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In the NY Times, Hugh Hart writes:
ON a recent afternoon Elaine Hall, a petite acting coach, sat on the floor of the bare-bones rec room at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services and guided a half-dozen kids with autism through a finger-pointing, call-and-response game called Zip Zap. Then came a group singalong as the children crooned “Our circle is ready to start/Come share ideas, come share your heart” over and over. Before long Josh, Zoey, Shira and their friends were bunny-hopping across the room and improvising wild solo jigs to giddy applause.
This is the Miracle Project, subject of the documentary “Autism: The Musical,” which has its debut Tuesday on HBO. It chronicles the 2005-6 incarnation of Ms. Hall’s program by tracking a rambunctious cast of children with autism — and their parents — as they prepare to put on a show.
The documentary features Wyatt, 10 years old at the time of filming, who expresses uncanny insights about bullies and love; Henry, also 10, the son of the musician Stephen Stills and a fountain of knowledge about all things dinosaur; Adam, a curly-haired, 9-year old cellist; Lexi, a shy 14-year-old singer capable of performing Joni Mitchell songs with transcendent ease; and Ms. Hall’s son, Neal, 12, an unpredictable blond charmer. Tricia Regan, the director of the documentary, said the project got rolling four years ago when her friend Janet Grillo, the mother of an autistic boy, asked for advice. “She and other parents wanted to make a film that reached beyond the autism community and expressed to the world how great their kids are.
“I said: ‘Honestly, people would rather show up for a root canal appointment than sit through an hour-and-a-half movie about autism. It’s painful, difficult and frightening. Why don’t you turn that on its head by making a movie about kids who are struggling to achieve something, and autism is the obstacle that gets in the way of their success? Find a group of kids with autism who are trying to put on a play.’ And it just so happened they knew Elaine.”
Ms. Hall, nicknamed “the child whisperer” after she coaxed star-quality performances from toddler twins in the 1992 film “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid,” shifted gears 12 years ago when she adopted Neal, then 2, from a Russian orphanage. As the boy began showing signs of autism, Ms. Hall put her career on a back burner to focus on his treatment. Then in 2004 she re-entered the workforce armed with a grant and a mission.
“I wanted to teach theater and dance to kids with autism, cerebral palsy,” attention-deficit disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and Tourette’s syndrome, she said, “anything that gets somebody kicked out of everywhere else.”
Dressed in a turquoise Miracle Project T-shirt, jeans and work boots and curled up in a folding chair, Ms. Hall recalled the project’s tumultuous first season, which unfolded before Ms. Regan began shooting.
“The first 11 weeks were so chaotic, kids were literally hiding under tables and spinning around in circles,” she said, and whispered: “Then all of a sudden they start coming together as a group. We wrote a play. We learned songs. We wore costumes. We no longer talked about Steven hiding under tables. We we’re saying, ‘O.K., what role do you think Steven should play?’ ”
Using videotape of Ms. Hall’s classes to pitch their film project, a group of parents found financial backers and hired Ms. Regan to direct. She moved to Los Angeles from New York and in late 2005 began filming the six-month rehearsal process. Eight weeks in, money ran out. Ms. Regan persevered.
“If I walked away, there’d be no movie, and I’d be letting down so many people,” she said. “I kept shooting while producers scrambled for cash just to pay my rent.” Bunim/Murray Productions (of MTV’s “Real World”) eventually stepped in to finance the picture.
By then Ms. Regan had realized that her logistical problems paled next to the pressures faced by the parents she’d been interviewing using her mini digital-video camera; none of them sugarcoated their response to the stress of raising an autistic child. Wyatt’s father used an expletive to describe his family’s prospects after a disheartening conversation with a lawyer about educational options.
Lexi’s mother tearfully confided that she was getting a divorce. Adam’s mom had a meltdown at dress rehearsal when she learned his cello performance of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” had been cut from the show. And Ms. Hall faced an unexpected setback during a family outing at the park when Neal abruptly pushed a playmate to the ground.
It took some convincing before Ms. Hall understood why her personal struggles needed to be included in the documentary. “Seeing the movie for the first time, I loved it all the way up until Neal pushed,” Ms. Hall said. “I thought it was going to ruin his life. I was afraid my future in-laws would write me off when they saw it. I was afraid everyone would be afraid that Neal would push their kid. So I asked him: ‘There’s this scene where you push the kid. How do you feel about that?’ And Neal typed: ‘I’m O.K. with it. We are messengers.’ ”
And their message is clear, as Ms. Regan explained: “The Miracle Project is this oasis where the kids come to relax, but the film wouldn’t be successful unless we also saw how painful it can be for the parents of these kids. When you show both sides, it’s not so scary anymore.”
source: this article, written by Hugh Hart, was in the NY Times on Sunday, March 23 2008. www.nytimes.com
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