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Katha Cato gets back in the spotlight

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For Katha Cato, looking to both the past and the future is essential.

Until recently, that past included her life as a performer. It had been at least 30 years since she’d last performed as a member of such improvisational troupes as Chicago City Limits, First Amendment Improv and Foreplay Improvised Theater.

Cato remembers that as a lively and highly interesting time. “At that point,” she says, “there was a lot of excitement about long-form improvisat­ion.”

And though “everybody in those companies remained close,” it took the death of one member a year or so ago to bring them back together. About six months after that, she received an e-mail out of the blue asking if she’d like to get back on stage. The answer to that question was a definite “yes.”

The result is “Just the Three of Us: An Evening of Improvised Theater,” which Cato will perform with Lucy Avery Brooke and Joe Perce Nov. 30 at 7 p.m. at Made in Queens (27-24 Queens Plaza South). After that show, the trio will join forces with two more performers, Phil Nee and Lisa Burgett, for a larger-scale Jan. 22 show at the Terry Schreiber Studio on 26th Street in Manhattan.

Brooke, an artist, actor and writer, is a fellow veteran of First Amendment Improv and Chicago City Limits. She has also appeared on stage and screen with Jeff Bridges, Susan Sarandon and John Leguizamo. Writer, director and acting coach Perce has over 30 years of improvisational comedy under his belt. Along with Cato, he was named one of the most exciting improvisers in the city by the New York Post back in 1989.

But while Brooke, Cato and Perce all hung out and worked in the same scene, they have, in Cato’s words “never, ever been on stage together before,” so in a sense the actors will be using the improvisational process to learn about each other as much as they will be learning about their audience, which itself plays a central role in Wednesday’s show.

“There is absolutely no separation between us and our audience,” Cato says. That’s because the improvisation the three will perform are to be inspired by spontaneous audience suggestions. It’s “guerrilla improv,” she adds, “really down and dirty.”

Another piece of that past is a highly unusual holiday movie that Cato made with her husband, Don, 10 years ago. When Cato calls it “a subversive film that takes on Christmas in a pretty challenging manner,” she’s not kidding. “Be My Oswald” is the story of a militant female vegetarian who conspires to assassinate Santa Claus.

To celebrate the film’s 10th annversary, the Catos are holding a free screening Dec. 17 in the Zukor Theatre at Kaufman Astoria Studios (at the corner of 35th Avenue and 35th Street). For more information, go to www.facebook.com/Be-My-Oswald-176612885804645

But reconnecting with her performing past is only a small part of what Cato is contributing to Queens’ artistic landscape. She is also the executive director of the Queens World Film Festival. (Don Cato is the festival’s artistic director.) For the last six years, QWFF has been bringing a cutting-edge selection of films to borough audiences. From Bulgaria and Serbia, to Sunnyside and Corona, the QWFF’s offerings provide a window into how people around the world live, all the while highlighting the common threads that bring everyone together.

As Year Seven of the festival approaches, Cato is optimistic about its growth. “We are already about to blow past the number of submissions we had last year,” she says. Since last year’s festival screened 144 films from 23 countries, that indicates a pretty strong level of interest and participation. Filmmakers have until Dec. 1 to submit films for next year’s festival, which will run from March 14 -19, 2017.

One of the most promising trends that Cato has witnessed is the ever-increasing number of women who submit films to the festival. Following a 125 percent increase from 2015 to 2016 in the number of films by women shown at QWFF, she says that this year promises to make even further gains.

In its welcoming stance toward filmmakers and sense of inclusion, the QWFF is an undertaking that emphasizes community—between filmmakers themselves as well as between filmmakers and their audiences.

“The Queens World Film Festival shows an amount of love for filmmakers which is unrivaled,” said Faiyaz Lafri, whose “Planet Utero” won the prize for Best Animation at the 2013 QWFF.

One way that the QWFF makes a connection with the larger community is through its Young Filmmakers Program. which the festival says is “one the coolest things we do.” Since 2008, Don Cato has coordinated the program which brings industry professionals to PS 69 in Jackson Heights to help fifth-grade students produce narrative short films.

Taking students from original pitch to completion of their films, the program lets them rotate through production roles. It is the goal of the program to make sure each of them fully participates in the collaborative nature of making films. “The kids are shooting, making costumes, everything,” Katha Cato says about the program.

Once their films are finished, there is a “mauve carpet” event. At the event, a runway of mauve paper festooned with stars bearing the names of all the participants is unrolled to greet the young filmmakers as they come to watch their productions being projected on the big screen. This year’s event will take place at PS 69 in March.

As QWFF grows, Katha Cato is looking to expand its schedule and to hopefully bring its offering to parts of the borough far from its main homes at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria and the Secret Theatre in Long Island City. “Our mission would be to possibly have screenings the last week of every month, going from neighborhood to neighborhood all across Queens,” she says.

That desire to forge connections with all parts of Queens as well as show work from all over the world is, for Cato, the heart of QWFF’s vision. Whether through bringing films to a wider range of viewers or by showing those viewers a diverse range of stories, her aim is to underline what unites all the borough’s residents. “I want to bring us together,” she says, “to show people that the same things that terrify you are the things that terrify me.”

Updated 10:37 am, November 30, 2016
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