KEVIN GILLESE is an actor and writer who’s known for being the artistic director of Dad’s Garage, a long-running theater based in Atlanta. When he was approached by the Spotlight Theatre - an acting program for adults with special needs – about doing a project together, he jumped at the opportunity to be involved.
“My younger brother is just a year younger than me and he’s special needs,” Gillese tells Connect. “That gave me a lot of exposure to that community and some of the realities that people might not think about if they don’t have that kind of personal connection.”
The resulting short film – called That Was Awesome! - is set for a screening at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival on November 3, and tells the story of a special needs floor hockey team preparing for the game of their life against some ignorant and often mean-spirited competitors. The cast includes many Spotlight actors, all of whom have disabilities.
Another notable cast member is Amber Nash, who is perhaps best known for her role on the hit animated series Archer. Working on That Was Awesome! was a chance for Nash and Gillese, who are married, to team up creatively – something they try to do any chance they get.
“We basically always try to work on projects together, because show business can be such a crazy rollercoaster ride. When you work together, it means you get to spend more time together,” Gillese says of working alongside his wife. “There was no doubt in my mind, when I was writing this, that Amber would be the coach.”
Aside from getting to work with her husband, Nash says that the project was something she was passionate about being involved in from the get go – as was her team, which included Gillese and director Arlen Konopaki.
“As a team, we always make sure that whatever project we move forward on we’re all excited about. For this one, I thought it was so different,” she says.
“You don’t hear this story, and you don’t see actors like the guys that are in this film ever represented. It also doesn’t shy away from the comedy and doesn’t have a happy ending in its own way. It was just so different and fun.”
For Nash, one major takeaway from the project was the fact that there isn’t much representation in the arts, whether it be theater, film, or otherwise, for people with disabilities.
“We’re living in a time right now that’s so about equal representation and treating everyone with respect, and I don’t think that people with disabilities are being included in that conversation well enough yet,” she says.
“That’s a whole other part of the conversation that we still need to work on. There’ve been times throughout entertainment history where there’ll be an actor with a disability who plays a role, and people say, ‘Oh, that’s awesome’ and then it fades away. I think there needs to be more quantity so that it becomes the norm.”
That Was Awesome! is a comedy that has a lot of heart, and it also shines a light on some characters that are seen primarily as bullies towards the special needs team. That aspect of the movie drew somewhat from Gillese’s own experiences with his brother.
“It’s funny because some of the feedback we’ve gotten has been, ‘Some of these characters are one dimensional. They’re one note. That’s not realistic,’” he says of the bullies in the film.
“I said, ‘You have no idea how disrespectful people are.’ It is somewhat drawing from real life experience. I feel like people lack empathy and understanding [with special needs individuals] that they might otherwise demonstrate. You don’t have to be an evil person. You can be kind in other ways and still be disrespectful to other groups of people.”
Perhaps the biggest statement the film makes, however, isn’t about the bullies – it deals with the people who care for those with special needs, and the importance of letting people with disabilities make their own decisions.
“When we think of people that are treating folks with special needs in a negative way, we always think of these bullies,” Gillese says. “But, the people who say, ‘Well, all special needs people are like this or that’ – that can be as damaging. I know it’s not intentional, but just like any group of people there’s a wide variety of personalities. So when you say, ‘All special needs people are like this,’ you’re reducing them to a stereotype.”
The experience of doing an on-screen project was something unique and different for both Gillese and Nash, who are both veterans of theater. Nash has also spent the better part of the last decade working on Archer, which finds her recording her dialogue as the character of Pam separately from her cast mates.
“We’re all by ourselves [on Archer], so I’m just there with the director, a couple of the producers, and sometimes Lucky Yates – who’s also part of Dad’s Garage and plays Krieger on our show.” Nash explains.
“[That Was Awesome!] feels a little bit like it’s our clubhouse. We’re all in it together, we’re all producing it together. It’s really exciting because it’s new to us. I love being on set. I haven’t done a lot of on-camera work, so that’s another reason why these projects are really important to us. It’s kind of showing people that I can do that as well as doing stage work and voice work.”
If there’s one thing Gillese hopes people will take away from seeing his film, it’s the need to evaluate how we treat people with disabilities – whether we’re being mean spirited or not.
“The message of the film is that sometimes, in our efforts to protect and care for our special needs relatives and friends, we can actually end up depriving them of the opportunity to live a full life,” he says. “Which is to say, people deserve to make mistakes. Nobody gets a full life inside of a bubble.”