Cinema Al Fresco: Free State Festival returns this summer

Cate Manning | @catemanning

Free State Festival will return this summer for drive-in movie screenings across Lawrence.

The festival is split into two acts. Act One, runs from June 21 through June 27, and will feature a handful of film screenings, with art and live music. Act Two will be announced later this summer, hoping to bring films and events indoors when local regulations allow.

The festival planned for last summer was postponed because of the pandemic. Since then, changes have been made to the festival to create safe, open-air venues across the whole city, moving away from its former downtown location.

Marlo Angell, one of the festival’s directors who founded it in 2011, said that it has “changed quite a bit in the past year.”

“Due to the pandemic, we had to reimagine doing some outdoor screenings and doing multiple venues,” Angell said. “We’re really excited to bring films to audiences that may not have seen us before, and those who have seen us before, they can see us in new ways.”

The festival hosted a variety of virtual screenings over the past year, as a way for people to connect with others. With the prevalence of vaccines and the ease of public health guidelines in Lawrence, outdoor screenings seemed like the perfect way to host a summer festival.

“We thought this would be a wonderful way to connect in-person,” Angell said. “There’s something about cinema especially, where seeing it with a group is a much different experience than seeing it in your own home.”

“We really wanted to preserve group cinema experiences beyond the pandemic, so it was important for us to find safe, in-person ways to do that.”

Free State Festival “values diversity and seeks to amplify voices of underrepresented filmmakers,” according to its website. This year’s lineup makes for an exciting week of outdoor movies that will entertain, inspire, and educate audiences.

The summer schedule, announced on May 1, will kick off with a “come-and-go” socially distant event at the Lawrence Arts Center on June 21. 

On June 22, a screening of “End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock,” a documentary directed by Shannon Kring, will include a talk presented by Haskell University’s Hiawatha Center for Justice.

A one-hour short film program – “One Reel Under the Stars” – will feature 6 films shown at the Cider Gallery. Before the June 23 screening, audience members will have the chance to visit artist Tonja Torgerson’s “Garden of Eden” installation.

John Waters’ 1988 classic comedy “Hairspray” will screen at the Theatre Lawrence drive-in on June 24. Waters, who wrote and directed the film, will also headline Act Two of the festival. The day after, the Lied Center of Kansas will present “For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close,” a documentary film following comedy guru Del Close.

University of Kansas professor Kevin Willmott’s narrative feature film “The 24th” will play at the Dole Institute of Politics on June 26, followed by a Q&A with Willmott.

Act One of the Free State Festival will conclude at the Douglas County Fairgrounds on June 27 with a night of “Not So Silent Cinema.” Two classic silent films will be shown with live audio descriptions and French translations, accompanied by live music from Alex Kimball Williams and Mike Quillin.

“I think that it will be exciting,” Angell said. “And just a wonderful, safe way for people to connect and to gather again safely under the stars for the love of film.”

Tickets and reservations will go on sale Monday, May 24. For the full lineup and additional details, visit