‘We are glorious’: Documentary celebrates young people in Whole Children’s performing arts program

  • Rehearsals from Whole Children’s 2019 musical were filmed as part of a new documentary, “This is Me,” about the organization’s performing arts program, started 10 years ago.  Pathlight/Whole Children PHOTOS

  • A scene from Whole Children’s 2019 musical is part of a new documentary, “This is Me,” about the organization’s performing arts program. Pathlight/Whole Children

  • This rehearsal for a musical at Whole Children in Hadley is part of a new documentary, “This is Me,” about the organization’s performing arts program. Image courtesy Pathlight/Whole Children

Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 2020

March was a very difficult time for students and staff at Whole Children, the Hadley organization that offers a range of enrichment programs for teens and young people with special needs. Since the fall, everyone had been involved with rehearsing for the group’s annual musical, to be performed in March — and then COVID-19 came on the scene.

But though this year’s production was canceled, last year’s musical, “This is Me,” recently enjoyed a second showing of sorts at Northampton Open Media (NOM) and a few other online sites. “This is Me” is a documentary of the same name that takes a behind-the-scenes look at how important Whole Children’s performing arts program has become in helping its young clients build their pride and self-esteem.

“This is Me” has also been paired with an interview with Young Adult novelist Cammie McGovern of Amherst, a co-founder of Whole Children, and Michael Schwartz, the co-writer and director of the acclaimed 2019 independent film “The Peanut Butter Falcon.” The sleeper hit was built around lead actor Zack Gottsagen, a young man with Down syndrome who Schwartz had gotten to know at a camp for actors with disabilities.

The documentary has been produced by Pathlight, the Springfield-based organization that offers a range of services in western Massachusetts for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities (Whole Children is one of the programs now under Pathlight’s umbrella). The film includes scenes from the 2019 musical and interviews with staff, students and founders — all of it designed, says Pathlight Communications Manager Gina-Louise Sciarra, to highlight the fact that people with disabilities can be avid and talented performers.

“The interest in being part of the musical has just grown enormously over the years,” said Sciarra, who notes that Whole Children is marking its 16th anniversary this year. “We have over 40 performers in these shows. It’s something everyone here looks forward to.”

Sciarra said the documentary’s production team — herself, Pathlight Director of Communications and Development Valle Dwight, and former Digital Media Specialist Makhala Hug gins — originally had envisioned making just a short video of the arts program, now in its 10th year. But while filming the rehearsals for the musical “This is Me” — Sciarra describes it as something of a mashup of Harry Potter and the King Arthur legends — something special seemed to happen.

“There was a point where the director, Matt Meers, said he wanted everyone to really listen to the lyrics of the theme song, which was also called ‘This is Me,’” she said. “It was from the movie ‘The Greatest Showman,’ and Matt said ‘Guys, this song is about who we are — it’s really us.’ ”

The song’s lyrics include the lines, “I won’t let them break me down to dust/ I know that there’s a place for us/ For we are glorious … I am who I’m meant to be, this is me.” Those lyrics seemed to resonate more and more with everyone, said Sciarra, and she and Dwight and Huggins decided to expand their film to focus on the rehearsal and the joy so many of the students draw from performing.

As one of the performers, 22-year-old Cameron Rousseau, says in the film, being part of Whole Children’s musicals “makes me feel proud — proud of my singing and of who I am.”

And Carrie McGee, one of the organization’s founding members — she’s now vice president of Family Services for Pathlight — speaks to the determination parents had, when forming Whole Children in 2004, that they were not going to let their children be confined or defined by their special needs.

“Many of us were told, ‘Here’s your child’s diagnosis, here’s what it’s going to mean. They’re not going to do this, they won’t be able to do this,’” McGee says in the documentary. “And as parents, our response to that was, ‘No. We’re going to show you something different.’ ”

Sciarra and others at Whole Children credit Meers, who directs the group’s theater program, not just for his creativity and the rapport he has built with the young performers, but with the flexibility he shows in adjusting each production to accommodate everyone.

“Matt just adapts to whatever is needed,” said Sciarra, who is also the Northampton City Council president.

As Meers told the Gazette in an interview a few years ago about Whole Children’s musicals, “The ultimate goal is to give everyone a chance to shine. Probably the biggest challenge for me is trying to make that happen. How do I write a scene that will set them up for success?”

Sciarra says the interview between Cammie McGovern and Michael Schwartz, which will take place after the conclusion of the 22-minute “This is Me,” was recently added when Schwartz became available for the talk. It’s a remote conversation — McGovern in the NOM studio, Schwartz in Los Angeles — that will address the need to include people with disabilities in movies and other arts activities, and the importance the arts can play in their lives.

Sciarra said Pathlight and Whole Children are grateful for the support “This is Me” has received from NOM and Five College Realtors; the latter also has sponsored Whole Children’s annual film fest (which had to be canceled this spring). “We couldn’t do this without them,” she said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com. “This is Me” and the interview with Cammie McGovern and Michael Schwartz can be seen at Pathlight’s YouTube channel, youtube.com/watch?v=H23ZXFBcbew, and Northampton Open Media’s YouTube channel.