In February 2020, right before the pandemic locked us all inside, Lisa Schmidt and Rev. Paul Rasmussen met to discuss how to share their Spotlight program with the world. Ten years prior, Highland Park United Methodist’s Belong Disability Ministry launched a musical theater program for individuals with disabilities. Try-outs happened in the summer, and the program ran through February. It culminated with a public performance by the two dozen or so participants.
“They are our actors, the story originators, the lyricists; all the ideas are born from them,” says Stephanie Newland, the director of Belong Disability Ministry.
After the first several years, Belong Disability Ministry found that demand had far surpassed availability. They couldn’t accommodate all the people who wanted to participate. “We had a bunch of people who were very interested [in the musical theater program] and on a waiting list,” says Newland. “Which wasn’t right.”
Newland and her team decided to expand Spotlight several years ago. Today, in addition to musical theater, Spotlight includes a short film program and a rock music program. Each year around 70 people sign up to participate in one of the three.
But the church saw the potential to spread its mission to people far beyond Dallas. Newland reached out to local producer and SMU alum Ricky Townsend to see their options. Out of that discussion came Into the Spotlight, a documentary that will premiere this weekend at the Dallas International Film Festival.
“My main experience with seeing and learning about the disabilities community was largely through things like 60 Minutes,” says Thaddeus D. Matula, the director of Into the Spotlight. “And anytime you would see a documentary or a news magazine piece on the disabilities community…we would always hear from the doctors and from the parents, editorializing the experience of these individuals.”
It presents the production from the perspective of the participants, freeing them to tell their own stories. Those include Christi, a recently widowed veteran of the Spotlight program; Andrea, a transgender woman with autism; Daniel, a Black man with autism who speaks about his experience with discrimination (and delivers a wicked drum solo); and many more.
“I [thought] the most powerful thing we [could] do here is let these individuals speak for themselves and not have anyone tell the audience what they’re thinking or how they’re feeling,” Matula says.
Townsend brought Matula onboard as director, and during COVID the team worked together to build out the film. When they were ready to begin production in 2021, Newland says, “We had our system, and we had documentary film crews … filming at every rehearsal, and [following] the protagonists in the documentary in their daily life.”
While the cameras took some getting used to, Newland says everyone eventually acclimated to the production process. “There was the feeling of [actually] being in the spotlight,” Newland says, “and having a camera follow you around and being mic’d up is a really novel and fun thing.
“There were a lot of nuances there because this is…not a group of professional film actors, [and they] have an additional set of daily challenges being individuals with disabilities and so I would say, overall, [the response to filming] was excitement and awe and then nerves—at least in the beginning.”
Newland says she hopes Into the Spotlight lets people know about the work Belong Disability Ministry is doing. “I would love to see our Spotlight program grow,” she says. “I would love for us to be able to mentor [or] resource other churches, community centers, or schools…with the tools they need to be able to do something like this in their community.”
For his part, Matula says, “I’m immensely proud of the film, and…we’re proud of the work we’ve done.” He says that the finished product owes a great deal to the team he worked alongside, including director of photography Logan Fulton and editors Miles Hargrove and Meagan Forsythe, who turned raw footage into a film.
Matula says he hopes the people who see it will ultimately decide for themselves what the movie says. But if he had to guess its message: “To not let yourself be defined by your abilities or disabilities… You are only defined by your limits if you let yourself be defined by them, and so be limitless.”
It seems appropriate to give one of Spotlight’s participants the final word. Early in the film comes a line that describes the documentary as well as the Spotlight program itself. Jacob, an actor in the 2022 production, says, “Spotlight is one of those ideas that just works. It’s inspiring, it’s fun, it’s…theater!”
Audiences will have the opportunity to attend screenings of Into the Spotlight as part of the 2023 Dallas International Film Festival April 29 and May 1. You can also find additional information about the film here.