shopping mall Indian Springs says about American culture. His project, Our Mall, follows Wyandotte County's attempt to claim the mall through eminent domain.
Our Mall has been a two-and-a-half-year project. Gee says he brought Evans on well into production to help set up a Valentine's Day fund-raiser and screening at the mall. He wants to invite people from the area to come back to Indian Springs and rediscover the mall.
Meanwhile, Evans isn't the only one struggling with Stalking Daddy. The interviews with her family were uncomfortable, Evans says, and they're still feeling the hangover from the filming. "It's something they haven't dealt with in a long time, and it is changing dynamics a little bit and affecting people."
"It's been a conflict between us, just because it's something from the past that is now being brought in the forefront," Kathy Evans says. "We didn't agree on it, and I'm not sure that I still do. But I know that that's how she's trying to come to terms with it, or how she was dealing with it was to do it through the camera."
Mike Evans didn't mind that Lisa wanted to meet her biological father; he even offered to take her to Texas. But he didn't want to be filmed.
Evans isn't sure how her family will react when they see the film or if they'll even want to see it. But, she says, she thinks they'll be pleasantly surprised. "I want them to enjoy it and see where I'm coming from and see my process, probably more so than other people," Evans says. "Hopefully, they'll like it, because I don't want to be a shit and put something that's going to make them look a certain way. But also, I have to be true with it. So we'll see what it looks like when it comes out."
Like Evans' family, Kansas City audiences will have to wait to see what her most personal film will look like.
"It's time for me to learn more," Evans says.