Rev. Paul Rasmussen On The Oscar Qualifying Short Film ‘Into The Spotlight’

Rev. Paul Rasmussen is the Senior Minister at Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas, and Producer of the Oscar qualifying short film, Into the Spotlight. It follows a diverse group of adults with intellectual and physical disabilities as they prepare to walk the boards for the opening night!

What inspired you to create the program for INTO THE SPOTLIGHT?

Into the Spotlight specifically reflects the work of the Spotlight Musical Theater program, one of the many programs offered by the Belong Disability Program of Highland Park United Methodist Church. Belong welcomes people of all abilities, ages, and faiths to be a part of an adaptive, inclusive community and offers every program at no cost.

Belong began in 1999, a little over 20 years ago, and about 13 years ago, we thought there was a huge need for young adults and teens who were approaching age 21 and beyond, who didn’t have a lot of fellowship and community activities. So we, alongside a woman named Sue Ringle, put together a musical theater program where they would get together and create their own Broadway-style musical, and the experience would give them meaningful fellowship. The program begins with six months of rehearsals starting in September and ends with two shows in February to a packed house. It is one of the more beloved programs we have at the church. Spotlight Musical Theater had its first season in 2010, and the program is currently in its 13th production. The 11th production, In Our Hearts, is the musical featured in the documentary film.

For our readers, please tell us more about this program.

Spotlight Musical Theater is a theater group composed of older teens and adults with disabilities who work with an artistic team comprised of professionals and volunteers for six months to create and perform an original musical.

Through Spotlight, this group of adults with disabilities from across the Dallas-Fort Worth area gather every Saturday for six months to create, rehearse, and then perform a completely original musical. This unique model of creation and performance pushes the boundaries of representation as the actors do not fit themselves into the molds of pre-existing characters or plot lines. They devise their own roles and story to share with the audience. Into the Spotlight captures the vulnerable thoughts and desires of individuals who so rarely get the spotlight. Alongside the actors, a professional artistic team and volunteers work to build the script, score, choreography, costumes, set pieces, and props. This team effort fuels a process and production that seeks to share the messages of acceptance, resilience, and humanity.

Your feature documentary shares a beautiful story, following the participants with varying disabilities from the moment they are cast in the play to the night of the performance, and their stories are inspiring. Why did you decide to document this process?

During the global pandemic, I was watching a documentary on Netflix with my family about this group working together towards a common goal, and there was all this drama and intrigue behind the scenes. We have the same thing in Spotlight, but it’s with the disabled community, and from August through February, there’s so much real life, drama, intrigue, romance, success, failure, loss, and victory. We thought, What would it be like if we told that story? What if we brought in a documentary film crew to follow these amazing actors and go into their homes, go into their work on the stage, to see what comes out? We have a wonderful producer and director, and we told them to chisel something out of the marble and let’s see what comes out. They followed them around for about a year, documenting their lives and their work on this play.

What ended up truly setting this film apart is that the film’s subjects tell their own stories from their own personal perspectives. So many of the documentaries that deal with the disabled community tend to have experts or parents talking about how those with disabilities feel and what their life is like. This is strictly through the lens of these individuals who are telling their own stories, in their own words, and sharing what their lives are like.

Putting on the play is no easy feat. What inspires you to do this year after year?

These men and women are so gifted, but so often, their gifts get suppressed. Being able to give them this opportunity every year is why we keep doing it. To see their faces light up, and the audiences enjoy it, why would we ever want to stop?

How has the program grown over the years?

After the first several years, when word spread throughout the Belong program and among the community, we had so many people who wanted to participate in the musical theater program, there was a waiting list. We realized that wasn’t right and 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 and are selected through a lottery so that everyone who wants to share their creative gifts has an opportunity to do so.

Have you ever been tempted to have a cameo in the play?

Oh, no, this production is all about, by, and for the participants, not me. I would only cameo if the participants wrote me into their script and gave me a part to play in their story. I much prefer to support them from the wings.

What is the most inspiring story you have heard from a participant?

Every one of Spotlight’s participants has their own inspiring story, many of those shared by the actors themselves in Into the Spotlight. Throughout this journey of making the film and screening it at festivals, I’ve been so incredibly inspired by those who view the film and tell us how heartwarming, uplifting, and inspiring it is to THEM. The healing, positive, joyful experience of illuminating others’ abilities and seeing viewers relate to these actors and be inspired to create programs like this in their own communities is incredible.

What are you most proud of?

This documentary film is a testament to the power of a supportive, creative space where young adults with disabilities can explore their creativity and express themselves through the performing arts, and we hope that it will inspire others to create programs like this in their communities. Into the Spotlight spreads the message of ability and skill within the community of those with disabilities by authentically sharing a story about and by people who might not otherwise have an opportunity to be in the spotlight.

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