Smile Politely

55 hours; 5 minute film; a whole lotta cooperation

For more than 20 years, the Prompting Theatre has operated in C-U, as a local troupe comprised of semi-professional actors with disabilities. The troupe creates all types of plays and films, and manages to pay its actors a stipend so they can turn their talents into income. This year, the company has decided to participate in the Easter Seals Disability Film Challenge, and needs your help to get their film considered for the next stage of competition. By watching their video, liking and/or sharing it on social media, the Prompting Theatre could be entered into a film festival, and possibly win professional advantages for its members. 

Considering what goes in to making a film, even a short film, the constraints of the Easter Seals Disability Film Challenge are pretty daunting. All teams were required to complete every aspect of filmmaking in a 55 hour period between 1:01 p.m. Friday and 7:59 p.m. Sunday on a weekend in late April. Not a single thing could be done beforehand, including: writing, rehearsing, creating costumes, scouting locations, and definitely not filming. No stock- or pre-recorded footage was allowed in any submission. Even post-production had to be completed in that timeframe and the fully realized film had to be submitted by the Sunday deadline.

In order to ensure that these rules would be adhered to, Easter Seals required the films to be of a specific genre, focus on a certain theme, include at least one location from a specific list, and include two types of props from a list. The specifics of these requirements weren’t released until 1:01 p.m. on the Friday, the virtual race-starting shot that began the countdown to Sunday. After watching the short film (below), I guessed that the genre was comedy, the theme was “struggle”, the location was a shared residence, and the props were a hat and a dustbuster. I was almost right.

Brian Hagy, the artistic director of the company, corrected my thinking slightly, telling me that the genre was “family comedy” and the location they chose from the list was “living room” (I say close enough for gov’t work to that). The hats definitely came from the requirement list, but the others they chose were an apple and a family heirloom. The theme was “a new normal” and how to adapt – or not adapt – to a big change. I really think this film addresses that theme adeptly, and also embodies the spirit of the Easter Seals Challenge: having people with and without disabilities working together.

That aim is in the mission statement of the Easter Seals Disability Film Challenge – asking to integrate the film crew and cast in order to tell unique stories that perhaps otherwise wouldn’t be heard. The challenge was started by Nic Novicki, a successful dramatic and television actor who feels the disabled community is incredibly underrepresented in media: 18% of the US population is disabled, but that is shown by less than 3% of speaking characters in films. He began the film competition in Southern California, and this year Easter Seals partnered with him, taking the challenge nationwide.

Hagy says that out of 30 competing films, The Prompting Theatre is the only one from C-U for certain, and possibly the only Midwest film entry. There are awards given in four categories: Best Film, Best Actor, Best Filmmaker, and Best Awareness Campaign, all of which will be screened in the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood at the Hollyshorts Film Festival. Other prizes will accompany the distinction, including film and computer equipment, and mentoring opportunities from industry actors, directors, and executives. While those mentors include big names like Scott Silveri and Amy Brenneman, Hagy tells me that for the members of The Prompting Theatre, “it’s not so much about the prestige of the names involved as it is that they’ll get more experience and ideas they can use in their careers.”

These actors are pretty experienced in many different aspects of theatre: acting, writing, and producing. It’s part of the mission of The Prompting Theatre to have the actors design their characters as much as possible for each production. For this challenge, however, the time constraints required that everyone work together. For example, I really liked the character of Ray, with his dustbuster and his door-slam. When I asked if all those ideas came from the actor, Hagy explained, “He came up with the idea of the character always cleaning.  From that, the whole group of writers helped to solidify the character’s OCD… he wanted to answer the door, but another person thought it would be funnier if he didn’t like the son character.  Ray loved that idea as well, and I think that’s become Ray’s favorite line from the movie.  Todd personally enjoys hats, so when he heard one of the props from the list of required props to use was a hat, he latched onto that.” He went on to explain that scriptwriters helped design everything, and Hagy himself facilitated focusing the discussion.

The schedule was pretty grueling, with all that scriptwriting happening Friday afternoon between members of The Prompting Theatre and other people in the community. Props and locations were secured during Friday evening, and Saturday was dedicated to filming. All day Sunday was post-production work: editing, music composition, etc. The captioning happened independently, through Easter Seals, but the opening title card and credits were done locally. The entire process was integrated, involving people with and without disabilities, to make something neither would be able to achieve on their own.

Right now, the film is in the second part of the challenge – the promotional campaign. Even if “Family Time” isn’t chosen for one of the other awards, it could qualify for “Best Awareness Campaign” if it gets enough social media shares, likes, and individual views. The competition ends this Thursday, so there are still a few days left to support our community. So here’s the link again, if you like it, maybe post/share/tweet/gram it and help get the word out to represent the Midwest! (and although I’m sure the other films are also outstanding, maybe wait until after May 16th to watch those. Just sayin.) 

Watch it on YouTube, and check it out on Facebook.

All photos courtesy Brian Hagy of the Prompting Theatre. 

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