Behind the Scenes with an Inclusive Employer

The Making of Chicken

By Glen Hoos

Reprinted from 3.21: Canada’s Down Syndrome Magazine (Issue #14: The Road to Employment). Click here to download the full magazine.

In a society that is becoming increasingly inclusive, people with Down syndrome are breaking barriers in virtually every sphere. That includes the world of television and film, where we’ve seen a slew of recent programs and movies featuring performers with Down syndrome in prominent roles, such as the feature film Peanut Butter Falcon, network television show Stumptown, Hallmark movie Color My World with Love, and many others.

While the finished artistic products are on screen for all to see, rarely do we get a glimpse behind the scenes to see how producers and crews work with their actors to bring the best out of them. As with any other employer who wants to help their staff succeed, filmmakers must set the stage for their cast to shine.

Two creators who have done a particularly good job of this are Lucy McNulty and Emma Pollard, co-Directors of the new short film, Chicken. Lucy is also the writer, producer, and one of the lead actors in the film, which recently won two awards (Jury’s Choice and the DEAI award for Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion) at the Thomas Edison Film Festival.

Chicken tells the story of a down-on-her-luck, recently single 30-something who reconnects with her brother, who has Down syndrome, after being forced to move back into her childhood home. Aaron Waddingham plays the role of the young adult brother, while several other actors with Down syndrome also feature prominently in the film.

Drawing on McNulty’s previous experiences working with performers with Down syndrome through Vancouver’s Neworld Theatre and their inclusive troupe the LEAD ensemble (Learning Ensemble Across Difference), McNulty and Pollard took a thoughtful, intentional approach to creating an inclusive set that played to the strengths of their diverse cast. The lessons they learned along the way are instructive for all employers, regardless of what type of business they’re in.

The film industry is notorious for long, grueling days on set. Twelve-hour days are typical – but not ideal for actors with Down syndrome. Knowing this may be an issue, the directors addressed it up front.

“We spoke with Aaron and his folks about the length of the shooting day,” says McNulty. “We determined that 12 hours was too long for him. And, really, 12 hours is too long for anybody! We should not be working ourselves to the bone like that. So, we respected Aaron’s schedule.”

That meant getting the rest of the production team on board, because this is not the way a professional crew is accustomed to operating. From the beginning, McNulty and Pollard clearly communicated with the crew about how things were going to run. While they would, of course, be as efficient and productive as possible, they would also be flexible and responsive to the needs of the actors.

This required everyone to adapt. At times, it meant not finishing all the scenes planned for a day. Other times, they found creative ways to get it done.

“Sometimes we would film Aaron’s coverage (shots where the camera is on him), and then he would leave and we would turn around and film the same scene from the opposite perspective, focusing on his scene partner – usually, me,” explains McNulty. “It was challenging from an acting perspective because I would need to finish the scene with somebody reading his lines. But that’s just going with the flow and making it work.”

The crew responded well. “It was a healthy environment for everyone working on that set,” says Pollard. “We were open to hearing how everyone was feeling and being sensitive to the needs of the people on set. And that is just a good work environment for people to be in. It was counterintuitive at first, because it’s the job of the crew members to get us through the day on time, and sometimes we were making them slow down. But the set was so positive, so happy. Aaron led the way with his energy, and it really seemed to radiate throughout the entire set.”

McNulty agrees. “We really wanted it to be inclusive for everybody, not just for the actors with Down syndrome. We wanted it to be a safe, fun space. And everybody came together and had a really good time. A couple people said that they felt like they were at a party, not at work. There was just a lot of love.”

Their flexible approach extended to what ultimately made it on screen. Improvisation was not only allowed but encouraged – and built-in to the script that McNulty wrote.

“As I wrote, I took into consideration into who would be playing these parts. We gave them the text as a guide and said, ‘Learn it if you can, but we’re also going to work with you.’ We needed something on the page, of course, but it was written with the idea that there were going to be some changes on the day. We wanted people to bring themselves to the work and be able to improvise.”

Which is not to say it was a free-for-all. The directors set clear expectations for all the cast and crew, and taught the actors what it means to be part of a real film production.

When some of the actors made it abundantly clear that they didn’t enjoy repeating scenes over and over, McNulty and Pollard saw a teachable moment. “We were like, okay, well, film is all about repeating things until everybody gets it right. It can be very frustrating and very annoying, but it’s part of the job.”

“That kind of open communication really set us up for success, because when we actually got to filming, they were incredible,” says McNulty.

What impressed the pair was the professionalism of the actors with Down syndrome, and their determination to get the job done right. As much as they tried to keep the days short, things inevitably went over time. Aaron and his castmates were ready to go the extra mile. “We kept checking in with him, and he was so game,” recalls McNulty. “Honestly, he probably had the best attitude of anyone on set. We weren’t sure what might happen when somebody reached their limit, and it was always the neurotypical people that were poorly behaved!”

That great attitude was also reflected in the actors’ response to feedback. “When you’re working with any actor, you want to be sensitive when giving notes because you might be stepping on someone’s decision about how they want to portray the character,” explains McNulty.

“I would approach Aaron as sensitively as I could because I hadn’t worked with him, and I didn’t know how he was going to react,” says Pollard. “And he responded so much better than most actors. He was always up for another take and another approach. He was like, let’s go, let’s roll. It was the most shocking, amazing attitude for an actor to take constructive suggestions like that.”

Thinking back, McNulty reflects, “We had to unlearn some traditional film practices; things we all sort of just do with no questions asked. We challenged our crew to question how we traditionally do things, and to make room for something more inclusive. People might have worried that we wouldn’t get to the finish line, but we did. We got our film, and we all had an amazing time doing it.”

Months later, Pollard calls her time on Chicken “a truly fantastic, profound experience. Going in, I really didn’t know what to expect. All of us who work in film know that people get exhausted and frustrated, and you’ve got to manage personalities. But it was just the most positive experience. It was amazing.”

Asked what she would tell other employers about working with people with Down syndrome, she says, “I think society puts expectations on all of us, and certainly on people with disabilities. Unless you have a personal connection, you are probably underestimating someone with Down syndrome. That’s just my guess.”

“I think they will exceed your expectations. I don’t think I went into this project underestimating them, but I was just blown away at the creativity, the professionalism, the amazing energy and happiness that was brought to set. Our actors made our project great. We’re so proud of it.”

Throughout 2023, Chicken will be screening at festivals around the world. After doing the festival circuit, there will be opportunities for local screenings. Follow @chickentheshortfilm on Instagram to find out when and where to see the film.

Photo Credit: Noah Asanias