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BWW Blog: An Interview with Roxanna Lewis, Director of MANDY'S VOICE

This past week, I interviewed Roxanna Lewis, director of the film Mandy’s Voice.

BWW Blog: An Interview with Roxanna Lewis, Director of MANDY'S VOICE

This past week, I interviewed Roxanna Lewis, director of the film Mandy's Voice. The film entails the story of "a curious and intelligent non-verbal autistic girl [who] struggles to communicate. Her mother is desperate to provide the necessary tools for survival in a world where if one is without a voice ~ one is invisible to the world as well."

BM: Hi, Roxanna! Thanks for chatting with me today. How are you doing?

RL: Hey, Bea! It's a beautiful sunny day - I'm feeling good and happy to be here!! Thank you for asking. I really value that question - it's important to ask one another. We sometimes throw it out there without listening for the actual answer, you know? [Laughs.]

BM: That's great! So, tell me a bit about yourself. How did you get started in the business & the arts?

RL: I like to refer to myself as a journey woman who's found a home in visual storytelling as a director-writer and producer. My artistic journey's been anything but a straight trajectory. Very young, I trained obsessively to become a ballerina via the ABT pipeline but evolved into a professional contemporary dancer and choreographer for repertoire companies, musical theater and eventually entered the commercial world via music videos. Choreographing music videos opened doors to working behind-the-scenes in production on TV and film sets - a few amazing women director-producers mentored me through fast paced hands-on training on sets and lots in NYC and LA. I was fortunate to have had a stab at an acting career but realized I absolutely love the process of working with actors as a director. Going through it, I often felt like I was walking a labyrinth of mish-mosh experiences, somewhat random and disconnected, but I'm now able to appreciate that my path led to alignment as a visual storyteller in possession of an expansive playbook - creating intriguing worlds for audiences to enjoy across platforms. Recently, I was awarded a few grants for filmmaking which supported a transition into film/TV. My world expanded with a whole new approach to storytelling while feeding my love of collaboration.

BM: Tell me about what inspired you to create and direct Mandy's Voice.

RL: The idea of Mandy's Voice came to be after my film partner, Josh Hansbrough, made a documentary about the nonprofit organization, "Peace Of Heart." Mandy's Voice is a fictional narrative inspired by the true life events of a few exceptional non-verbal teens residing at the Peace of Heart community in Ponte Vedra, FL. Screenwriter Sharon Y. Cobb and I were brought in to bring the narrative script to life.

Throughout my career I've worked on an array of incredible projects on stage and on camera with A-list talent, traditional casting as well as with individuals who happen to be paraplegic, wheelchair users, amputees, deaf and blind. I recognized that Mandy's Voice is a story that needed to be honored for what it is. I'm also a mother of two kids - the piece spoke to my soul on numerous levels.

BM: What was your casting process like for the film?

RL: We started the casting process well before Covid-19 was even a thought. Many months later, during the intensity and isolation of the "shut down," Monique Madrid (producer), Ally Cloversettle (casting) and I auditioned a large number of very talented actors from FL, Atlanta and LA, but the puzzle pieces weren't fitting and something was missing from the story - authenticity. I've always been aware of the scarcity of representation on screens that celebrate the voices, portrayal and employment of individuals with different abilities. We created a platform and needed to take action. This wasn't a new way of working for me - years ago I approached creating works for (and performing with) the Infinity Dance Theatre (NYC) the same way...but more recently in the worlds of TV and film, I'd only heard of a handful of shows/films doing something similar with 'true to life' casting - Children of a Lesser God, Breaking Bad, Glee, Ramy...

Initially tentative about accepting the lead role, Rachel Barcellona and I built a rapport for a solid month before she decided to join the cast. She was the heart of this production - a recent college graduate, actress, author, model and international spokes-person for autism who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3, and was non-verbal herself until the age of 5. The other major role of our casting conundrum needed CHOPS! Fortunately for us, the indelible Karen Sillas grounded and anchored a novice cast with her consummate professionalism, warmth and generosity of spirit.

BM: Any favorite memories on set?

RL: There are really so many! First thing that jumps to mind is our first shoot day when I called the morning meeting of everyone on set. The excitement of both the known and unknown was palpable. Everything up to this point was done completely remotely - it was a powerful moment to finally be together. To be a part of that courageous circle of people who'd rearranged their lives, traveled and come together to tell this story; seasoned pros alongside first-timers, individuals from all walks of life with needs that required consideration - mostly volunteers - we were a film set ready for "action" in every sense of the word!

BM: What is your goal with this film? Who would you like to see it and why?

RL: Mandy's Voice is an important part of a larger conversation. My goal with Mandy's Voice is to open doors, open minds and to incite conversations in homes, workplaces and certainly in the entertainment industry. I believe there's room for everyone to tell their story. Hopefully, this film will inspire many more stories with/by/about individuals who have been underrepresented on screens, in the workplace and in policy making.

BM: What do you think the entertainment industry needs to do to facilitate more diversity and inclusion?

RL: During Covid, the world has turned on screens to 'experience the world' like never before in the history of human existence... shows on screens and stages, too, need to reflect our neighborhoods, cities...and our collective world. Whether people are comfortable with it or not - we're all in this together - and this needs to be celebrated. Media has a huge part in shaping public opinion, trends, and values. With nearly one in every four individuals in the U.S. having a diagnosable physical or psychological disability - the industry needs to acknowledge that there's a massive audience out there, interested and waiting to spend their time and money on shows/films that reflect their personhood and experiences.

BM: And finally, what does this project mean to you?

RL: Mandy's Voice means so much to me.... Issues of isolation, the need for connection, and the need to be heard are universal cries. This film is not only about accepting someone who appears different on the outside, it's about actively taking it a step further by embracing that individual for who they are - inside and out. I hope audiences will think less "us vs. them" and more of - "Wow, I can see myself in that moment..."

Nearly half of our combined cast, crew and sponsors are either on the spectrum, a parent of someone diagnosed with ASD or work in the field as a full-time advocate. Through the making of Mandy's Voice, we've successfully defied what others in the entertainment industry have historically dismissed as impossible and irrelevant when it comes to audience marketing - we persevered through the difficulties of Covid on a shoe-string budget. Mandy's Voice isn't just a passion project, but a ground-breaking advancement for TV and film that demonstrates drive, heart and vision of what is possible when equity and involvement of people with a variety of abilities is central to the effort. It's about the story. We need to do what's necessary to best serve the story - together.

Find more information on Mandy's Voice and follow Roxanna at:

IG/FB/Twitter: @mandysvoicefilm

IG/Linkedin: @roxannalewis

Twitter: @thereal_roxanna

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From This Author - Student Blogger: Bea Mienik