Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Film is in the Works

Billy Bob Thornton, the Academy© Award winning director, writer, actor and musician, has performed at Merrimack Hall with his band, The Boxmasters, two times in the past. Alan and I have become friends with Billy. He’s been to our home and we’ve been to his. He mentioned us in the acknowledgements section of his new book, "A Cave Full of Ghosts." One of my favorite memories from our Merrimack Hall journey is the night a large group of people gathered around the piano in my living room, with Teddy Andreadis (formerly with Guns N Roses and one of the top studio musicians in the world) playing “May the Circle Be Unbroken” while Billy sang lead and the rest of us followed along. Billy donated his artist fee back to our programs for kids with special needs the last time he performed in Huntsville and promised that the next time his schedule allows him to go on tour with his band, he will come back to Merrimack Hall and do a creative writing workshop with our students. And I plan to hold him to that promise!

Teddy Andreadis on piano, Billy Bob on vocals
Because of Billy, we came to the attention of some producers in Hollywood who approached us about 13 months ago, asking about our programs. After months of phone calls and discussions about doing everything from a reality series to a documentary short, they traveled to Huntsville last February to meet our students and a few of their parents. They left here committed making a full-length feature film, inspired by the students in Merrimack Hall’s programs. They told us, “We don’t just want to make a movie; we want to start a movement.” We said, “Yeah? So do we.”
Alan and I went to LA in May and the producers returned to Merrimack Hall in July. A script is being polished off, buzz is being generated and the producers are touting this film as a cross between “The Blind Side” and “Fame.” We are back in LA right now - I'm sitting in a lovely suite at The Four Seasons Hotel, getting ready for a big "dog and pony show," Hollywood style, that's being held tomorrow night at The W Hotel down the street. I feel sort of like Dorothy - I don't think I'm in Alabama anymore!

Elianna receiving direction from Producer Alex Barkaloff

It's all very exciting, to be sure. But whether a movie happens or not, we will keep on doing what we've been doing for the past four years, which is finding simple solutions to complex problems. When I was inspired to start The Johnny Stallings Arts Programs, I was told about all kinds of obstacles I'd have to overcome in order to provide performing arts education to children with special needs. I was told that I wasn't qualified, because I didn't have a background in special education or physical therapy; that parents wouldn't want the kind of program I was describing because parents of children with special needs don't want their children to be segregated from their typical peers; and I was flat out told that kids with special needs simply wouldn't be able to sing, or dance or act - and I was told that by the head of a large organization that provides services to children with special needs!

Sometimes, its a good idea to take your time, do your homework, think through an idea to be sure you are prepared to execute it properly. And sometimes, its a good idea to just do it! If I had listened to the naysayers, if I had questioned my qualifications, I would never have started our programs. I started with an idea - a good one - to provide arts education to children with special needs.  I decided that I had the resources and the will to start the program and that was enough for me. I knew how to teach dance, I hired an excellent teacher to work with me, I got a grant from The Jane K. Lowe Foundation and I recruited 10 children with special needs and 10 teenaged volunteers to help them. And just like that, we had a program.

Four years later, we have eight weekly classes that are currently serving over 80 children, teens and adults, with an equal number of volunteers working each week, plus we have The Connection for adults with disabilities and Camp Merrimack in the summer. All of our programs combined are serving in excess of 350 people each year, people who are routinely denied access to activities like the arts, social events and cultural activities. They come to Merrimack Hall in their wheelchairs, walkers, relying on canes; some of them are blind; some of them are deaf; many of them are non-verbal; some of them have Down syndrome or other developmental delays; some of them have autism; they are all what our society has defined as "less than." 

I've learned more in the past four years from those people who are thought of as "less than" than I've ever learned from anyone who is "normal." I've watched the people in our programs live in the moment, embrace whatever life has to offer them, exhibit the kind of bravery I could never replicate as they navigate the world, encounters barriers and obstacles every where they go. And I've learned to not over-think things, to go with your gut instinct and to sometimes, just do it!

I have no idea what will happen with this Hollywood thing. Maybe a full-length feature film will be produced and distributed to theaters across the country; maybe it will be up for Oscars, just like "The Blind Side;" or maybe nothing will evolve, maybe it will end up dead in the water like I'm told so many film projects do. Whatever happens, the process has helped us spread our message that we are all more alike than we are different. The parents and families of our program participants are proud that their loved ones have caught the interest of Hollywood producers. Merrimack Hall is all abuzz with excitement over the possibilities! But the main thing to remember is that all the excitement is due to one thing and one thing only - the inspirational message our students and their families give us every day. That message is that you take what you have in life and you make the best of it; you celebrate people's differences; you accept people for who they are, not for what they can or can't do.

At Merrimack Hall, we take our inspiration from the people we serve and we look for simple ways to make their lives more rich and full. I hope you will look around you to find issues that matter to you and that you will look for simple solutions to those issues. And once you come up with a good idea, one that you believe in and have the resources to implement, don't think about it too much - just do it! 


Tina Morrison Bedwell said...

All I can say is "You go girl!!" and Thanks from Olivia and me for not listening to the nay sayers! The truth be said, they didn't know any more than you because they had not walked in the shoes of parents with special needs children, either. You don't have to have a background in special education to do what you've done... you have to have a heart. And I love you for it!

Debra Jenkins said...

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