ABOUT THE ARTISTS
“ShakeSPHERE: Romeo and Juliet” is the first-ever movie produced by SPHERE, a Connecticut-based organization dedicated to improving the lives of adults with developmental disabilities. Looking to provide its members with an outlet for artistic expression, SPHERE’s organizers have consistently offered its members performing arts programming since the group first formed in 1987. Throughout the years SPHERE’s productions have traditionally been live stage productions, however this year SPHERE expanded its programming to include film production. The result is SPHERE’s own, unique take on William Shakespeare’s epic love drama. We recently spoke with two of the SPHERE leaders behind this effort: Valerie Jensen, the president of SPHERE as well as the movie’s director and executive producer and Adam Welby, the film’s director of photography.
Here’s what they had to say about their film, the festival and their artists:
1. Why did you submit to the Fourth Annual chashama Film Festival?
When we first debuted the film at our local playhouse this spring we were blown away by the overwhelmingly positive response it got. Because of this, our board of directors thought it might be worthwhile to look for film festivals that encourage independent film making. Through our research we became familiar with cFF and thought “let’s give it a go!” We put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into the making of this movie and think we have made an important piece of work. Participating in the cFF was exactly what we wanted — and we can’t wait to share our work with such a respected community of artists.
2. How is your work illustrative of the country you are from?
Filmed in our local Connecticut town and in English, the film undoubtedly reflects America and our local region to a certain extent. However, that aside, our work more directly illustrates a larger theme, that of human emotions, to which there are no borders. Staying true to Shakespeare’s original telling of Romeo and Juliet, our film is about the chaos that can follow when one is driven by blind passion. The story warns us of the dangers of letting mad passion drive one’s actions — a theme that is applicable in America and in literally every country around the world. As the story goes, Romeo becomes so blindly in love with Juliet that he makes very poor decisions. We carefully filmed a scene where Romeo is with the friars, and it becomes quite clear that if Romeo had made a different choice with the friars, the story would have had a very different ending. Additionally, the blind allegiances of the dueling Montague and Capulet families is the spark that fuels the fire of hated, which eventually leads to a great amount of chaos and confusion and the resulting tragic deaths of Romeo and Juliet.
3. Where was the most favorite place where your work was shown abroad? If it hasn’t been shown abroad, where would you like it to be shown?
Our work has never been shown abroad. If it were to be shown abroad, perhaps Verona, Italy would be a fun and appropriate place for a screening, as that is the story’s setting as first chosen by Shakespeare.
4. Are you glad that your work is going to be shown in NYC?
Yes! Our actors/members can’t wait to come to the Big Apple. They truly do feel that “if they can make it there, they can make it anywhere.” Also, as SPHERE’s organizers we are always so excited to be able to watch the film side-by-side with our talent – our truly gifted actresses and actors. There’s a certain magic that comes from watching our SPHERE actors watch themselves on screen. They know where all the funny parts are and laugh out loud with such honest emotion. In September we were honored to be a part of the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival and, to our delight, the festival drew an audience that included several peer groups — that is, people from the Buffalo area from like-minded organizations dedicated to adults with developmental disabilities. That was an amazing experience. Our members were able to show their peers what they were capable of and they all visited with one another after the screening. On top of that, our film ended up winning Best Short Film. So, needless to say, SPHERE is delighted to be participating again in a film festival, and we are thrilled to be coming to New York. Starring in a movie being shown in New York City is a dream come true for our members/actors.
5. What is the best part about participating in a festival that facilitates discussion with international artists?
Shakespeare’s work is important to the world, and the story of Romeo and Juliet is a timeless classic that has been told literally around the globe. The story bears repeating as it contains valuable insight on human nature and the dangers of losing oneself fully to emotion. Sharing our unique take on it, presented beautifully by actors who just happen to have developmental disabilities, provides layers of meaning and important lessons relevant to all people around the world.
ABOUT A RESPONSE TO THE FESTIVAL
1. What is it about chaos that is most upsetting to you?
On a personal level, we as artists understand that chaos is part of our lives. We realize that we have to be flexible and we have to adapt at a moment’s notice so that it does not get the best of us. In particular, in our filming we approach everything expecting chaos. And we accept it.
2. What’s the most rapid social change that you have ever seen?
I (Valerie Jensen) have a family member with a disability. My younger sister Hope has down syndrome. When we were growing up, she wasn’t able to go to the same school as me. I always remember how she had to ride her own bus to her own special school while my other sisters and I rode another bus to another school. Now, society is more inclusive. If you had told me as a child that in a just a few years down the road other sisters like Hope and I could go to the same school, I wouldn’t have believed you.
3. How do you find strength in instability?
In filmmaking and in our general take on life, we adhere to the principle of what doesn’t kill us will make us stronger. And, knowing that, we find the strength to approach whatever situation may arise on set or in life. We are able to find strength when our members smile, when our audience cheers, and when we are able to get our members to do something great for the camera. We’re always giving each other high-fives — and that simple gesture can make a person’s day. It is our love and support for one another that gives us the strength we need in times of instability.
4. What do you do to divert disaster?
We’re always planning for it. We have to be prepared because, when working with adults with developmental disabilities, things can and often do go wrong. So, to counter this, we’re always thinking ahead.
5. If you could make a community more peaceful, what would be fulfilling about it?
At the very end of the film, after both Romeo and Juliet have died, the movie goes to the last scene — a coming together of the Montagues and the Capulets to mourn the tragic loss of both Romeo and Juliet. The feuding families agree to end their fighting. There is no other scene or shot in the film that portrays peace more beautifully. The theme of the movie is to not let passion blindly overtake your emotions, or chaos will result. The ultimate message of the movie is that we must learn from the past and make the choices we need to for a better future.
ABOUT YOUR FILM
1. Why did you choose Romeo and Juliet as a subject?
Traditionally SPHERE’s performances had all been comedies. We felt it was time to take on a true drama. So, we decided to go with what was perhaps the greatest drama of all time — the very tragic story of Romeo and Juliet. When we presented the idea to the group everybody was onboard and on the same page. We all wanted to do it. But, staying true to our voice, we found ways to use comedy to tackle a serious subject. What resulted was our own unique “dramedy”. We had a blast practicing and on set. We even had an acting coach come it to teach us how to die convincingly, both seriously and in exaggerated, funny ways. That night we all were taught how to die was one of the funnest nights we had. The work definitely paid off, because our death scenes are some of the most convincing, and sometimes some of the funniest, parts of the movie.
2. How do you work with actors? Or How do you choose your interview subjects?
There was never a dull moment working with our SPHERE actors. As many times as we would re-write the script, we seemed to never be done with the re-writes. As soon as we thought we had it perfect, something would happen on set that would prompt yet another re-write. Also, our talent would never do the same thing twice. Some of the stellar performances really happened in the moment. Much of what you will see on the screen is the result of what, even after careful planning and writing and re-writing, ended up happening on its own. It was a very organic process.
3. How did you choose the crew on the film?
While making a film was a new project for us, our performing arts program had been around for a while so we had a core crew of writers and directors already in place. The main film crew consisted of the two of us (Valerie and Adam) and our assistant director Emily Pambianchi and our producer and SPHERE executive director Rebecca Ciota. Additionally, we were aided by the talents of many dedicated SPHERE volunteers and friends who helped with costumes, music, set design, on-set assistance and countless other tasks. This film could not have been possible without the countless hours and generosity of so many.
4. Why did you choose to make a film that is 38 minutes long?
38 minutes provided us just the right amount of time to accomplish what we set out to do. We wanted the movie to be long enough to tell a complete story, and we needed it to be long enough to make sure that each SPHERE member who wanted to be in the film could be in it. However, we also wanted to keep everything tight. We didn’t want there to be long moments where nothing was happening.
5. What is the most compelling image in your film?
The most compelling image in the film is most arguably the last scene when the Montagues and Capulets have all gathered together and are holding candles in vigil. There are no other lights on the set. There are no other sounds you can hear other than the voices of the actors. There is great contrast, but it’s not depressing.