Local couple brings energy to ‘MUD Talks’

MIDDLEBURY — Andy and Lisa Mitchell are a creative couple who know how to put on a show. But until lately, their homespun series of special events have been by invitation only and at venues kept under close wraps.
That’s going to change on Sunday, Nov. 30, at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater, when the Mitchells introduce the first of four events this year as part what they are calling “Middlebury Underground Discussion (MUD) Talks.” These interactive, family-friendly, video-filled shows are designed to educate with a good pinch of showmanship, they said during an interview at the Independent.
“We want people to have fun, to be able to think about a topic in a different way,” said Lisa, who described the MUD Talks as a “mash up of ‘TED Talks’ and ‘Inside the Actors Studio’ with the feel of a community party.”
TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short talks (18 minutes or less) that can be found online at ted.com. “Inside the Actors Studio” is a Bravo channel television show in which host James Lipton interviews luminaries in the entertainment industry.
Lisa Mitchell is a freelance event producer and communications consultant. She has produced interactive culinary events for Gourmet magazine and Bon Appétit, among others.
Andy Mitchell is an Emmy Award-winning wildlife filmmaker for National Geographic, for which he continues to do around 75 percent of his current work. He is a 1996 graduate of Middlebury College.
The couple has lived in Middlebury for the past decade. They have two young sons, one of whom attends the Bridge School in Middlebury. Lisa Mitchell is a member of the Bridge School’s board of directors and was instrumental in getting that nonprofit to co-sponsor the MUD Talks. The school will receive all proceeds (after expenses) from the series.
Andy explained that the genesis of MUD Talks is linked to what he called a “creative revolution” taking place in the Middlebury area right now. He noted a younger generation of area residents — some of them telecommuters — who are keen on devising and attending artistic events.
“There are people doing all sorts of great stuff and we started doing small, private events that were really outside of the box,” Andy said.
These were pop-up events, held at rented space in downtown Middlebury. Attendees would receive a deliberately cryptic invitation specifying a time, date and location. There was an element of surprise to the food and/or entertainment dimensions of the Mitchells’ soirees. One of the pop-ups was a meal prepared by a “phantom chef,” Matt Sargent of Waitsfield. Around 50 people attended that meal. There was also a casino night and a “middle-aged rave.”
Now Lisa and Andy want to expand their idea to go beyond the 50 or 60 people who’ve been enjoying the pop-ups.
“We wanted to do one for the entire community,” Andy said. “And Town Hall Theater is the perfect place for it.”
In MUD Talks, the Mitchells will work to assemble top talent to speak on a variety of subjects. They envision an annual series featuring four presentations per year. The first year of MUD Talks will debut with “Sharks!” which promises to bring spectators face-to-face with the ocean’s most fearsome predators. Appropriately, the “Sharks!” panel will feature Andy Mitchell and Andy Casagrande IV. With four Emmys and more than 200 credits between them, the two Andys have traveled to nearly every corner of the globe and filmed all over five continents and every ocean. Their talk will feature humorous stories, harrowing footage, and audience participation. That participation will include some trivia questions, props and refreshments. Brandon artist Rebecca Zelis will be presenting some shark-related jewelry for the occasion.
This year’s other three installments of MUD Talks will deal with:
•  The burgeoning localvore movement. Given her food background, Lisa Mitchell will play a lead role in this event that will include a panel of Vermont farmers, food producers, chefs and health professionals. It will also feature a community-sized dinner party, with food, wine, chefs, discussion — and perhaps even a little friendly competition.
•  Award-winning filmmakers Banker White and Anna Fitch. White’s very successful film, “The Refugee All Stars of Sierra Leone,” follows a band comprised of refugees who fled their home during Sierra Leone’s civil war. Five albums later the band still tours the world. White and Fitch’s latest collaboration, “The Genius of Marian,” is a feature documentary about White’s mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s. They’re currently using their West African contacts to uncover the reality of the Ebola epidemic.
•  A forthcoming documentary film by Erin Davis about the nature of play, risk and hazard set in “The Land,” an “adventure” playground in Wales. At The Land, children climb trees, light fires and use hammers and nails in a play-space rooted in the belief that kids are empowered when they learn to manage risks on their own. Davis is an artist, filmmaker, radio producer and educator who teaches courses in radio documentary at Middlebury College.
Dates for those talks haven’t yet been nailed down. For more information about the series, log on to mudtalks.org.
The Mitchells are already thinking ahead to future MUD Talks topics. For example, they like the idea of assembling in one place a variety of food trucks to give people a sampling of different cuisines. They stressed that MUD Talks won’t always be held at Town Hall Theater. The venue will change depending on the nature of the event. They will film and catalogue each MUD Talks presentation.
Asked what she hopes MUD Talks attendees get from their experience, Lisa said, “I want them to have a good time, and perhaps think of a topic in a different way.”
Doors at the THT will open at 6 p.m. for the debut MUD Talks offering of “Sharks!” The program will begin at 7 p.m.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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