Now that the in-class sessions for Story Explorers are over, I have the task of taking the stories and artwork generated by each class and transferring them into a new theatre piece. What exactly that means is entirely nebulous, which is both a wonderful and terrifying thing. Before I even attempt to put anything onto the page, I’ve entered into “research mode” for the work, soaking in stories and perspectives from as many sources as possible. Recently, I was able to watch two eye-opening films that got my mind and imagination churning. This blog post is about the first. I’ll share about the other film in a future post.
This documentary follows the film-making process of Zeno Mountain Farm, a non-profit organization that hosts camps for people with and without disabilities. Their LA camp offers a unique film-making session during which camp participants star in a fully-produced film. For most of the participants, their disabilities mean they won't be accepted into mainstream Hollywood fare. Zeno offers them a chance to live out their movie star dreams.
Becoming Bulletproof walks us through the entire process from actors’ acceptance into the camp to casting to filming and, finally, to the movie premiere of Bulletproof Jackson, a classic-style Western. Along the way, we see the struggles that go into any film-making process as well as the unique challenges that come from working with a cast comprised of folks with a variety of disabilities. The documentary does an excellent job of showing the huge heart and dedication of both the production team and the cast as they work hard to make the film a reality.
Through this documentary, I observed that the process of creating film (or theatre or any performing arts, for that matter) with a cast of disabled players isn’t necessarily all that different from working with those who are labelled “able.” Every actor has their particular difficulties to work through in their craft. Some thespians are hopelessly tone-deaf. Some singers can’t dance to save their lives. Some dancers aren’t able to emote in the same way an actor can. And yet, we don’t think of these performers as disabled. They simply have a particular skill set in which they excel.
What I saw while watching Becoming Bulletproof was individuals working with their disabilities with the help of a very open-minded production team. In a wheelchair? They will make it work with the character you play. Having trouble with verbal clarity? They will hone in on your emotive facial expressions. Not able to recall your lines well? They will modify the lines in the script without compromising the story or switching you out for another actor.
These kinds of decisions require an open mind and heart as well as a deep respect for the dignity of each person in the room. It got me thinking that maybe some of the “rules” of theatre that I operate by are actually just “norms” that can be revised or redacted as needed. I need to enter into the creation process for Story Explorers, and indeed every play I write, with a similar openness to the Zeno film camp. My goal may be a little different with Story Explorers: we’re creating a sensory-friendly work for children with autism and other behavioral/cognitive needs to enjoy with their families as audience members. However, there is something about how Zeno Mountain Farm goes about its creative process that I want to channel as I continue my development of Story Explorers.