Inspiring is an understatement when it comes to Thaddeus D. Matula’s Into the Spotlight. Those living in the intellectual & developmental disabilities (IDD) space are given the chance to flourish and shine creatively in this documentary. It tells the story of Dallas’ Spotlight Musical Theater program. Every year, Spotlight produces an original musical conceived, written, and performed by its stellar cast, who exist on the very broad spectrum of disability.
Led by directors Mark Guerra and Lisa Schmidt, they are tasked with producing the eleventh Spotlight production. The film opens with phone calls to the 27 performers who won the casting lottery. Each cast member has a story to tell. Daniel is a black musician with autism. He speaks of a time when he was put in a chokehold at a public swimming pool because the authorities didn’t like what he said. Christi is a veteran performer with Down Syndrome. In her last show, she performed with her husband Austin, who passed away since then, and now must work through her grief and memories of him on stage. Andrea is a transgender actress who is given her chance to express her true self on stage. Jacob and Jason are singers, and performing for Spotlight is their dream.
Into the Spotlight walks us through the 154-day artistic process, starting with a brainstorming session. Mark and Lisa allow the cast to throw out ideas like a trip to Disney World or a superhero story. It’s decided that the play will take place at an amusement park and deal with subjects of grief and sibling rivalry.
Each year, the days leading up to the performance are not without their challenges. Daniel is given the chance to perform the drums during one of the songs, but another cast member is sensitive to loud noises. Then there’s the task of memorizing lines, blocking, singing on beat, and choreography. The biggest challenge this year came when co-director Mark was killed in a car accident. The news devastated the cast, but the show must go on, with Lisa forced to take on all of Mark’s responsibilities.
“…an original musical conceived, written, and performed by its stellar cast, who exist on the very broad spectrum of disability.”
Matula’s cameras are right there in the middle of the action. Over time, you’ll get a sense of progress being made in the play and the actors, especially as the opening day quickly approaches. The director can also tell some sweet and uplifting stories of the cast, particularly for Christi, who misses her late husband dearly.
The joy of Into the Spotlight comes from seeing members of the IDD community being given a chance to express themselves creatively. The most remarkable aspect of the Spotlight Musical Theater program is how the show is derived and formed from the performance experience and spirit.
On the other end, I’ve got to give it to directors Lisa Schmidt and the late Mark Guerra. Their love and patience in working with their cast are admirable. I’m absolutely envious of their passion and ability to say the right thing at the right time to help each performer grow and push themselves to stardom.
Hardcore cynics may want to stay away from this one. Then again, I dare you not to walk away from Into the Spotlight without feeling inspired or without great admiration for the work of the staff and directors of the Spotlight Musical Theater program. If you don’t, you have no soul! Now, let’s put on a show!
For screening information, visit the Into the Spotlight official website.
"…tell[s] some sweet and uplifting stories..."