Good Life

Building a more diverse Wild West

Paul Mazza, president of South Hills School of Business and Technology, tears up while speaking before the screening of “Becoming Bulletproof” on Tuesday at The State Theatre.
Paul Mazza, president of South Hills School of Business and Technology, tears up while speaking before the screening of “Becoming Bulletproof” on Tuesday at The State Theatre. psheehan@centredaily.com

If the limelight wants to find you, it will find you.

Such was the case for A.J. Murray, who has made the leap from aspiring actor to working professional seem within reach — or at least no more difficult than the leap from a mild-mannered citizen of modern Atlanta to the mayor of a small town in the Old West.

That both happen to apply in this instance can be credited to a little bit of movie magic.

On Tuesday, Murray and his wheelchair were parked in the lobby of The State Theatre enjoying a late lunch, because people with Hollywood agents get to eat a delicious looking wrap while an audience watches a film about the making of their film just a few feet away.

There are two facts about Murray that are useful to know right away and are easily distinguishable once it is acknowledged that one matters very much and the other very little.

In the former category is the disclosure that Murray has wanted to be an actor all of his life.

“It’s something I wanted to do ever since I was a little kid,” Murray said.

The footnote here is that he has cerebral palsy, which hardly seems worth mentioning because ignoring it is half the point of the documentary screening behind the closed auditorium doors.

“Becoming Bulletproof” tells the story of the gang from Zeno Mountain Farm, an organization that offers a series of camps to people with and without disabilities. Sometimes it’s sports, sometimes it’s music and sometimes it’s film.

In years past, campers have dabbled in many different genres of moviemaking, but 2012 was the year of the western, one bolstered by costumes on loan from big time Hollywood studios.

“I got to make a real film, a real cinematic production value movie,” Murray said.

Guests at The State Theatre on Tuesday only got to see snippets of that film couched in between interviews with the cast and crew. The documentary first came to the attention of Paul Mazza, president of South Hills School of Business and Technology, while he was staying with his cousin in Washington, D.C.

Jennifer Davis was intimately familiar with Zeno Mountain Farm. Her son, Michael Heard, has been attending camps with the group since he was 8 years old.

Heard, now 27, has Down syndrome and assumes most of the responsibility for getting himself up in the air and back down again to wherever the latest group excursion is being held. Davis takes a great deal of pride in her jet-setting son.

“As his mother, it makes me almost cry with joy to think about how much his world has grown,” Davis said.

That’s not the point of the story. The point is to act in a scene.

Peter Halby

Nobody bears the brunt of a proud mother quite like family. Davis showed Mazza “Becoming Bulletproof,” and he was impressed enough to use the backing of The Mazza Foundation for Education to bring it to State College.

“It was the simple message of dignity and worth, that each of us has dignity and worth,” Mazza said.

That’s the philosophy at the heart of Zeno Mountain Farm. Co-founder Peter Halby said that no matter the theme of the camp, everyone is expected to show up and contribute to their fullest ability.

Actors in “Bulletproof” aren’t playing disabled characters — they’re just playing characters.

“That’s not the point of the story. The point is to act in a scene,” Halby said.

He hopes to see disability become more prominent in conversations about diversity in film. When it does, there’s one seasoned actor who is already ready and waiting in the wings.

“If you want me to be involved, call my agent,” Murray said.

Frank Ready: 814-231-4620, @fjready

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