Director Thaddeus D. Matula‘s documentary, Into the Spotlight, follows a theatre troupe composed, primarily, of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). Each year, the 27 members write, produce, and star in a new stage play. The film follows the progression of the 2021-2022 season, while zooming in on a handful of cast and crew to tell more of their stories both on and off stage. The result is a triumphant, joyous, heartwarming celebration of this community that elevates its members’ creativity, agency, and beauty. Full disclosure, I was tearing up within the first minute of the film.
Into the Spotlight would have been a rousing hit had it simply focused on the creative process at work, but Matula doesn’t stop there. He recognizes the intersectionality of identity and puts that on display alongside the troupe’s rehearsals. Daniel, a black musician who is a victim of both racism and ableism, and Andrea, a transgender actress whose parents only gradually accept her as a woman, are both on the autism spectrum. Perhaps the greatest strength of the film is the way in which it so strongly centers the voices of this community. We don’t see or hear any talking heads editorializing or explaining how this process works or what these participants are thinking or feeling. Only members of the troupe are interviewed and answer the questions the filmmakers pose.
That all of this takes place in and, indeed, is hosted by a church, Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, TX, adds a layer of meaning to the proceedings. The Spotlight Academy of the Arts is part of Highland Park’s Belong Ministry, which is “committed to amplifying the voices, providing an unexpected and welcome platform to share a vision of the world as they see it.” In fact, the theater program is just one of three options, which also include short film and rock band programs. Taken from a mainstream perspective, the film is a call from the hearts and voices of participants in the Spotlight program to see members of the IDD community as people of profound value. From its inherent faith perspective, it is simultaneously a call to action for congregations to embrace members of this community and to find creative expressions of this care and belonging and, in turn, to create outlets for those individuals to contribute to and serve their community.
Into the Spotlight is currently screening at the St. Louis Film Festival.