BRENTWOOD, Tenn. (WTVF) — Students at Backlight Productions in Brentwood, Tennessee, spend eight months preparing for a Broadway musical—a feat many of their parents never thought possible.
Backlight Productions started in 2011 offering music, dance, acting, band and creative movement classes 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 film or theater to keep them from blending into the background," explained Melissa Smith, Backlight Productions founder and executive director. "I thought it was so fitting for our organization to be called Backlight because I do want the world to see the innocence in the purity that our community has. And I also daily need to be reminded that what is our role as artists as humans to use our gifts to help others and to show the world people who wouldn't otherwise be seen?"
Smith grew up in music and theater and graduated with 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 like interacted much at school. Our paths never crossed," explained Smith.
She was giving music lessons at home and working at a thrift store in Franklin that employed adults with special needs when someone challenged her to pair her musical talents with helping the disability community.
"I went home and I wrote a little script based on Cinderella and I put a little piano score to it. And we started rehearsing in the upstairs of our thrift store and we would push aside all of the clothing racks and things and practice for about an hour after everybody got off. And we performed for about 40 people in a youth room at a local church," recounted Smith.
Fast forward 11 years, Smith has put on dozens of productions with about 70 adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities ranging in age from 18 to 60. Many of those students return year after year.
"We're serving 18 and over because after you leave the school system if you have disabilities, there aren't as many options out there for you," stated Smith. "We actually don't even ask what people's diagnoses are. We just kind of get to know them and their individual needs and then basically training on that."
"One thing I love about Backlight is that our idea of success is a lot different than everyone else's, you know, a theater, golly, in any production elements. It's like you have to get everything perfect for it to be great. And that's understandable," explained Smith. "I mean, golly, 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."
Depending on each student's level of ability, Smith casts students based on how much they can handle. She said it might be one scene, one song or maybe just a few lines.
"We offer training in music and theater and dance. We have two theater classes. Our primary theater class does a full Broadway musical over the course of a whole season," she said. "And so students work eight months to learn this musical and then they get to perform it for conscious people in this large scale performance."
Twenty-one-year-old Fernanda Aguilar is one of the students playing the part of Fiona in Backlight Productions' performance of "Shrek" on Saturday and Sunday.
"The reason I love playing this character is because I relate so much to the character in my personal life. When she's happy, mad or upset. I really do relate because sometimes I get depressed or upset. And the fact that I'm getting this opportunity despite having a disability means so much to me," she said.
The weekend's performances are Aguilar's first time being in a musical.
"I think it's going to be fantastic getting all the parents to see our hard work and getting everybody to see what we can do and we're proving and showing the world that we can do this... I absolutely love to sing," she said, "It is my favorite because that's where I can be me. Time just stops. I don't my disability is not there for a minute. It feels like it's gone. And I'm just me and I'm letting all my feelings out."
Aguilar explained the challenges she faces every day.
"It takes me longer to learn things and you know it might take me longer than it takes 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 may look different," said Aguilar. "Backlight has helped me learn everything and they've had so much patience and they've never given up on me."
"Shrek the Musical" is her first show with the production company since she began taking classes in the fall of 2021.
"It's the best part of my week," exclaimed Aguilar. "Most people don't like Mondays and when I tell them oh I like Mondays and then I explain to them why they go 'Wow, I see why you like Mondays.'"
"I hope people know how important just coming to a show is because you can't you know, the audience makes the performance worthwhile. You know, we've got we've worked for eight months, and if nobody except a mom and dad is in the audience, it's not quite as exciting," explained Smith. "But when you fill out these seats, and it's loud and people are cheering and people are responding, then it's kind of like that's the energy that everybody works off of. And so I think that the best way that people can 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.