How often are those with disabilities seen performing on stage, able to delight a packed room with their acting talent? One Franklin dramatic company not only wants to know, but wants to provide an answer.
Resolute in its mission statement to enrich the lives of those physically and mentally challenged, Backlight Productions is taking those in the Franklin area through its performance curricula who live the philosophy “All the World’s A Stage.”
Director and CEO of the nonprofit Melissa Smith has been with the organization since it originated and has seen those members of the community enrolled in Backlight’s classes flourish.
“Franklin has a vast special needs community, as well as a vast artistic community,” Smith said. “Our hope is to utilize the artistic talent that surrounds us to provide opportunities to our community and inspire other communities to do the same.”
The program enrolls those with special needs into theater arts classes, which fulfills their desire to express themselves through drama, music, and dance programs.
Though the classes offer both private and group classes, the theater program only accepts 20 students per semester to make sure that the best classroom habitat is available. And because the classes are designed to cater to the specific circumstances of those with special needs, the student-to-volunteer ratio is usually one instructor to every four students, so that pupils are given as much attention and feedback on their craft as possible.
This, in turn, creates a greater learning experience, so that confidence and communication is built in those under the teacher’s supervision, while still being challenged to do their best work.
“Everything we do is to provide adults with special needs opportunities to learn and grow in the performing arts and receive opportunities to acquire lead roles in artistic productions, rather than getting lost in the background in the performing arts world,” Smith said.
But the learning for the students doesn’t keep itself in the confines of the classroom. The students spend five months in class and eventually take the stage for a large-scale performance. The show is something of a final project, allowing the troupe of players half an hour to entertain a crowd of about a hundred people.
Smith says that the endgame with the show is to “make everything around them in any of our productions elaborate, professional and as smooth and controlled as is possible, then place them in that environment and let them just do the best they can.”
Every year is something special for the nonprofit’s quest for thespian knowledge, but this year’s project won the hearts of personnel at Western Kentucky University. Adjunct professor in WKU’s film program Dr. Jerod Hollyfield has been a supporter of those facing handicaps, and based his short film “Goodfriends” on the daily struggles of those coping with such conditions.
Wanting to spread the good work that Backlight is doing, Hollyfield took the students under his charge and brought them to Franklin, so that they could turn the Backlight Productions class project into a short film – a piece based on the dream of writer/co-director Christie Thompson.
Titled “A Dream Come True,” the production is laced with a meta-narrative that tells the story of two sisters who dream of going to the Big Apple to find their fame on Broadway but face the obstacle of disability. Through attendance of a NYU acting class, they are able to find the strength within themselves to chase their passion.
"This project was a natural extension of working with actress Kara Jackson on my short "Goodfriends" in 2012, said Hollyfield of the production.
“Because of the strong connections between the English and film programs at WKU, I was able to use this opportunity as a way to provide a course credit for students in disability studies. My students gain production experience with WKU alum and Nashville cinematographer Cody Duncum and myself, while participating in service learning with a local nonprofit. These are the kind of collaborations we value at WKU."
Through that mirrored desire to teach those the arts, Hollyfield offered his students a college credit to help Backlight Productions see its final project to completion. Lending his crew to theirs, the WKU professor gave Smith and Thompson dual power of director to capture on video the magic created by the 19 actors from Backlight’s class.
After nine days, the production is finally wrapped, and the film is currently in the editing process. The actors are currently on break and will return as a theater company for the premiere of the film.
Smith’s hopeful that the benefit of the film will be a wider outreach to the people who see it the most and looks forward to her students showing Williamson County what they can do.
“Our biggest priority and hope for this film is to make Christie's dream come true by enabling her to see her story brought to life on the big screen and have a true Hollywood experience like she has always imagined,” Smith said. “Our next biggest hope and priority is to do the same for all of our other students who share similar dreams. If we achieve that much alone, we will have succeeded in doing what we set out to do.”
The premiere of “A Dream Come True” will include a “live production” segment to supplement the film experience and will be shown at the Franklin Theatre on Aug. 28.
Seating is limited with a pre-sale only option to purchase tickets. For more information about Backlight Productions, as well as dates for additional screenings, be sure to visit backlightproductions.org.