Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Focusing behind the lens: Theatre for All pivots, keeps connectivity, passion alive for artists with disabilities

Actors on set of Theatre for All’s most recent short film, “Diamond in the Rough,” made in November and December of 2020. (Port City Daily/Courtesy of Theatre for All)

WILMINGTON — A local theater collective has gone from the stage to the big screen in making sure its members continue connecting and creating during Covid-19. Theatre for All encourages the passion of performance artists with disabilities, and over the course of the year has made seven original films — from writing the screenplays to acting in them. 

Its latest, “Diamond in the Rough,” will screen as part of Cucalorus Curbside Cinema come March 19 (originally, it was slated for Feb. 12 but has been rescheduled from rain). The short film is also available to screen now on the company’s YouTube channel.

Five years ago, when Kim Henry, Gina Gambony and founding board member Dylan Patterson launched Theatre For All (TFA), they knew there would be a niche of people with disabilities ready to tap into their love of theater. Henry and Gambony went into Laney High School to program a semester of classes for students with disabilities. 

The response was overwhelming. 

“When we looked around this buzzing theater town, we realized that there was no company where they would be welcome,” Henry wrote to Port City Daily.

Ever since, TFA has grown into a nonprofit focused on producing original theater and offering countywide outreach programs in performance arts. TFA is made up of 12 members in its Academy Company and another 12 in its Performance Company; members switch companies each half of the year so everyone benefits from the learning opportunities available.

TFA also hosts summer camps and has grown its classes into three high schools at Laney, New Hanover and Ashley, as well as works with a transition program that helps students adjust into the community out of high school. 

When Gambony moved to Virginia for a job a few years ago, Henry became the executive director and needed assistance running the outreach for TFA. She wanted someone who was passionate about theater and interested in helping this community fulfill their dreams.

“So I started a Leadership Training program,” she said. Henry began coaching her TFA members on skills to help teach in a school setting. 

“And they are paid for this meaningful employment,” she added.

Henry and her Leadership Graduates sing, dance, do improv, mime and make plays as part of their programming. Once Covid-19 hit, and schools closed, the company had to shift its operations. Henry, the board and TFA’s 24 members and 80 outreach students rolled with the punches by setting up classes via Zoom instead.

Originally homed as a branch of the now-closed TheatreNOW, in 2020 TFA became its own nonprofit entity, too. Though the company stopped doing live productions, it started making movies in small groups — outside, socially distanced and masked.

“We have entered our films into a couple of festivals, which we’re excited about,” Henry said. They also had one screened at Cucalorus Film Festival in November.

“Just like our plays, TFA creations allow able-bodied and neurotypical people to see the disabled community in a whole new light,” Henry said. “Our students have talents, dreams, fears, passions; they want to talk about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll! They have their own thoughts, ideas, quirks, and are artists, too.’”

Theater for All’s latest movie, “Diamond in the Rough,” produced in partnership with Ragland Media, was filmed in November and December at Dram + Morsel downtown. The screenplay was written by a TFA member who wanted to tackle the mystery genre. 

“It’s set in 1922 and there’s a prohibition on candy,” Henry explained of the plot. “Chocolate Charlie (villain), one of Mr. Cane’s Flapper girls, has a secret candy stash, but they find a diamond hidden among the chocolate and know that this is out of their league. Meanwhile, our trusty detective is making his way over to their speakeasy to solve the mystery.”

Port City Daily interviewed Henry about TFA’s shift into making movies, and its overall goal to bring equal opportunities to actors of various abilities across the greater Wilmington area.

Theatre for All produced seven films over the course of last year, many completed outside as to safely gather and continue their mission of bringing performance arts opportunities to people with disabilities. (Port City Daily/Courtesy of Theatre for All)

Port City Daily (PCD): So when did you decide to make the shift to film instead of theater?
Kim Henry (KH): In March 2020, we made a short film called “I Am.” Every member did the filming themselves on their own phones. Once that initial lockdown eased up a little, and we all began to realize that Covid was not going away any time soon, I knew we had to rethink how we were going to move forward. Film seemed like an obvious option, and although it’s been a learning curve for us all, I’m loving the work we are producing and it’s only going to get better!

PCD: How has this process changed the way TFA operates? What are the roles now of its participants — do they also run cameras and sound, or just write and act?
KH: Members help write the film and all act. TFA along with Ragland Media are beginning to create training programs where our members can learn some behind-the-scenes skills: camera, lighting, sound and set design/costume. We’re very excited about this possibility. 

We’re also working on a summer program where TFA members will be running classes, sharing their skills with others in the disabled community.

Some of our members have already gone through a TFA Leadership Training where they trained to be my assistants in our [high school] outreach classes. This empowered them to have paid work doing something they love and are good at. 

Sadly, in-person classes are still on the Covid shelf, but we are doing Zoom outreach classes and our Leadership Training graduates assist.

PCD: So you pay Leadership Training graduates?
KH: Yes, part of our ethics is to pay people who are part of the arts as much as possible. We want to empower our members to be paid artists, and therefore we don’t want to ask people to do stuff for free because we are a nonprofit — or pull the disability card.

We also pay Ragland Media to do our films. We are so happy to support a locally owned and racially diverse company. We love working with the guys who run it — they’re very passionate and have a full commitment to our projects, and have been so helpful.

PCD: How many more films have you planned out for the year? 
KH: We’re committed to making a film a month, February through June, so that all of our members get to do a film project this season. 

PCD: Do storylines of the films deal with content from the point-of-view of adults with disabilities? Or is it more broad? 
KH: No, our storylines have never dealt with disabled POVs. It’s something we talk about and deal with, but part of what we do is tell stories — and, oh, yeah, some of the storytellers have disabilities!

It is something I’m interested in doing but we haven’t addressed it yet.

PCD: Any idea when you may return back to the stage and where that will be?
KH: Realistically, the board feels that it will be a long time before live theater is back on its feet and we have planned this year accordingly.

Personally, I want to see Greenfield Amphitheater open up to every music/dance/theatre group in wilmy for an extensive summer program! The only way we will get live theater back in our lives (and we all want this!) is to take it outdoors. 

PCD: How has it been adjusting through a pandemic?
KH: Difficult/amazing! Luckily, I have an amazing and supportive board and there was no way I was just going to leave our members with no creative outlet. TFA is a theatre family; for some of our members, this is a huge part of their social life, point of connection with the world and only creative expression. They are living in a world built for neurotypical, able-bodied people. Many have lost their jobs and services due to Covid. 

Obviously, Zoom is challenging and we miss each other very much. Being in person and interacting and connecting is part of what we do. We have done well redesigning our program to keep people engaged, and group projects are helping. 

We meet once a week remotely to check in with one another. We do breakout rooms and have scenes and come back to share it. We play theatre games, learn about acting for the camera, invite guest teachers, like Eleanor Stafford, Courtney Poland and Gina Gambony. 

We have more guest teachers in real life, usually, but last year was very uncertain, and we had to watch our budget because we didn’t know what funding was going to look like. So, we didn’t invite as many guest teachers as we normally would.

PCD: How are you funded?
KH: We are the grateful recipients of some local grants, including The Arts Council and Landfall Foundation. We also do fundraisers and have some private donors. People can donate through our website, www.theatreforall.org.

Have arts news? Email shea@localdailymedia.com

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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