BRENTWOOD, Tenn. (WTVF) — Students at Backlight Productions in Brentwood, Tennessee, are spending eight months preparing for a Broadway musical — a feat many of their parents never thought possible.
Backlight Productions started in 2011 and offers music, dance, acting, music and creative movement lessons for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“I chose the name Backlight. It’s because a backlight is a light that shines behind someone in a movie or theater to keep them from blending into the background,” Melissa Smith explained. , founder and executive director of Backlight Productions. “I thought it was so fitting that our organization is called Backlight because I want the world to see the innocence in the purity of our community. And I also need to be reminded daily that what our role as artists as humans to use our gifts to help others and show the world people we wouldn’t otherwise see?”
Smith grew up in music and theater and earned degrees in music theory and composition.
“I had never worked with people with disabilities in my life. I never had anyone in my life who had them, I never even interacted much at school. Our paths never crossed” , Smith explained.
She was teaching music from home and working at a thrift store in Franklin that employed adults with special needs when someone challenged her to combine her musical talents with helping the disabled community.
“I went home and wrote a little script based on Cinderella and put a little piano score in it. And we started rehearsing upstairs in our thrift store and we were putting away all the racks clothes and stuff and we would practice for about an hour after everyone got off and we played for about 40 people in a local church youth hall,” Smith recounted.
Fast forward 11 years, Smith has mounted dozens of productions with approximately 70 adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities between the ages of 18 and 60. Many of these students return year after year.
“We serve 18+ because after you leave the school system if you have a disability, there aren’t as many options for you,” Smith said. “In fact, we don’t even ask what people’s diagnoses are. We just get to know them and their individual needs, and then we basically train on that.”
“One thing I love about Backlight is that our idea of success is very different from everybody’s, you know, theater, damn, in all elements of production. It’s like you had to make everything perfect for it to be great. And that’s understandable,” Smith explained. “I mean, damn it, everybody wants to watch a perfect show. But with our show, it’s such a freeing feeling, but it doesn’t have to be perfect because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if it was perfect. It matters that it happened.
Based on each student’s level of ability, Smith chooses students based on what they can handle. She said it could be a scene, a song or maybe just a few lines.
“We offer training in music, acting and dance. We have two acting classes. Our main acting class does a full Broadway musical for an entire season,” she said. “And so students work eight months to learn this musical, and then they can perform it for conscious people in this large-scale performance.”
Fernanda Aguilar, 21, is one of the students to star as Fiona in Backlight Productions’ performance of “Shrek” on Saturday and Sunday.
“The reason I love playing this character is because I identify with the character so much in my personal life. When she’s happy or angry or upset. I really identify with it because sometimes I get depressed or upset. And the fact that I become that opportunity, despite my disability, means a lot to me,” she said.
The weekend performances are Aguilar’s first time performing in a musical.
“I think it’s going to be fantastic for all the parents to see our hard work and for everyone to see what we can do and we’re proving and showing the world that we can do it…I love to sing,” she said. said: “It’s my favorite because it’s where I can be me. Time stands still. I don’t know, my handicap isn’t there for a minute. I feel like he’s gone. And I’m just me and letting all my feelings out.”
Aguilar explained the challenges she faces every day.
“It takes me longer to learn things and you know it may take me longer than you and I may need some extra, extra help. And if you just have patience with me , we can make it work, I’m very capable. Don’t judge me just because I look different,” Aguilar said. “The backlight helped me learn everything and they had so much patience and they never gave up on me.”
“Shrek the Musical” is her first show with the production company since she began taking classes in the fall of 2021.
“This is the best part of my week,” exclaimed Aguilar. “Most people don’t like Mondays and when I tell them oh I love Mondays and explain to them why they say ‘Wow, I see why you like Mondays.'”
“I hope people know how important it is to come to a show because you can’t, you know, the audience makes the performance interesting. You know, we worked for eight months, and if nobody at apart from a mom and dad being in the audience, it’s not as exciting,” Smith explained. “But when you fill those seats, and it’s loud and people are clapping and people are responding, then it’s kind of like that’s the energy that everybody’s working on. And so I think that the best way for people to support our organization is simply by going to the show.”
To purchase tickets for Backlight Productions’ “Shrek the Musical” on Saturday, April 30 at 6 p.m. or Sunday, May 1 at 3 p.m., visit its website.